On weekend mornings, I like to go for long runs, six miles or so. I run around Prospect Park, the Central Park of Brooklyn. It’s just over a mile from my apartment. Because yesterday was Palm Sunday, I saw people walking home with fronds in their hands. Some were elaborately braided, some held in bunches, some people held a single frond. If you’ve ever walked down the street with a palm frond in your hand, it looks a bit out of place. There really is no good way to carry it without attracting attention. As I approached people holding their palm fronds, I was struck with the urge to call out as I passed, “Your God is going to die.” But I didn’t.
Christology, the theological field of study of the identities and roles of Jesus, is very complex and is a constant flashpoint of debate. A critical one is the relationship between Jesus and God. If Jesus is claimed to be God, then what happens on the cross? Who is executed? This has been a touchy subject since the beginning of Christianity. And I can’t resist putting my finger in the wound.
If Christians claim that Jesus of Nazareth has an innate relationship with God such that he shares God’s nature (theologians call it the “hypostatic union.”), then we must ask the question of who dies on Friday. Is God immune from death, God’s own death? Is not God participatory in the suffering and death of Jesus? When Jesus seems to be at his most human here, this week, this Passion Week, is God suddenly absent in our treatment of him? If Jesus “simply” becomes The Man of Sorrows, as he is sometimes called, then where is his divinity? Can we not just passively allow our God to die, but actively put God to death?
These Christological questions deal with an early Christian heresy called “patripassionism,” the idea that the Father (patri) suffered (passio) with the Son on the cross. It smacks hard against the idea of the Trinity, that God exists in three separate persons. Much theological sweat has been poured out (yes, that was a kenotic pun, for those keeping score) to ensure God, the Father, and God, the Son, are hermetically sealed from one another. But are we lazy to not ask the questions? In the narrative of the Passion, there is no Trinity. It’s a retroactive doctrine of the Church to explain the confusing relationships between God and God’s self. But when Jesus says that to see him is to see the Father, this is a bold claim. Because then it’s not a far leap to say we see the Father on the cross on Friday.
Palm Sunday is the set up for of the most radical acts of religious belief and practice: to send one’s god to the executioner, that executioner being us. The cross is the electric chair, its firing squad, its lethal injection, its guillotine of its day. It’s not without good reason that the cross was not represented in Christian art until about the fifth century, the method of execution was so horrific. And people wear these instruments of execution around their necks.
Palm Sunday is the royal procession of Jesus into the death chamber. He is praised by his jury. How quickly people turn. What do people do with their palms when they are done with them? I see the palms folded into little crosses and suspended from rear view mirrors on occasion, or perhaps, pressed into a Bible. Tradition holds that people keep them, let them dry, and burn them for use on Ash Wednesday.
And here we see the full cycle of the Christian Year: the day of Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we will die, is remembered and enacted with the ash of Palm Sunday, when we are reminded that Jesus, the Son of God, will die. These two days act outside the limits of capitalistic sanction. People don’t make much money off Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, like they do off Christmas and Easter. So you see people walking with black smudges on their faces or wilting palm fronds in their hands and, if you’re not in on the joke, then it means nothing. It just looks strange.
And this is a good thing. Christianity is strange. It’s good that it’s strange. To claim that the United States was founded on Christianity is a very dangerous, unstable claim to make, because no nation should be established on such strange tenets and beliefs and practices, not a nation that really hopes to put in practice what Jesus really taught and what the Church really does (like wash people’s feet).
As I ran back from the park, I passed an open trash can in which were tossed a few palm fronds on the top of a big black garbage bag. If I had a camera, I would have taken a photo. The image was perfect. Not one hour after they had been waved in the air, they were already thrown away, abandoned, forgotten, disposed of. How quickly we forget what Palm Sunday is. But that is what Palm Sunday is for: for forgetting.
Your God is going to die. You will kill him. Again. Just like you did last year. You’ve spent all year praising how great your God is. You’ve waved palm fronds all year. Good for you. How great you must feel. How great.