March 24, 2002

TEXT: Matthew 21:1-11

It’s been an unusual Lenten season this year—not the way it’s supposed to be. I remember when Lent was mud-time, that transitional period when we moved from winter to spring, when melting snow sogged the moist earth and prepared it for growing. We stifled our alleluias and suppressed our joy as we wallowed in our guilt and reflected on the suffering of Jesus. Lent was the shadow season between darkness and the light, a season of sacrifice and despair.

As a child I always knew when Lent arrived. It wasn’t through the proclamation of the church. It was when the Rivoli Theater stopped showing cowboy movies and started showing Cecil B. DeMille’s silent movie King of Kings. It was an annual ritual, but the images were so powerful that even though we had seen the same scenes over and over again, some people cried during the Crucifixion scene. One did not have to hear the sound of the nails being driven into flesh, but you felt it just the same. Lent was not Lent unless you somehow participated in the pain and suffering of Jesus, whether vicariously through cinema, or the graphic sermons from humorless preachers, or for us children, by not having dessert after meals or some other form of sacrifice imposed by parents and grandparents. Lent was depressing. We couldn’t wait for Easter.

Palm Sunday never quite fit into the story. The rhythm was all off. We have been moving throughout this forty-day period to the inevitable tragedy of Good Friday. Why, all of a sudden this parade? Why this celebration? Why these joyful shouts and standing ovations for one who is about to be killed? It doesn’t make sense. It’s almost like the Norwegian vardoger, the false-arrival ghost. It’s a mysterious supernatural occurrence where you hear the sound of arriving guests and actually feel their presence several minutes or even hours before they really appear. Palm Sunday is a false Easter that moves us to celebrate prematurely.

The one person in the palm-waving crowd of celebrants who is not in a joyful mood is the object of all the rejoicing. Jesus knows what is about to happen and grieves over the city. He says later in Matthew’s gospel, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus knows that their hosannas are lies. Underlying the songs of praise and jubilation were the chords of pain and inner turmoil.

Last night was Blues Night at the Lincoln Plaza Hotel. We have a bit of a blues festival within the Berks Jazz Fest. Ann Rabson and Shemekia Copeland are two of the great women blues singers in the tradition of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. We can talk about suffering in psychological terms and in theological abstractions, but blues is sung from the experience of life. In the music of the blues we hear from those who have known the depths of sufferings and have confronted the evil demons that have tortured them.

Blues had its origin in the early traditions and music of African Americans. It originated in the rural Mississippi Delta region at the beginning of the 20th century and had descended from earlier work shouts and field-hollers. Blues is primarily a vocal narrative style featuring solo voice with instrumental accompaniment. Blues has contributed significantly to the development of jazz, rock music, and country and western music.

It is important to understand that Blues came out of the experience of slavery as a resistence to the culture of the white man, unlike the spiritual and gospel music which was an appropriation of white religion. One might say that blues are secular spirituals that do not seek so much to provide answers to human suffering as much as to express the experience of it.

James Baldwin wrote a play, Blues for Mister Charlie, which is based on the murder of Emmitt Till, a black youth, in Mississippi in 1955. The murderer, a white man, was acquitted by a white jury. Baldwin makes the point that this society of white Christians can kill black people and justify it terms of their religion. The play takes places in a location with the metaphorical name of Plaguetown. The plague is not only racial hatred, but also our concept of Christianity—not Christianity itself, but how we interpret it and how we use it. Mister Charlie is the black man’s name for his white oppressor. Baldwin’s play sings the blues for the white man’s moral crisis as much as for the black man’s frustration and agony.

Baldwin raises an interesting and tough question: Should a religion be judged on its teachings and principles or on the basis of those who practice it? For two hundred years in the South it is white Christians who enslave, who subvert and repress, who terrorize and murder, and who believe that they are worthy practitioners of the Christian faith. From our perspective, we would say that expression was an aberration of Christianity, not an example of it.

Yet at the same time, we are willing to demonize the religion of Islam because of how a relatively few of its adherents interpret it. We need to be just as careful to differentiate between the religion of Islam and the practice of Islam by some of its followers.

What do the blues have to say about the problem of evil and suffering in the world? Viktor Frankl tried to tell us that if we could understand the reason for suffering, we can somehow endure it. Sometimes, however, understanding does not mitigate pain and the only way out of the suffering is through it. Singing the blues was a strategy of expressing inner turmoil and pain and therefore moving through it. Blues are techniques of survival and expressions of courage. Just as we cannot move from Palm Sunday to Easter without going through Good Friday, we cannot go through life without pain and suffering. What we experience shapes who we are.

It is natural for us to want to avoid unpleasant experiences, bad relationships, financial and economic hardships, inconveniences and adversities, sickness, pain, and loss of persons and things we love, cherish, and value. But that’s not what life is about. Sometimes we are fortunate to have a bridge over troubled waters and sometimes we just have to wade through it. The ashes of Ground Zero still shroud our hopes and dreams for a bright and secure future. Those who work amidst the debris and those that live amidst the charred cinders of shattered lives are still moving through deep waters. But they will emerge—and so will we. Grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

Albert Murray says that Blues is “an attitude of affirmation in the face of difficulty, of improvisation in the face of challenge. It means that you acknowledge that life is a low-down dirty shame, yet confront that fact with perseverance, with humor, and above all, with elegance.”

Blues is a celebration of the human condition in all its flawed beauty and magnificent ugliness. It embraces contradiction as the essence and spice of life.

Jesus saw the contradiction of celebration on that first Palm Sunday. He heard in the Hosanna Blues the pained cries of all creation. Like a woman groaning in travail at the moment of giving birth, so Creation longs to be redeemed from its suffering. Just as blues lead to transformation, suffering leads to new birth and adversity opens up new challenges and opportunities. Palm Sunday does eventually give way to Easter and to the resurrection of new life. Let the hosanna come forth from the crucible of despair and let it express our hope for a better world and a better life. Let us remember the words of Dante at the end of the Inferno: “And so we emerged, and once again beheld the stars.”

-Harry L. Serio