It is helpful at certain seasons of the year to recall what we are about when we gather for our weekly celebration. Passion Sunday is such a day. We gather to pray. We do not come to prove anything in particular to God or ourselves nor to establish our virtue but to appear before God who gives us life, to thank God for the gift of salvation. We do it this Sunday with palm branches as the special sign, though bread and wine are the ordinary symbols every Sunday. 

Salvation means “saving” and the saving it means is total. It is not only being saved from the consequences of our sins, although that is part of it. It is being saved from death and disease and accident, saved from a life worse than the one we live, saved from a drowning at high tide once a day. The important thing about our being saved or spared is that it happens because someone was not spared. “Death is at work in us but life in you,” Paul wrote long ago (2 Cor 4: 12). He meant that the apostles died daily so as to transmit the gift of life. It was possible to do so because Christ had died before them for the same purpose. His death is our life.

What does this mean, his death is our life? Is it true in the politician’s sense, who says in defence of his own willfulness and stupidity that the sons of the people shall not have died in vain? Is it true in the patriot’s sense, who says that a thousand deaths are worth it to make us a nation once again? Is it true in the hero’s sense, who gives his life that his people may know peace and freedom? No, Jesus is death is neither a bargain with heaven or a gamble nor a calculated risk. Above all, it is not the slaughter of a brave young man engineered by God to excite our pity. It is God’s gift to us of a perfectly obedient life – God’s putting at our disposal of the consequences of a life lived so well that all the mean-spiritedness of all the ages, the human disobedience of the centuries, had to just snuff it out. Sin had no choice but to destroy it. Yet so powerful was this human life that the sum total of human sinfulness could only be conquered by it, not conquer it. The full tale of hatred from Cain till now is as nothing compared to the love of this life that ended in death. 

Isaiah wrote centuries ago about a sufferer who would speak a word to the weary that would rouse them, a man who would give his body up to be beaten, having set his face like flint. This mysterious servant knew nothing of shame or disgrace. He had put his trust in God his help. The well-trained tongue with which he spoke was given him by God. Many years later, those who believed that Jesus fulfilled the image of this ancient sufferer wrote a hymn in praise of him as the heavenly Adam who waived his rights. They doubtless sang it at their weekly gatherings like ours, even as they ate the meal in which they remembered him:

….he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death –

even death upon a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name….

The deepest meaning of our weekly assembly is that it unfolds the meaning of our lives to us in terms of the life of another. We see hunger and homelessness in our cities. We see hedge fund managers, real estate speculators, food market owners, pharmaceutical companies growing rich at the expense of the poor. Our whole existence is a spectacle of death in the midst of life. The story of Jesus passion is a spectacle of life in the midst of death. 

The demands of the gospel along with the needs and hopes of our time are in many important questions so unambiguous, so clear, that silence out of opportunism, lack of courage, or superficiality makes one just as guilty as those who are directly responsible. We may not be silent over the many clear issues that confront us. If we are silent, we have lost the right to celebrate the Passion of Christ, the innocent sufferer. The name of that technique is selective justice. We Christians have been adept at it for too long a time. 

Is it important to us to celebrate the Last Supper of the Lord this Thursday? I’m sure it is. Our Lord’s death this Friday, burial on Saturday, resurrection on Sunday? I am equally sure. We may not not observe. But there is a condition. We are not allowed the luxury of crocodile tears: lamenting a death that is far from us while conspiring in other deaths that are near. We may not say, “Let’s keep religion and politics separate”, when they were so intertwined in the passion and death of Christ. He did not hang upon a cross simply because of some theological abstraction known as sin. He hung there because the fruit of sin took the form of power people fearing the peace movement he represented, because they did not want to lose income or power, because keeping the Jews in subjection meant prosperity to the rich Roman colonizers. The voice of the poor had to be silenced. In a sense, we have to earn the right to celebrate Holy Week.