A friend of mine told me about a homily that moved him, given by a man who, facing a terminal illness himself, spoke about Jesus walking to Jerusalem. And the repeated thought, the refrain of it was: “He kept on walking.”
During the last week of Lent we focus on the constancy of Jesus. We know that Jesus has prepared himself by a time of trial in the wilderness. We know that he must endure a still greater trial. In this week that we call Holy Week, we relive the last week of Jesus’ life: his entrance into Jerusalem, his Passover meal, his arrest, interrogation, suffering, and death.
In Jesus’ time, pilgrimages to the Holy City were a regular part of Jewish life. According to law, every Jewish male was obligated to go to the temple three times a year. Passover was one of these times. Inns and stopping points along the road catered to pilgrims on their journey. Jerusalem would be overflowing when Jesus and his entourage arrived. Flavius Josephus, fifty years later, estimated the Passover crowds at two and a half million to three million for a city of only 250,000 permanent residents. Perhaps his figures are inflated. But as we imagine that first Palm Sunday, we see that many thousands were on hand for Passover, and Jesus was by no means the center of attention.
But now he is our center of attention. As we try to recapture him, to bring him closer to us, we find him continuing his pilgrimage. Mostly he is walking. As Mark’s Gospel tells us, “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him.”
Christians believe that Jesus, through his privileged divine identity, had foresight. He had more than a premonition. He knew how the story would unfold. But he did not give up, he did not run away, he did not despair. Although most of the time Jesus had tried to avoid the limelight and the huzzahs of the crowd, as he entered Jerusalem he accepted a bit of celebrity. He continued on the path.
He sent others to prepare the Feast of the Passover. They had to hire a room, arrange for the meal, decide who the guests would be. A terrible ordeal lay ahead. Jesus would have to deal with being brought before the Sanhedrin, with unjust arrest by the Roman soldiers, with scourging, with execution. He knew all that, but he kept on walking. He had to deal with the false encouragement of his own disciples. One of them would betray him. Others, like Peter, who meant to be steadfast, couldn’t take the pressure. The disciples really didn’t understand. Jesus found himself more and more alone. But he kept on walking.
When my friend heard this sermon preached, he was struck by the parallels in our own lives. His friend, the homilist, knew his own life was ending. As he spoke about the last days of Jesus, the meaning was clear. Jesus kept on walking.
At the same time, Jesus was choosing. He wasn’t being passively dragged forward by circumstances. He had options, ways of eluding the evident conspiracy, the sentence of death. But Jesus knew and understood more than anyone around him. He had a sense of God’s larger plan. He saw what his short life story was about. And he chose to embrace the path ahead.
Two thousand years later, the ancient story moves us. No matter how often we hear it, it stirs up another meaning. Sometimes this Passover time may coincide with some life crisis of our own. Sometimes Holy Week comes at a flat and restless time. Often, in the rush of Easter preparation we are tempted to overlook the sacred message.
But Jesus kept on walking. Among the crowds in Jerusalem who did not know him, among the people who wanted to shower him with celebrity status, among his friends who had only a dim idea, even in his dialogue with Pilate, Jesus continued. He did all these things for us, long before we were born.
What does the death of someone who lived and died two thousand years ago have to do with us? It is not just a case of perseverance, or human courage. It is far more than a great moral example. This drama of reconciliation is a turning point in human history, as decisive as Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Israelites. It is a story we can barely grasp, yet it is meant for us. The story draws us in. We keep on walking.