Foreboding Joy

by Rev. Nick Chambers

Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem marks the culmination of the whole middle movement of the Gospel of Luke “toward Jerusalem.”  Popular anticipation built from “all the deeds of power” along the way now unleashes in celebration. The proclamation of the multitude—“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”—is adapted from Psalm 118:26, which may have been used as a greeting to pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover. As they “praise God joyfully” it rings with relief, possibly not only remembering Israel's deliverance from Egypt, but also joyfully anticipating the overthrow of the new Egypt—Rome. Much has been made of the multitude's mistake and rightly so. Regardless of their exact expectations, they clearly do not anticipate what is coming next. But even if they are misguided, Jesus does not chide them. In fact, the Pharisees are the ones stepping in to suppress the festivities. They may see it as mob nonsense. If it indeed has overtones of a new Exodus celebration, the Pharisees may also fear the hand of Rome.

Brene Brown is a research professor who has become especially known for her work on the power of vulnerability. In her book Daring Greatly, she observes that one of the main ways we avoid vulnerability is by “foreboding joy.” Whether it be satisfaction with work, feeling grateful, seeing our children sleeping, getting a good doctor’s report, or falling in love—when something causes joy to rise in us, it is quickly met and mitigated by inner voices of correction, complaint, anxiety, sarcasm, and cynicism. Joy exposes us to hurt, and the fearful Pharisees within are ready to suppress—supposedly in order to protect us. We shut down our own joy before anyone else can, before we can have our cloaks stepped on. We patronize and worry and doubt because it makes us feel safe. That way, if something bad happens, at least we predicted and prepared.

But even with the cross before us, we are not called to the safety of cynic or the skeptic but to the same self-forgetful abandon, the same kind of “humiliation” that the Son of God himself undergoes:

“[he] emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross."

We are called precisely to expose ourselves to the wounds of joy. St. Andrew of Crete brings these  passages together powerfully:

 “In his humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and he is glad that he became so humble for our sake, glad that he came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to himself. And even though we are told that he has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of his power and godhead – his love for man will never rest until he has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with his own in heaven.

 So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.