In the name of the Lord. That's audacious.
Would-be leaders still come on, claiming our attention, our loyalty, even our obedience. Most of the arrivals aren't much to cheer; hardly worth a half-hearted hosanna.
They come bedecked with pretensions; always in the name of something beyond themselves. New York City union bureaucrats come in the name of education. Riot-prone police in the name of law. The mandarins of the university-military partnership in the name of pure research. Blundering interventionists in the name of defense. Media pushers of the worthless in the name of prosperity.
Politicians come in the name of all things true and good. In the name of new things, like deals and frontiers, and of big things like great societies. And now, riding neither an ass nor the foal of an ass, but a stuffed elephant, they come with the thrilling call, "Let's our kind of people go forward together against those kind of people!"
But coming in the name of the Lord, that's different. If you're reaching for pretensions, there's one worth stretching for.
These things took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet saying, Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, Hosannah to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosannah in the highest!
The use of the word "crowd" instead of "mob" is a nice touch. Art and piety have destroyed the tone of the thing; the Palm Sunday entrance is preciously proper, almost stately. The sweat, the stir, the celebrative anarchy — all are missing. The New York Times editorial page would have risen to the occasion:
Yesterday's disturbance at the West Gate of the City will be viewed by responsible citizens as an entirely unnecessary threat to the already delicate relationship between Jerusalem and its Roman guests. It is unfortunate that the frenzied mob that gave encouragement to this demagogue from Nazareth was reportedly composed primarily of the poor. This newspaper's record of commitment to the fight against injustice is beyond argument. As a friend of the poor, however, it is our duty also to caution them that identification with extremists is an additional strain on the good will of their many friends. Nothing should be done at this time to jeopardize the promising discussions between Caiaphas and Governor Pilate. Politically explosive mob actions, such as that of yesterday, only lend further credibility to the defeatist notion that Jerusalem is ungovernable.
James Reston would have had trouble with Palm Sunday. Tom Wicker would have written more sympathetically, "Before we condemn them too harshly, we should remember that those were our children out there singing hosannas." Norman Mailer would have reported eight pages of debate with himself as to whether or not he was a coward because he didn't wave his palm even once before going off in search of an inn to tie one on; from which session he awoke to discover he had missed the trial and crucifixion, not to mention the resurrection.
The literary impoverishment of the first century is such that we have barely an outline. "And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, Hosannah to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosannah in the highest!" Here are the representatives of the great unwashed, impelled by the prophetic promises and restless yearnings of centuries. They had been taken in before. There was little here to suggest a power more real than that of other gods that had failed — no elephants or camels or well-bred stallions, no trumpet fanfares proclaiming a kingly presence, no glittering armed guard with which to challenge imperial oppression, not even the crude spears and slingshots of a revolutionary arsenal. Rather an itinerant rabbi, a wandering preacher, a miracle worker, a prophet without tenure; and the people of the back streets, with the smell and itch of hope about them. When you are poor enough and oppressed enough, you are liberated to dream new dreams. In that moment they were liberated to think of themselves now in light of what they might be and to think of their people now in light of what they must be.
It was not a crowd of heroes, as the events of the rest of the week would demonstrate. It was not a crowd of planners and proposers of alternatives, they were simply possessed by the unquenchable intuition that things could be, that things must be, different. And from that unlikely crowd came the nucleus of a new community of hope; of kings and peasants, scholars and slaves, to cheer this Jesus as one who comes in the name of the Lord. Through generations convinced that the audacity was warranted and the pretension rooted in fact, we come to this time and place where in trappings more of propriety than of passion we join in the Advent season's invocation of the One who comes.
He will reveal himself today to those who live in the back streets, to those who mobilize at the gates of the city, far from the seats of power. He still comes on an ass, as often as not looking like an ass. The agents of the oncoming rule of God do not come in stratojets, surrounded by the secret police and press agents who form the praetorian guard of modern imperial processions. Greyhound and Trailways, hitched rides and the dilapidated 14th Street-Canarsie subway line, these are the counterparts to the ass and the foal of an ass. The tribes of the disinherited still tread today's via dolorossa, carrying our crucified messiahs to the Calvarys of our time's redeeming.
