Today’s gospel reading begins as Jesus arrives in a village near Jerusalem. He’s giving personal directions to two of his disciples. They should bring him an unknown person’s livestock, he says. Don’t worry, he’ll return them right away. Weird, but ok, teacher. The passage ends with the voice of the crowd, as anonymous as the roar of the sea, naming Jesus with hosannas: “the Son of David, who comes in the name of the Lord, the prophet of Nazareth in Galilee.”
The crowds have been following Jesus and his friends as they walk and talk, winding through villages on the road toward Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus has been addressing the crowds, healing people, showing them signs of God’s reign. He’s been making plain what lies ahead for those who follow. But neither the crowds nor the disciples have fully understood. It’s all just too much. Perhaps the details are still too blinding even for Jesus, burning the retinas of his mind like the sun. So much is unknown, so much misunderstood. Even so, the path seems as unalterable as the sun’s hold on our orbit.
“When they had come near Jerusalem,” Matthew begins, as if from a moment’s pause, speaking from the calm before a storm. We take a deep breath. In. Out. Like all of history as it unfolds, the course of the next two weeks – procession, passion, crucifixion, resurrection, appearances – is not fixed. Yet the forces at play weigh heavily on this moment and the drama is underway. Inertia has constricted the range of potential futures now. Not one of them does not pass through sorrow. By the end of the day, all of Jerusalem will be “in turmoil,” Matthew tells us. The raucous, adoring crowds will meet a perplexed, expectant city. “Who’s this?” What’s all the fuss? they’ll say.
In a week, Jesus will have died. But that remains beyond the veil. For now, there is a pause. It is a brief arrival that offers a chance to prepare, not for final moments that lie beyond the horizon, but for this moment, for the next steps, for the ascent to Jerusalem. “Go ahead. Untie the donkey you find, and her colt. Bring them to me.” Jesus’ attention is drawn to a beast of burden and its offspring; they are out of sight and bound, yet he calls them to himself.
How does Jesus know about these animals, this mother and child? How does he have the audacity to presume upon someone’s private property? Was this near where Jesus’ mother once realized she had lost her son in the Passover crowds two decades earlier? We don’t know. Standing on the ridge of Palm Sunday, walking toward a rupture, his disciples and the crowds don’t know what’s to come, either. If they could see Friday, they certainly could not imagine what lies beyond the cross. Yet in this moment what we’re given is Jesus’ sight: his presence amidst the pressing crowds, his still center within the swirl of hope and fear, life and death. He carries in himself the past and the future to where they meet in Jerusalem.
There are moments when time stops – or maybe seems to dilate a bit. Perhaps the force of these moments catches us unaware – like a wave from behind in the surf, or like a shining stone drawn from a river, or like a sweeping pandemic. And right there something opens. Maybe nothing’s different, maybe everything is; but the moment calls us to attention. Life refracts across new spectra and now calls to us with fresh urgency.
This is Holy Week.
Holy Week, when the world breaks open and bears to us its soul. Holy Week, when the axis of all that is makes itself most clearly felt. Holy Week, where history ends and begins anew. There will be no return to normal. Here we are now, within the mystery. Invited to look again, to see this world and our lives afresh.
God knows this world is filled with beauty and misery. Sometimes each day feels it could burst under the weight of so many daily crucifixions, of last suppers gone unrecognized, of empty tombs we don’t know how to celebrate. But this week, like every week, is Holy Week. And we’re drawing near to Jerusalem.