Author: Reverend Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
Personal Soundtrack as I “Preach” This: Jesus Christ Superstar, 1970s concept album (Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice)
The Rocks and Stones Beneath a Child’s Feet
When I was a child, I had an unholy obsession with rocks, and I’m choosing my words very carefully. I couldn’t say how or when it started me. I know we created rock pets back in kindergarten or some such, as most children in America do.
At one point I had this little gem book from the 1950s, which was this small case that was the thickness of a wallet, perhaps, that had fragments of the most recognized precious stones. A sliver of uncut ruby, a flint of onyx, a mere grain of what claimed to be diamond. I treasured this little book like nothing else. I never took it out of my room, and I would take it out nearly every day and just stare at these stones, these gems, they pretty rocks in awe.
Soon I was looking for individual stones that were somehow special wherever I ended up.
When I was seven and living on a farm in Wales, I had a collection of stones that I would line up on the picnic table where my mum had me study and practice my spelling. One one day during that long summer, my brother decided to get into a bit of mischief and toss four of them into a bed of strange weeds. I cried and cried and cried (in my defense, I was seven), and my parents made him go and fetch them. As it turns out, the so-called weeds were actually a variety of nettle that does not grow in the United States.
My memory of that evening is my brother covered in a horrific rash and crying, having only brought back three of my precious rocks. I will confess (and my brother will concur), at times I wasn’t the best big sister on the planet.
This, coincidentally, is just one of my many memories concerning my fascination and the esteem in which I held rocks. To this day, I couldn’t honestly say when this love of the geological tapered off, but it was certainly a defining characteristic of my childhood.
Turning to the Bible
All this amps up into our two verses from Luke. Of course, this is not the whole story of Palm Sunday. Not every account of that Sunday so many centuries ago even mentions rocks. Not all of them mention palms. It’s the beauty of the different gospel accounts, each one gives us a different facet, a different idea, a different angle.
So. Here we are with stones and they’re crying out. It’s always been a monstrously cool picture in my mind. Even to this day, decades after my fascination with rocks has ended, I can just see these large sandstones as if they were created in scribbling cartoons, with dots for eyes, and wide mouths made of crayon opening and closing. It’s a childlike image, not meant to be quite literal, not meant to be horrific as it might be.
But what does it mean?
Well, there’s the obvious. Jesus is riding through Jerusalem on a colt or a donkey. He is fulfilling prophecy. People are happy. People are screaming. They’re so happy, they take off their coats and start waving them about (which, if you’ve ever tried, can be quite tiring after a few minutes depending on the heat quotient and how high above your head you’re waving about a piece of fabric that’s not made for waving). People go to the trees and take the palms and lay them in front of Jesus, making what could only be described as a Biblical red carpet.
The Pharisees (as we know) don’t quite like it, and tell Jesus that since he’s the one creating the disturbance, he should be the one to shut it down.
In an odd sort of parallel it might have been like the Mayor asking the Beatles to quiet their adoring fans after they had just performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I am in no way comparing the Beatles to Jesus. I’m just saying, some of those girls who were watching sixty years ago still have Beatlemania. The world adores the Beatles now, they adored them then–fans were vocal on screen, off screen, fainting in their gogo boots, and to this day declaring their undying love for John, Paul, George, and/or Ringo.
Jesus here, in today’s Sermon Lesson, was the center of attention. He’s riding into Jerusalem, and for once he’s actually taking a bit of praise and wonder that’s aimed at him. He isn’t hiding from the crowds, slinking along town walls and talking to. Samaritan women instead of greeting the elders of a city. He isn’t going off to a mountain in reflection only to discover the crowds have unfortunately followed him. Jesus isn’t retreating from his disciples below deck, so tired that he doesn’t quite notice a storm has picked up. He’s on that red carpet, as I mentioned, and since he’s a bit human he’s enjoying it.
