Monday, March 25, 2024

Taking on Our Human Form


Mark 14:1-15:47

The Sunday of the Passion - Palm Sunday / Year B

Most of you know I grew up in another Christian tradition.  There, Palm Sunday was Palm Sunday.  There was no reading of the Passion story, just Jesus, a donkey, and throngs of palm waving people shouting ‘Hosanna.’  I viewed Palm Sunday as a warm up for the big celebration of Easter Day, kind of like stretching before the start of a game.  This memory comes back to me every year as our Episcopal liturgy takes us from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.  And, as distressing as this day is, I could never go back to simply observing Palm Sunday on its own. 

I have been mulling over a notion put forth in the passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi we read a few moments ago, which some scholars posit is actually the text of a hymn sung by the congregation.  It says, in part…

having emptied himself…

  [Christ] took on human form… 

That Christ set aside his divine place at God’s right hand in order to become human tells us many things.  One thing for sure, it affirms the dignity of our humanity and speaks to the worth of every human being.  “For God so loved the world…” Jesus tells Nicodemus in John’s gospel.  The world.  The WHOLE world.  Not just the people I love.  Not just the people I like.  Not just the people who look like me and think like me and act like me and pray like me and vote like me.  God loves the WHOLE world. 

I finished watching a documentary series detailing the history of the Cold War.  While it was not my intention, it is turned out to be a good way to prepare for the power of the Passion Story.  It has been sobering night after night to reflect on the human capacity to be inhumane.  Hitler’s regime exterminated over 6 million Jews, a staggering number which doesn’t even include other ethnic groups and minorities.  Stalin oversaw the execution of up to 20 million members of his own country.  At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, our military officials determined if both sides engaged in all out nuclear war over 600 million people would die just in the initial attack, over ¼ of the world’s population at the time.

Unfortunately, this series is not just a history lesson; a sad tale about something from our distant past.  Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, wrote this in an op-ed article in The Guardian:

We are currently experiencing a moment of profound human suffering globally.  A pandemic of inhumanity has taken hold, from Darfur to Ukraine, from the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan to the seemingly forgotten voices of the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, and now to the intolerable tragedy that is deepening in Israel and the State of Palestine and threatening to spread wider.  These human rights emergencies are interconnected.  At their heart they are driven by a common crisis: a failure to give value to the lives of all people.

As we listen to the Passion we ask ourselves how could they have done such a barbaric thing to Jesus?  If we look at ourselves we must ask how can we do such barbaric things to one another?

Former President Jimmy Carter made this observation:

In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary first to dehumanize our opponents, which is in itself a violation of the beliefs of our religions.  Once we characterize our adversaries as beyond the scope of God’s mercy and grace, their lives lose all value.  

The Soviet Union fell in 1991 in no small part due to the influence Christian churches in Eastern Bloc countries.  They provided places for people to gather for prayer and the singing of hymns prior to going out on the streets and engaging in non-violent resistance.  It was common to see churches packed on a nightly basis as protestors sought spiritual and emotional support prior to engaging armed officials.   The church has been and still is an effective instrument for change because we know our Savior took on our human form and therefore every person is precious, every life is sacred.

Those of you who participated in last week’s Lenten program will recall I concluded the series with a brief quote from the historian Howard Zinn.  Here is a little more of what he said:

…human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act…  We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic acts to participate in the process of change.  Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

On this day when we wail and lament the crucifixion of God’s Son let us also wail and lament the execution of any and every child of God.  And as we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ glorious resurrection, let us also be expectant and hopeful for a new day in our world marked by compassion and respect for one another.


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