The central question of the day. in case you hadn’t noticed, is what even is a person? What does it mean to be human? What are the characteristics and contours of personhood? How do you know who you are? When you are talking to someone else, how do you know who they are? What is the difference between me and my cat? Or me and my child? Or—most essentially of all—me and God?
Christians, whether they like it or not, are having to answer this question at a moment when some ideas about what it means to be human have been suddenly seized upon by the crowd at large. The sort of general cultural malaise about what constitutes authentic personhood has swayed, drunkenly, down the post-Christian highway, sat itself down comfortably in an existential ditch, and is shouting that it will stay there indefinitely and that you should come and join it. The more you stand awkwardly at a safe distance in order to consider your options, the angrier and more belligerent it becomes, throwing bits of data and slogans at you.
So anyway, what sort of person would you have been on that day when Jesus, walking up to that vine, and patting that colt, the foal of a donkey, on its head, and then mounting up and beginning to ride down that narrow road from Bethany to Jerusalem as the crowd at large began to shout and wave their palm branches? Would you have joined in? Would you have been in the thick of it? Would you have been on the edge? Would you have stayed home? Because not every single person turned out that day—though many did.
It was a festival day, a happy day. Besides having provided themselves with palms and extra garments, the crowd was full up of expectation. They were sure this was the moment that everything would finally be made right, that the world would be as one—except for the oppressor, who would be cast down and overthrown.
I rather think I would have stayed at home because crowds make me nervous. Or, perhaps, I would have been following along at a safe distance, hoping, like everyone else, for the imminent inauguration of the ease and comfort of a society that isn’t in constant and increasing turmoil, for that nicer time when essential questions have been settled and everyone just quietly goes about their lives. Is that too much to ask?
I suppose the answer to that question is both yes and no. Of course it is too much to ask, because when you get a lot of people together, and the cacophony of their personal desires and disappointments, the last thing you get is peace and quiet. Each person is a miniature cosmos of need. Each person is trying to stave off that inevitable meeting with the divine, who ought to do what is asked without making any demands.
On the other hand, of course it isn’t too much to ask because the very longing for happy peace is one of the essential, defining characteristics of what it means to be human. What is a person? Someone who was made by a good and merciful God to be satisfied and happy by—something. Not anything, but something, or someone, in particular.
And so Jesus went all the way down into the valley and then up the steep hill and then climbed off the donkey and pushed his way through to the Temple, that ancient wonder, that imposing edifice. It was meant to be a place not so much of contemplation but of true communion, though whether anyone felt a satisfying connection to God or anyone else, we can’t know. The vast courts were so often filled with throngs of needy people and animals trying to inch their way forward to the sacrifice, to those few moments of “peace” before they had to turn around and go home again, only to do something bad again and have to come back, the rhythmic ebb and flow of sinners looking for relief from who they are and never quite finding it. And then he turned around and went back to Bethany for the night because it was going to be such a busy week.
“Have this mind among yourselves,” says St. Paul, “which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
And what an “emptying.” While the crowd filled up, gradually, with the rage of disappointment, Jesus spent each moment of the week accomplishing the one thing they all want, though they can neither see nor accept it. He went step by step, out of the pleasant grace of the temple, off the wide and comfortable road, and into the very ditch to rescue the wrecked person lying there.
And he couldn’t do it just by explaining to that person what it was that he was doing. He couldn’t just give more information. He couldn’t even get a word in, for the crowd had so very many angry things to say. He had to “empty” himself. Which is to say, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The crowd’s raging desire for peace, for love, for hope, for recognition seemed a torrent. They cried out—as one. They had never been closer to each other, more understanding of each other, more sure of who they were and what they needed. It seemed that nothing would stop their insatiable hunger—for what? What did they most want?
They wanted the very Son of God to die, which is what he came on purpose to do. They wanted God to give over his throne. And so Jesus was lifted up on the pole, caught between heaven and earth, the glory of his mercy a new kind of throne. Every one who looked on him beat their breasts and cried for the mountains to fall. The crowd dispersed in horror and shame. In the final hour, only a handful of people who loved him already stood there, sure that the end of all things had come.
And that is, unhappily, what it feels like when you discover for the first time that you are to “have this mind among yourselves.” The very same horrifying emptying of yourself. The giving up of all your expectations. The relinquishing of all your essential ideas about who you are and what you need. The flat disappointment of looking at yourself and admitting that no amount of personal sacrifice or resolution will make you into the kind of person you even would find acceptable, let alone anyone else.
You stand there, desolate, looking at a dead man on a cross. What will you do next? Will you creep home quietly? Will you stay a while and see how he is taken down and placed in the deadly quiet of the tomb? Will you sit in the ditch and give up? What will you do? Who will you be?
Or rather—whose will you be?
Giving up yourself, emptying yourself, letting go of every corner of who you are into the stretched, cracked, bleeding hands of the Son of God is no great loss. What, really, do you have to lose?
Truly, answer the question for yourself. What do you have to lose except the shame of not being enough? What do you have to lose except your disappointment at the failures of others? What do you have to lose except the deep, terrible loneliness of being a creature facing inevitable death?
For God, when Jesus died, though he turned away for that dark and unbearable moment, turned back again. For all your sins had finally been quenched, undone, forgiven. And so he is highly exalted, he is full of the glory of peace and mercy. And if you take his name on your lips, you will be satisfied with him forever.
If you’re looking for a different kind of crowd, in other words, go to church—for we are all crying out as one in grateful praise about the love and mercy of our God.