Palm Sunday, Como, Italy: We had arranged to meet our friends at the Piazza Duomo at 10am. But on arrival, we discovered that we were not the only ones gathering around the great marble cathedral at that hour.
Crowds of the faithful were converging on the central square of the northern Italian city, famous for its favoured location on the shores of Lago di Como.
Many carried olive branches, simulating the palm branches with which Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem. They joined in a Palm Sunday procession behind clergy in red and white robes. A priest swinging an incense ‘thurible’ headed the procession, followed by another holding aloft a great silver-encased Bible and a third with a large silver cross. The bishop himself, wearing his mitre, waved an olive branch as he followed Bible and cross through the cathedral doors into the dim interior.
Such a Palm Sunday scene has changed little over the centuries as part of the Catholic Church’s celebration of the Easter season, which of course climaxes this coming weekend.
The procession over, we drifted off with our friends to find a place to talk. Several cups of cappuccino later, we emerged into the street walking back towards the piazza. This time we encountered a new crowd, now holding banners and posters aloft. They seeemed to be staring expectantly in our direction. We learned that a political rally with Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant former Italian premier, was supposed to have started in the piazza at noon. That hour had passed but the crowd was still anxiously awaiting his arrival.
We were amused to see some of the faithful from the earlier procession among this second crowd, still holding their olive branches as if expecting the messiah-which may well have been true for some!
We did not hang around to await the expected cavalcade, opting for pizza instead.
On my return to Holland, my thoughts returned to this scenario when I saw a book I had ordered was waiting for me. Eagerly I read the opening lines of the preface:
What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?
These two questions shape this book.
First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them.
Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second.
Most people-including many Christians-didn’t know what the ultimate Christian hope really was, the author claimed. I wondered how many of the faithful sitting in that cathedral in Como-or evangelicals in churches across Europe on that Sunday morning-understood salvation as escaping from this world to a place called heaven.
Most people, he continued, didn’t expect Christians to talk about hope within the present world. Most people didn’t imagine that these two could have anything to do with each other. Again I thought of that other crowd waiting for the Berlusconis of this world to bring hope here and now.
As long as we saw Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven’, of a salvation that was essentially away from this world, my new hero affirmed, we would see little hope for change and transformation within our present world. But if Christian hope was for God’s new creation, and if that hope had already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there was every reason to have hope for the present reality. Philosophers from Plato to Hegel, he continued, agreed that what you thought ab
out death, and life beyond it, was the key to thinking seriously about everything else.
Easter was all about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present. It anticipated the time when God would fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to rule over the redeemed world he had made.
At last, I thought, here was a theologian addressing the issue at the heart of the Hope for Europe vision! Futile attempts to get theologians to spell out the here-and-now-in-Europe implications of the ultimate Christian hope to lay people like myself have often frustrated me in recent years.
Easter was about the wild delight of God’s creative power, the author asserted. It was about the real Jesus coming out of the real tomb and getting God’s real new creation under way. So why spend forty days keeping Lent, he asked, preaching about self-denial, being at least a little gloomy, and then only have a single day of celebration?! Why not have an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer?! Was it any wonder people found it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we didn’t throw our hats in the air? This was our greatest festival! Take Easter away and you don’t have a Christianity.
Our task in the present, he clarified, was to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.
The book and author? Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright.
Till Easter then,
Till next week,