He’s smiling, he’s laughing. Nothing, frankly, can ruin his good mood, not his foreknowledge that in just a few days, Judas will betray him, Peter will deny him, that the crowds will turn on him, and he will not only be sentenced to die but will hang upon a cross. A handful of Pharisees is child’s play at this point.
One. Two. Three.
So, when the Pharisees tell Jesus to conduct his own crowd control, he looks up to them and… there are so many ways to parse this.
The stones crying out is a technical impossibility. Stones don’t have voices, they don’t cry out in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, or really any other language. They are not, and I repeat this to all the suffering adults in the world who are watching Frozen, yet again, going to roll off and turn into an adorable troll that sings. If the stones can’t cry out then the reverse is true: the people can’t stop crying out.
Let’s turn this on its head with the more traditional interpretation. People are rejoicing. People are organic. People have thought and rationality and free will. They may be swept up in a bit of crowd mentality, but they’re still living, breathing, feeling people. The Pharisees want Jesus to quiet them. Well, Jesus tells them, it’s not just the people who are excited–it’s the stones beneath your feet.
Stones are old, they are immovable, they have been there since God first created the world, before people, or animals, or vegetation. There’s a phrase in English, that comes out of Muslim culture: If the Mountain won’t come to Muhammed… Muhammed, in Islam, was the greatest prophet who ever lived, the culmination of God’s promise to humankind. If the mountains won’t even come to him, then they will come for no one.
Well, Jesus is saying that such an implacable source as a mountain, which is undoubtedly made not only of earth but of stones, will actually be so moved that they will sing as they have never done before and probably never will again.
Let’s turn it on its head one more time. I want you to try and picture Jerusalem. It’s a beautiful, ancient city on top of a mountain. But what is made out of it? it’s made out of stone. The temple, the center of first century Palestine, is made out of stone. The main thoroughfares are not made out of dirt and they certainly are not made out of concrete. Instead, they are made of stone. For Jesus to say that the stones will sing out, he’s saying that Jerusalem herself will sing out. The very backbone of the city will rejoice because he is there. The city, God’s city, would cry out.
Can you imagine the magnitude of such a statement? Can you imagine the beauty? or the absolute horror the Pharisees might have felt when they realized that this is what Jesus meant?
Jerusalem herself is happy, Jerusalem is praising Jesus, Jerusalem is dancing and jumping with the crowds that fill her.
We have absolutely no equivalent in today’s society, but even we, two thousand years later, might quake at such a powerful image.
Food for Thought
My normal routine for Palm Sunday, since I was a small girl, is to get out a pretty dress and go to church. I have a green one that I favored for several years that I believe is still hanging in my closet. I always collect my palm and try to find someone who can make a cross for me, I bring it home and in the course of my life, it wanders from one surface to another until I eventually lose track of it, only to find it several months later, crusty and dried out, partially unravelled, and I will smile a bit.
It’s so ingrained in my life, wherever I am, whatever country, whatever church, that it really hasn’t altered since I was a girl of five.
A couple of years ago, I collected my palm and left it in the pulpit, and still had it when the next year rolled around, a symbol of time passing yet little changing.
I wonder if it’s still there even though I’ve moved on from that church.
This year, all around the world, people will not be gathering in churches. They will not be receiving palms and raising them above their head, shouting, “Hosanna!” There will not be mass crowds in the Vatican or Jerusalem, or indeed anywhere else. Most governors here in the United States of America have restricted group gatherings of more than ten people in some way or another.
How the world has changed and how I pray it will change back.
We may not be in the streets, we may not be physically in our churches, we may be fretting over the health of our loved ones, for our businesses, for our way of life instead of rejoicing and praising Jesus with our voices.
But we are not silenced. Not really and certainly not forever.
We are still here.
We still believe.
And even if we are locked in our homes, even if the only way to get free of the confines of our predicament is to go out alone into nature, even if we are socially distancing ourselves when we pick up needed groceries–the rocks beneath our feet are singing today. The very ground is shuddering in joy, our great cities and small towns and everything in between are quaking with the excitement even if we don’t know how to listen.
Hosanna, the Messiah has finally come!