Several years ago, I was visiting a parishioner on her deathbed in the hospital. We were talking about the things you talk about at the end of life: the blessings, the memories, the unexpected turns of life. Whatever fears about death that had been present were long gone. All that was left was a sense of peace, and a certainty about the eternal life waiting for her on the other side. I found myself wistful and a little sad, knowing there was nothing I or the doctors could do at that point. Death was coming. In the midst of this sacred, serious moment of inevitability, we heard a tinkling noise in the hallway. Having had a child in a hospital, I knew what the tinkling noise was: the tinkling sound was the announcement of a new baby being born. As I explained the noise, the parishioner and I sat in awe – the closeness of life and death were all around us. We did not have much to say at that point. The sound of that tinkling just lingered in the room, long after the sound was gone.
I was thinking this week how similar the experience of Palm Sunday is to that hospital room. We hold in tension so many things today. We certainly hold life and death in tension: the joyful celebration of Jesus with palms, and the wailing sorrow of death at the cross of Jesus. We hold hope and hopelessness in tension too: the promise of a new king, entering triumphantly, and the despair and finality of Christ on the cross. We hold faithfulness and sinfulness in tension today: the bold proclamation of the king who has come in the Name of the Lord, and the shouts of “crucify, crucify him,” just moments later. Though we might prefer to claim life, hope, and faithfulness, today we must claim death, hopelessness, and sinfulness too. They are as intertwined as life and death in a hospital.
In some ways, the tension of this day is just what we need in a culture that might like us to jump from the palms to the risen, triumphant Lord. I am reading Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead this Lent, and one of the hazards to leadership she articulates is numbing. Numbing can happen in all kinds of ways – through food, work, social media, shopping, television, video games, or alcohol. The problem with numbing is that we cannot selectively numb emotions. As Brown says, “if we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we take the edge off pain and discomfort, we are, by default, taking the edge off joy, love, belonging, and the other emotions that give meaning to our lives.”[i] When we numb our way through life, we not only suppress the bad stuff; we never get to fully enjoy the good stuff of life.
Today, the Church refuses to allow us to numb. The Church has us wave palms and sing loudly and smell the sweet smell of victory, with a grin from ear to ear. And the Church has us listen to the devastation of betrayal, hear the voices of contempt and hatred, and shout for Christ’s death. Our hearts feel heavy as our minds try to justify all the times we too have betrayed Christ. We feast as the disciples did on Christ’s body and blood, and we leave in silence as his disciples did from the cross. Today we feel everything: life, death; victory, failure; joy, and devastation. In letting go of our tendency to numb, we open ourselves to the fullness of all that happens on this day. Only then can embrace the Easter message of resurrection that is to come. Only when we are fully broken, fully vulnerable, fully present in the tension of this day can we receive the fullness of joy that comes next week. Only when we are looking into the doorway to death can we understand the depth of joy that comes from the tinkling sound of new life. So, stay awake with us for just a little while longer.
[i] Brené Brown, Dare to Lead (New York: Random House, 2018), 85.