During the last week of Jesus’ life on Earth, two symbols stand out — palm branches and the cross.
The palm branches represent the acclaim of crowds greeting a messiah coming to his own. The cross represents tragedy.
Why did the Christian church not take the palm branch as its symbol, a joyful token to be happy ever after, with its recollections of hosannas to the conquering Christ?
We know the Christian church would never have survived the centuries with only a palm branch over its high altar. The cross goes deeper, much deeper than anything else into the heart of man’s experience, need and deliverance. There is sin and saviourhood on Calvary, locked in desperate encounter, with the fate of the world depending on which of those two will win in the end.
The central issue of history is this struggle between sin and saviourhood — and the cross of Christ is the climactic exhibition of both.
There, on Calvary, one also sees sacrificial saviourhood at its best, the supreme rescue story in man’s history, one who did not need to do it voluntarily, taking on himself the burden of the world’s iniquity that he might deliver men and women blaze the trail for a kingdom of righteousness on earth.
One of the first things this struggle between sin and saviourhood says to us is, “Don’t oversimplify your philosophy
We are all tempted to do that, to seek some neat formula that will smooth out, at least in theory, life’s disharmonies and conflicts and help us to forget them. This philosophy goes on to say that evil is not real, but only the shadow cast by good. As the rising sun is real, so is goodness, they say, but all the evil of the world is but the passive, transient shade some temporary obstacle casts as the sun rises.
That is a childish philosophy. Sin is no mere shadow cast by good, but a demonic devastating power.
It can incarnate itself in a moral maniac who plunges the whole world into such collective agony as mankind has never before endured. Such oversimplified philosophies will no longer do in the 21st century.
The devil is real. I do not mean, of course, he is an individual with horns and a tail. He is much worse than that. He is the symbol of a devastating force in history that can destroy every human hope.
But the Holy Week we are about to enter, brings us another message. The central fact of history is no easygoing harmony, but the fierce conflict on which the whole outcome of our human adventure depends — saviourhood against sin.
Let us say to ourselves that, on the Palm Sunday, as we see Jesus enter Jerusalem amid the crowd’s hosannas, saviourhood is still present in this world. There are dreadful diseases like COVID-19, but there is also the quest for billions of doses of vaccine. Frontline workers are giving up their days off and leisure in order to save precious lives of seniors.
There is the devil and all his representatives, but there is Christ, too.
Lowly and riding on a donkey’s foal, he came to the great city, a saviour, and there he did face sin as all saviours do — the sin of religious fakes who did not wish their orthodox establishment disturbed, of businessmen wanting no money changers’ tables overturned to their profit’s hurt, of politicians like Caiaphas playing their clever, selfish games, of cowards like Pilate washing his hands off his responsibility, of Roman soldiers doing whatever cruelty they were commanded to do, of the crowd persuaded by the skilful propaganda to cry,
So, as always, saviourhood faced sin. But today, after 2,000 years, it’s not the sin we are celebrating on Good Friday and Easter 2021, but the saviourhood.
Now, because the central fact of history is this struggle between sin and saviourhood, never expect Christianity to pipe down on the reality and terribleness of sin. So long as Christianity is here at all, it will be insisting on sin’s reality, its power and its catastrophe.
Where, for example, is intellectual dishonesty most clearly seen as an evil and most insistently hated? We had better go to a scientific lab for that, for in that lab the eyes of men are centred on a great good, indispensable to the progress of the truth — intellectual honesty, objective, disinterested, uncompromising.
But, sadly, it is also there that the relative curse of intellectual dishonesty would be most strongly felt and hated. So, not in the dens and moral slums of life is sin best understood and its diabolical reality most powerfully felt, but in the gospel of Christ.
For there the central struggle of human life stands out, no over-simplified Pollyanna philosophy, but the real truth — a great conflict, sin against saviourhood and saviourhood against sin.
The Holy Week celebrates that exciting truth at the heart of the Christian faith. There is saviourhood in this world and in it is a quality which, really seen, lays hold on us as nothing else ever does.
Narayan Mitra is the pastor of Merritt Baptist Church. His email is email@example.com. KTW welcomes submissions to its Faith page. Columns should be between 600 and 800 words in length and can be emailed to editor@ kamloopsthisweek.com. Please include a very short bio and a photo.