The first time that I went to a service in an Episcopal Church on the Sunday before Easter, I expected to be at a Palm Sunday service, with all it’s pomp and fanfare of Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem to shouts of joy. I can’t tell you how unsettling it was, then, to hear the reading of the arrest and crucifixion on that Sunday. I couldn’t help but to feel that we were getting to far ahead of ourselves, that this is what Good Friday is for… but not Palm Sunday!
That is the tension of this day. That we begin our service with our own reenactment of that entrance into Jerusalem, waving palms with shouts of Hosanna – Save us, God! And not long into the service we see the mood change to the somber reality of Jesus’ death on the cross.
For that reason, I want to reflect briefly on one of my favorite hymns that we hear during Holy Week, the first verse of which goes:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Think about that for a moment: the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died. The Wondrous Cross! That cross, on which the Prince of Glory, God in the flesh, Jesus the Christ was crucified. That awful instrument of pain and punishment and death, which is also the instrument of our salvation. It is amazing and wonderful, and terrible and horrifying at the same time. It is the location of the greatest tragedy in all of history, that the Son of God, God incarnate, through whom all things were made, was rejected, and tortured, and put to death at the hands of sinful men.
The cross is this immense paradox, that it is both wonderful and awful – in many ways like the tension we feel on this Passion Sunday. And as wonderful as the cross is, it is just as awful. Not only because it was unfair, unjust, painful, humiliating, or whatever, but because of the holy one who died there.
And that’s just the first line of the hymn. We haven’t gotten to the 3rd verse yet. That one goes:
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
One of the greatest treasures that I was given from my upbringing in the churches I attended was an emphasis on being moved emotionally in my soul by the things I say and believe. That one of the purposes of the songs we sing is to arouse an internal, emotional response to our God. And as much as I want to explain this last verse, nothing can match what I feel. Which I hope others – everyone! – feels, at the immensity of the tragedy in this moment, motivated by God’s love for us, that Jesus would willingly and without protest go the cross for us, to heal the rift in the relationship between God and humankind.
Yes, it’s sad. Terrible really. But it’s also a central part of our faith, and reveals to us just how much God loves us. Which leads us to the final verse, and I close with this:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.