“Who is God? What is it that he wants?”
These questions seem particularly appropriate as we begin Holy Week.
Passion (Palm) Sunday presents us with a very unusual version of a deity. In the words of St. Paul in our second reading, he’s a God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” — the form of the lowest element of society.
Palm Sunday attempts to answer this question of who our God is by establishing from the beginning that the God of Jesus is like no other. He is unique in all human history.
Notice, for example, that as Jesus enters Jerusalem there are no trumpets blaring, no resplendent carriages proudly acclaiming royalty, no horses bedecked with finery of any kind — nothing that demonstrates power or majesty.
Then remember what Paul told us in today’s second reading: He is a God who emptied himself.
God sits on a donkey. This same God who marches into Jerusalem will encounter a “coronation” ceremony of whips and lashes. His royal “throne” will be a cross. His “glory” will be death.
Why does Jesus do this? Because that is the kind of God Jesus preaches and imitates.
The reason Jesus willingly embraces all of this is for one purpose: to demonstrate visibly that God is the one who identifies with and enters the experience of the people with whom he is madly in love.
Our God is sending a message through Jesus in this Palm Sunday celebration that he wants everyone to hear with utter clarity: “Nothing human is abhorrent to me.” All of life — even the most horrible kind of suffering, even death — is something so precious that God wants to be in solidarity with it. God wants to embrace it and transform it.
That’s who our God is.
So, what is it that this same God wants from us? Jesus wants us to die with him. Only the death he’s talking about is not the one when our earthly time is over. The death in which our God is interested is the death of our egos. He wants us to die to that part of us that wishes to enthrone our own selves, that part of us that dreams of being adored, worshiped, acclaimed, glorified.
God wants us to “die before we die,” as theologian Richard Rohr so aptly puts it in many of his writings.
So, again: Who is our God? What is it that he wants? These two questions sometimes haunt us and are the same ones that have confused modern-day and ancient philosophers alike. In the end, the lessons of Palm Sunday give us the answers to both questions.
Perhaps the apostle Paul sums it up as well as anyone could: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
Our God wants us to embody the humble actions of Jesus: the God who “emptied himself” — the God who sat on a donkey.