Words are both fragile and sturdy vessels. Like rafts on storm-tossed water, they sometimes break beneath us and leave us stranded at a far distance from the mystery and meaning we sought to reach. Not always, though; they also may take us beyond the horizon of what we’ve assumed or imagined to be true.
This past Sunday, Palm Sunday, I keenly felt the fragility of words, at least of the words I chose, arranged, and used to describe the effect of Jesus on the crowds which thronged him as he neared Jerusalem. The Passover parade Jesus staged was political and prophetic theater which he used to counter the claims of Empire. It also powerfully heightened the crowds’ hopes for liberation and salvation, for freedom and wholeness.
Jesus stirs those hopes in me, in us, as well. We long to be free from whatever binds us, holds us back, and keeps us down. The oppressions may be socioeconomic, cultural, or emotional. We may be locked-up in addiction, shame, or guilt; chained by demands, expectations, or responsibilities; or imprisoned by fear, loneliness, or grief. We want freedom, and we sense that the way of Jesus could lead us out of bondage.
We yearn for integration of our fragmented inner selves and for a more seamless and more easeful ordering of the many roles we play. We want shalom, a pervasive sense of peace with ourselves, with God, with others, and with creation. As with our desire for freedom, we have a strong intuition that the way of Jesus could take us to the wholeness we crave.
Holy Week deepens those longings and yearnings, and it also points us to Jesus who first intensifies and then satisfies them. On Palm Sunday I knew that the words I used to help us to remember and to experience again the wounding wonder and enlightening darkness of this week fell far short of the realities to which they pointed.
Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) said: “All language has taken an oath to fail to describe Him; any attempt to do so is the height of arrogance.” My vocation requires me to risk such “arrogance”—I prefer to call it audacity—and to use words which inevitably fail to do justice to the story of how God transforms all failure, including the failure of words, into salvation.
A long time ago, the British Methodist pastor Leslie Weatherhead told the story of a boy in Sunday School who tried to draw a picture of Jesus’ calming the sea and quieting the winds. He drew daunting waves, a fishing boat, fierce angry clouds, and frightened disciples huddled in the bow of the boat. But he didn’t draw Jesus. “You haven’t drawn Jesus,” said the teacher. “No,” said the boy quietly, “I couldn’t make him beautiful enough” (The Eternal Now)
That’s how I felt this past Sunday—and how I feel today, this week, always.