Matthew 21, verse 10: “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”
That’s what the people ask—the shopkeepers on the corner, the residents scurrying through the city on errands, pilgrims on their way to the Temple, children playing in the streets, servants preparing dinner, peering from a window, wondering about this man on a donkey. Everyone in Jerusalem asking, “Who is this?”
This same question seems to be in the back of the disciples’ minds throughout their time with Jesus, as they follow him from town to town, watching him perform miracles, by his side when he feeds multitudes with a couple loaves of bread and a few fish. “What sort of person is this?” the disciples ask one another, there on the boat, confused and amazed after Jesus calms the storm (8:27).
I wonder the same thing. I ask myself the same question—like the crowds in Jerusalem, like the disciples on the boat, all of them wondering, asking each other: “Who is this Jesus?”
Holy Week begins today, seven days, from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday, from Jesus’ parade through Jerusalem to his burial in a tomb near Golgotha. And all of this is a kind of answer to the question in today’s passage—this question about the identity of Jesus. The story of this week, as he kicks money-changers out of the Temple, as he bows down to wash feet, as he breaks bread at the last supper, as he sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane just before his friend betrays him, and as he dies beside two criminals, the three of them accused of sedition—the stories this week hint at answers, even if the answers lead to more questions, stories that lead us further and further into a dark mystery, the twilight of Easter Sunday, the darkness of the empty tomb, a hushed whisper spreading from disciple to disciple, from town to town, all of them mystified, wondering, “Who is this Jesus?”
I said those words this morning, when I watched the videos from Egypt, the footage from St George’s and St Mark’s cathedrals, 40 to 50 people dead—bodies broken, blood shed. In St George’s church the bomb exploded near the altar, so I imagine the bread now as ashes blown through the room of wailing sisters and brothers, and the wine becoming blood splattered across the marble floor, a transubstantiation full of horror, Jesus crucified in his body, again, Christ crucified in his believers
Who is this? A wounded Jesus. The two congregations in Egypt bearing the stigmata of Christ, the marks of his crucifixion. You are now the body of Christ and individually members of it, the Apostle Paul tells us, and if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.
In the thirteenth century, Francis of Assisi would spend hours at church, contemplating the bread and wine of Communion, and during his time of prayer there before the altar, he would see visions of Christ, hanging on the cross—and these revelations would impress themselves into Francis’s body, his own flesh mirroring Jesus’s crucifixion, his own hands and feet bearing the marks of the nails. The stigmata, they called it, the wounds of Christ.
This year, as we enter holy week, I wonder if we should take on the posture of Francis of Assisi, contemplating the altar, opening himself to Jesus, his body taking on the vulnerabilities of Christ, his life in solidarity with the crucified. And for us to recognize the sufferings of Christ in Egypt today, and in Syria this week, as our government bombs people who are already undergoing unimaginable suffering—Christ stretched across the world, his face in children fleeing the violence of drone and chemical warfare, in the lives of people mourning the loss of loved ones, in the victims of bombs and missiles.
After the U.S. launched tomahawk missiles into Syria, Brian Williams on MSNBC showed video after video of the weapons, and he described them as beautiful, “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments.” There’s a sick fascination with killing in our country, a fascination with weapons, with bombs bursting in air.
On Palm Sunday, as Jesus begins his path to the cross, we focus our eyes on a different kind of beauty, the beauty of Jesus on a donkey not a warhorse, our savior riding a lowly donkey, a animal fit for humble work, for hauling food and supplies. And we pray for the brave and humble people who bear the crosses of others, who gather up rubble in churches and cities, who care for the wounded and traumatized, who honor the dead with a holy burial—all who work for peace in the midst of a world at war.
We are people who gather week after week to wonder about this Jesus—to ask each other, “Who is this?” We are, in a sense, haunted by Jesus—always coming back to him, always wondering about his presence, where we might find him, always thinking about what difference he might make in our lives, in our world.
At the beginning of holy week, we are there in the crowds that gather around Jesus in Jerusalem, following him this week, watching for him, looking for his face in all the people who are betrayed by friends, his face in all the people who undergo the sufferings of violence, his hands and feet.
And we bear witness, reminding ourselves and the world that God is here and God is there, that hope is a struggle, that we will give our lives for Christ’s peace, because in Jesus there is a love that reaches beyond death, resurrected love pulsing through our lives.