The Man Who is the Future of All Men
I do not speak this way out of a romantic prejudice in favor of the outsider. The pattern is inherent in the economy of salvation. Of all the better choices available, it has been remarked, how odd of God to choose the Jews. As certainly as Paul could then declare, "Salvation is from the Jews," so certainly is salvation today from the black man, the brown man, the yellow man, the excluded man. Salvation is from the disinherited who clamor for their rightful place at the banquet table of God's creation. In their tortured cries we can hear the hosannas proclaiming a new era.
I know this language lends itself to the sloganeering and mindless violence of some people, but I cannot help that. Long before it became the language of leftist ideology it was and is the language of biblical truth. In your understandable desire to dissociate yourselves from the gospel of the bomb throwers, take care lest you dissociate yourselves from the gospel of the oncoming Kingdom. Then and now and until he comes in glory, the dice of the Kingdom are loaded on the side of the poor.
Our political engineers declare their purpose to quiet the storm by giving the poor a piece of the action. Those of us who work among the poor view with painful ambivalence the training programs that would purchase men's souls at so paltry a price as achievement in the present order. This is their seductive pitch: You too can be blinded and pacified by the pride of property. You must only come away from the outer gates of the city; stop yearning for the new order that will never arrive, that we will never permit.
A union official recently stated with smug satisfaction, "In the thirties the revolutionaries thought they could use the laborer to bring about radical change. Today their hopes are riding on the black man. They were frustrated then, they will be frustrated now. All people really want is prosperity." He may be right, but I think not. Not in a violently restless world where there are no more distant corners. But whether right or wrong, what a brazen admission that the goal is to structure society by the abandonment of hope, by the quenching of fantasy, by the betrayal of dreams. From the stuff of our self-seeking we would fortify the enclave of our comfort and then announce ourselves a successful society. Let us reserve our hosannas; for this vision comes not in the name of the Lord but in the name of the principalities and powers of this world who would hold the sons of God in bondage to the old man.
If the forces of religion have endorsed, and they have, the messiah of the Great American Way, that does not sanctify the vision; it only deepens the tragedy. "If the salt of the earth has lost its saltness, what good is it but to be thrown away and trampled underfoot." Across the country, in sanctuaries securely captured by the prevailing order, are those who claim to come in the name of the Lord but are in fact the false prophets of Jesus' warning. The chief business of Christianity is to pose an alternative to the way things are. Our high calling is not to be relevant to what is but to make man relevant to what is to be. Our worship is not so much the celebration of present goodness as it is the anticipation of the victory banquet of the future, to which invitations are already sent out.
Many Christians object to this talk of the future. Speak peace, they say, not the promise of peace. Tell me something that helps me now. Tell me about peace of mind now, how to conquer my anxieties now, how to put God to work for me now. Tell me the Kingdom of God has already come, that everything is really alright. And false prophets by the thousands gladly supply the demands of the religious market. But everything is not alright now, God does not exist in the fulness of his rule now, the Kingdom has not yet come when Christ shall be all in all.
The people who cheered Jesus then (or some of them) and the people who cheer Jesus now (or some of them) are the restless and yearning who have a low toleration for the injustice, the brutishness, and the distortions of humanity that mark our time. Marx was wrong in thinking Christianity must distract man from the mundane, historical task of change. But he was right in seeing that the gospel sets man in antithesis to the present, provisional moment. He was right in criticizing the religion that focuses our attention on a heavenly kingdom outside of human history, the religion of dangerous illusions that is still the staple of conventional piety. But equally dangerous, equally guilty of false consciousness, is the religion that manipulates people into thinking the kingdom has already come, or that the next phase of some revolutionary action will force its arrival. Both the religion of illusory escape and the religion of illusory action blunt the bitter unsatisfactoriness of this preliminary time.
At best we can stand on the mountaintop; at best we can see the promised land afar off; at best we can celebrate the intuition of what is to be; at best we can be confident of the rationality of our hope; at best we can shout our hosannas and wave our palms in the courage of our uncertainties, supporting those persons and events that seem to signal the future for which we yearn.
What we can do at best we can do this Advent season. Let the Advent word go out to the rich as well as to the poor, to all who are imprisoned and oppressed. Tell them to lift up their heads and open their eyes, to shake their chains and rattle their prison bars. For behold the Christ, the new man who is the future of all men, behold he comes. Amen. Come Lord Jesus. Amen.