This year, the season of Lent has been somewhat of a different journey for me. I’ve been distracted from the way in which I usually keep the season of Lent. That’s because, ever since Ash Wednesday, I’ve been experiencing an increasing sense of anticipation and of hope. And the further we’ve journeyed into Lent the stronger those feelings have become for me.
I know some might say, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” After all, isn’t Lent a time of anticipation for the hope that comes with Easter? This may be so but it isn’t why I’ve been feeling what I’ve been feeling. You see, this year, Ash Wednesday didn’t just mark the beginning of Lent. It also marked the ending of seventeen lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
On Ash Wednesday, more than 3000 students and staff experienced horror beyond imagining as a gunman with a military assault weapon entered the school, pulled a fire alarm, and began shooting. Six minutes and twenty seconds later, fourteen students and three staff members were dead. Another fifteen were injured. While Christians around the world began our Lenten journey toward Easter, the people of Parkland, Florida began their journey through the dark valley of grief. For them, Ash Wednesday marked the end of 17 precious lives.
Now, at the time, I tried not to pay attention to the shooting. I know that sounds harsh but I didn’t want to invest any emotional energy in yet another mass shooting by someone with a weapon that no ordinary citizen should ever possess. After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas – and too many others to count – I promised myself I would not get drawn in emotionally over one of these mass shootings because they just keep on happening.
Only this time something was different.
This time the students who survived that horrific day stood up and shouted, “Enough!” “Never again!” And very quickly, in only a couple of days, those students became very organized and very vocal. They certainly caught my attention. Indeed, they caught the attention of millions of people across their nation and around the world.
Three days after the shooting there was a rally in which these youth demanded that politicians of all political stripes no longer accept money from the gun lobby. There was a nationally-televised town hall where these youth confronted politicians face-to-face. There was an epic social-media campaign by which they mobilized students in schools across their country. There was a nation-wide 17-minute school walkout on the one-month anniversary of the shooting. There were other rallies and public appearances. There were media interviews, including a feature on 60 Minutes and the cover story of Time magazine.
These youth were courageous. They were intelligent and articulate. They were confrontational and they were loud. People were really starting to pay attention and to hope. America was paying attention and so was I. Millions of people were beginning to hope that maybe, just maybe, something so many have yearned for so long could finally become a reality.
From the moment they stepped into the public eye, everything these youth did was to culminate on Saturday, March 24th, in the ‘March for our Lives’. They called upon the youth of their nation to join with them in a massive procession through the streets of Washington, D.C., the centre of political power in their nation. As 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez put it, the ‘March for our Lives’ was to be a mass act of “civil disobedience, marching in the streets with signs and chanting truth to power.” It was a confrontational act, calling out their political leaders and their gun-lobby puppet-masters.
And as I watched those crowds on television, I could see that there was an incredibly powerful sense of hope and anticipation that this is it. That these amazing young people – that this generation of youth – will be the ones to finally rid their nation of the scourge of military assault weapons and, by extension, the mass shootings that have afflicted them for far too long. Yes, the sense of anticipation and hope in those crowds was tangible.
And I think that tangible sense of hope and anticipation in the crowds processing through the streets of Washington is exactly what the crowds were experiencing on that very first Palm Sunday.
The crowds who cheered Jesus on and participated in the procession into Jerusalem that day shared something with the youth of America. They knew their world wasn’t as it should be. They were an oppressed people. Their nation was occupied by a foreign military power who acted only in the interests of Rome, not in the interests of the people of Israel. Yes, they had their own religious and political leaders, but they were nothing more than puppets of the Romans. They did whatever they needed to do to placate the Romans, in order to maintain their status, privilege and power. Some things never change I guess.
But then, along comes this Jesus of Nazareth.
Along comes Jesus with a message that filled them with hope and anticipation. He caught their attention with his proclamation that “the kingdom of God was at hand.” He caught their attention by what he had to say about this kingdom. It was to be a kingdom of justice. A kingdom of peace. A kingdom that belonged to the poor in spirit and the persecuted. A kingdom where the mournful would be comforted, the meek would be powerful, and the hungry would be filled. A kingdom where peacemakers would be called children of God and the pure in heart would actually see God.
They had heard how he called out the hypocrisy of their religious leaders. They had heard of his miracles. They had heard of his teaching. They had heard of his radical inclusivity. And, they had heard he was making his way toward Jerusalem. Now, lo and behold, here he was processing into the city of Jerusalem in the manner of a king!
No doubt, in the crowds who shouted hosannas and laid palm branches on the road before Jesus that day, there was an almost unbearable sense of anticipation and hope. Could this Jesus be the one? Could he be the Messiah the prophets spoke of? Could he be the one who would finally overthrow their Roman oppressors and return them to the glory days of King David?
No wonder so many joined that procession into Jerusalem – the centre of military, religious and political power – shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Talk about an act of civil disobedience. Talk about chanting truth to power. The anticipation and hope in those crowds and those words is tangible.
So, what happens next?
Whether we’re talking about the crowds processing through the streets of Washington on March 24th or the crowds processing through the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, that question presents itself.
What happens next?
As much as the ‘March for our Lives’ was a victory for those amazing young people, as important as it was, what really matters is what happens next. And that story is still being written in the youth of America.
What happens next?
It’s a question that should have been on the minds of those who processed through the streets of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. It’s certainly a question that should on our minds today – on the minds of all those who celebrate that first Palm Sunday year after year after year. As important as it is to hail Jesus as our king, as joyous it may be to shout hosannas to our king, what really matters is what happens next. And that story is still being written as well. It’s being written in each and every one of us.
So, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, as we join our voices with the people of Jerusalem and chant truth to power, as we process with them through the streets of Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week, let us keep that question before us.
What happens next?
Father Mark Nichols is our Associate Priest at St. Mark’s.