Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
March 28, 2021
Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!
Let Israel say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
All this happened at a lovely time of year in Jerusalem, perfect for the celebration of liberation and new life that comes at Passover. Spring sunshine on the golden stones, gentle breezes to rustle the palms, no longer rainy but not yet too hot. You can imagine yourself there in the holiday crowd, jostling to catch a glimpse of him, buoyed up by the spirit of festivity and excitement. Even the donkey looked happy in the painting by Giotto that went around yesterday with the Order of Service. The party feeling of the procession was unexpected that day, and yet somehow familiar to all who had been brought up in the Jewish faith.
With great aplomb, and no recorded comment, Jesus re-enacted the scriptural prophecy of the arrival of the blessed saviour who would restore the kingdom of David. Jews who were gathered from all over the Roman Empire for the Passover feast would have recognized the cues given in the holy texts – seated on a donkey colt (that’s from the prophet Zechariah), cheered on with palm branches, the city gates open in welcome, the direct path to the Temple. The crowd knew their lines from the Psalm that Luke read to us, and shouted to him, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed they called him. To them as to us, the simple meaning of the word was ‘fortunate’, or enjoying God’s favour, or even, happy. When we say God bless you, when someone sneezes, we mean may you stay healthy. If someone ends a letter or emails with Blessings, it conveys a wish for goodness. And when someone gives a blessing in church, they are somehow asking that those who are blessed will be cared for and will prosper.
And it’s more than a wish. Usually when we offer a blessing, we aren’t simply listing our own hopes for goodness. Instead, we are calling on something greater than us to take a hand in looking after the person. We are asking the stars to align, or the universe to converge, or calling down God’s care to ensure that all is well. In that sense, to say that something is blessed also means that it is in some way sacred or connected to what is holy. When you bless something or someone, you are binding them to the love of God.
But there is another aspect to this. Our word blessing comes from the Old English blet-sian, and in turn from the proto-Germanic word for blood. It seems that originally blessing meant to consecrate with blood, as one would in an animal sacrifice. The idea that the spilled blood of a sacrificial victim brings holiness is deeply rooted, both in the traditions of the Hebrew Bible, and in the pre-Christian traditions of the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes of northern Europe. It’s widespread around the world and through history. Closer to us, now, the idea of being ‘washed in the blood of the lamb’ is a recurring element in the theological language still in use by some Christians – though perhaps not a very appealing image for many of us. ‘Revolting!’ some would say.
Yet as we pass through the gates of Jerusalem with the happy crowds on Palm Sunday, we know that the moment of festivity would soon give way to anguish. Innocent blood would indeed be spilled. Instead of a coronation there would be a crucifixion. For Jesus, blessed did mean spattered in blood.
And more than that, we know from our own lives that blessing and woundedness are often linked. The very places that we bleed – our sorrows, our unmet needs, our anxieties and fears – and the wounds of the world too, the racism, the poverty, the agony of the planet – those wounds are the places where we most crave blessing. The greatest blessings we receive are often precisely at the site of our wounds. In Jesus, we see that the compassion of one who has suffered is a blessing that has the power to heal.
As Jesus rode among the people that day, he saw what they didn’t. He understood what was to come. Blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord, they called out. Hosanna! He was blessed and wounded, holy and suffering.
As the journey of Lent comes to its close in this holiest week of the Christian year, may we follow him and give God thanks.
Image Credit: Artist unknown (creativecommons.org)