Behold ~ Passion Week

Flight Into Egypt, 1923, Henry Ossawa Tanner, (1859-1937) oil on canvas, 29 x 25.9 inches. Image Source

Behold – Passion Week

by Adam R. Nettesheim

In reflecting on the story of the Triumphal Entry this week, I was wondering about the lived experience of those who were there – the people who were anticipating the arrival of the Messiah. How discombobulating it must have been for them to expect one thing, and then to have their expectations completely upended by what actually happened… I wonder if their process journals would have looked something like this:

Understood Truth: The Messiah will set God’s children free.

Expectation based on that Truth: The Messiah will ride to Jerusalem – probably on a majestic war horse, He’ll kill our enemies, free us from our oppressors and make the nation of Israel great again!

Action taken based on that Expectation: To meet the coming Messiah, I risked being arrested for sedition by openly celebrating His entry. I got palm branches (symbols of victory and triumph), I laid my coat down in an act of allegiance to welcome this Savior to what I assumed was the site of His great conquest!

Experience of discombobulation as Expectations were not met: Jesus of Nazareth trots in on a donkey… not even a full grown donkey… a colt… then once inside the city He… doesn’t slay anybody! He doesn’t run any of the Romans out (in fact he runs some of US out of OUR temple)! He tells us to pay taxes to Caesar! He challenges OUR traditions! This Messiah lets unclean people TOUCH HIM! Then He takes our Passover feast, the feast passed down to us from Moses himself, and HE thinks He has the authority to CHANGES THE MEANING OF IT?! Then after all that, he goes and gets Himself killed BY our oppressors. Some “Messiah” that was…

Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been disappointed by God? Yes, we may attest to God’s sovereignty and His perfect nature and His Holiness… We may try to sound spiritual and put a “Christian” face on it… But if we allow ourselves to be honest about it, have we ever felt let down because God didn’t show up when and how we wanted Him to? If I were truthful about it, I would have to acknowledge that some of my deepest darkest lows, some points of crisis in my faith were when I wondered whether God was teasing me or jerking me around. I would even say that sometimes deep despair settles on me when I hold an expectation that God doesn’t meet like I… expect.

I wonder if I lived back then, if I didn’t have a Bible and if I was looking in anticipation for the arrival of the Messiah… would I have given a second look at the poor baby crying in a barn? Or rather than going to the palace or the temple to await His birth announcement, do I really think I would have set up a tent in a field with some shepherds? If I were looking to join the movement that is going to change the world, would I think to start looking in the backwater town of Nazareth? Or as I was seeking the King of Kings, say, at a banquet, would I overlook the guy washing everybody’s feet? Would I look to find a ‘Holy Man’ hanging out with the ‘low-lives’ and ‘traitors’ and ‘sinners’? If I were part of Jesus’ ‘congregation’, would I consider it a successful ministry if the ‘Pastor’ only preached for 3 years and then was executed by the state like a thief or a murderer? If I lived back then, what would I truly have expected to find? And how would those expectations have kept me from actually seeing Jesus? Maybe like those folks carrying palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, maybe I too would have dropped my branches and pumped my fist on Friday, yelling instead “CRUCIFY! CRUCIFY!” 

The blinders of our expectations can cause us to miss the miracles right in front of us.

A friend of mine once shared a quote that said, “We are not disappointed by what we find so much as by what we expected to find.” So then to fix that, we may think it’s wisest to just “Expect disappointment. That way you’re never disappointed!” But that way of living takes even the beauties of life and receives them as ashes already. So how do we hold in tension our inability to set realistic expectations based on the limited vision we can have for what is happening behind the cosmic curtain, while in the other hand hold our God given desire and need to hope? If we know that hope unfulfilled can crush a person’s spirit, how can we accept the invitation to hope… to have faith… to EXPECT good things from God. To trust and take it one step at a time in the path He has laid before us, even if that path eventually leads to a cross…can anything good come after THAT?

I love the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner. His artistic style is beautifully employed to present the stories of scripture in ways that invite me to challenge my existing mental images of the depicted events. His Annunciation painting just might be my favorite. Also, how he depicted Jesus walking on the water gives me a chilling sense of what made the disciples declare “It’s a ghost!”

This painting however is of Mary riding on a donkey with her husband Joseph close by. It strikes me that Jesus entered the city of His birth, while in His mother’s womb, as she rode on a donkey – and then He entered the city of His death on a donkey as well. This painting is a foreshadowing of Palm Sunday.

My attention is drawn from the two familiar figures to the somewhat unsettling figure in the foreground. Is this meant to be the innkeeper, leading the Holy Family to the stables? The figure is hooded, faceless, unable to be fully known, and yet it is holding a lamp. The only flesh-tones on this figure we see is the hand that holds the lamp as it guides Joseph and Mary’s donkey one step at a time. This lamp doesn’t illuminate the entire path, but it shines a light on the very next step. They aren’t shown the curve in the road 100 feet ahead. Or the potholes beyond that. Those will become visible when they arrive to them, when they need to know about them, but for now, all the very pregnant Mary and the very stressed-out Joseph can do is see what is just in front of them and follow.

There’s a deep sense where this painting feels so true to me. I’m not at ease with the hooded figure and the lack of light is troublesome. For me, I feel safest in certainty – when I know exactly what I’m dealing with. Then I can plan and adjust or even find another way… But more often than not, it seems my faith journey is not defined by KNOWING EXACTLY what God is doing in any given situation. If ever, it’s usually well after the fact that I receive any reliable sense of clarity. Perhaps though, if I had certainty in the moment, if I KNEW what God was doing in the moment and where it was leading, maybe I’d try to talk God out of it. Or maybe I would try to take control instead of letting Him lead… 

Biblical history would likely look very different if I were an active participant. If I oversaw divine birth announcements, the angels would have broadcast their proclamations to the ‘important people’ with power to make quick changes. If I were a disciple of Jesus, I would be tweeting every one of His miracles, even the ones where He would tell those He healed to keep it quiet. And if I were Jesus’ marketing guy, the triumphal entry would probably have looked VERY different. …and would certainly not have been something people would have talked about for 2000 years. 

So, when God shows up on a donkey or when His answer to a prayer seems delayed or when a miracle doesn’t quite match what we were expecting… maybe we’re being invited into something different. Maybe we’re only getting a glimpse of what’s really happening beyond our understanding. Maybe the best thing we can do when we feel discombobulated is not to grab control back, exhaustively plan, manipulate, calculate for every variable… Maybe, when it’s clear that God is up to something, but we cannot for the life of us understand WHAT or WHY a good and loving God would do things THAT way… maybe we need to stop trying to figure it all out right now. Maybe we’re just being shown a single step at a time. Maybe we’re being taught that life’s uncertainties cannot be forcibly bent and beaten to conform to OUR expectations. 

Maybe these seasons of life would be easier to navigate if we would just simply do what the prophet Zechariah prescribed in his prophesy about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: 

“‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

Matthew 21: 5b

Maybe things would be so much better for us if we could just learn to… behold. 

Trust His goodness, take one step at a time, and simply just… behold. 

Let us keep our eyes and heart open. Let us ever be transfixed by the astonishing ways our God gradually unfolds the good things He is up to. And let us vigilantly protect our capacity for surprise and acceptance when God upends our expectations again and again and again.

May we gaze upon Him and His works in wonder. Even the work being done in us.

May we all learn to simply… behold.

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