I remember many years ago getting ready to baptize an adult and going through the choreography of the service. He was so excited, as was I for him to make this profession. His life had not been an easy one and he was looking forward to the baptism to serve as a demarcation of a new life for him. So we went through the service, I poured the water over his head, and the congregation clapped and welcomed him.
A few days later, he came up to me. “I am so disappointed,” he said with a tear forming in his eye. “I was expecting to ‘feel’ something, and I don’t think I did.” This spawned a long conversation where he told me that he was expecting to feel something like an electrical surge or overwhelming calm or something like that, but all he felt was what he always felt at church, peace and contentment.
He was not unique. Many people look to baptism to be a magical thing that pulls you from one state of being to another. Contrary to what many people think, baptism is not a magical moment. It is more than that! Baptism is an outward sign, a community recognition, of what God has already been doing in our lives. In other words, it is a ceremony where we individually and with the community we belong to celebrate the commitment that God has already made to us.
It is often hard to think that God is with us when we suffer or struggle. So we look to these special moments to give us clarity, hoping that they will give us some assurance that God is with us. Of course, God has already been working in our lives, suffering alongside us and holding us in our pain; it’s just that we don’t always recognize that presence. Just as the people did on Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday is a façade. It is an empty celebration by a community that was already plotting against Christ, leading up to the crucifixion. In the context we have today, we have a great celebration of Palm Sunday and then another great celebration of Easter, and often we skip the Passion of Christ's betrayal, abandonment, conviction, humiliation, and ultimately, the crucifixion itself. We somehow are unable to see the fullness of the Resurrection because we are unable to see the fullness of the sacrifice that Christ made by suffering through the Passion.
Understanding the Passion and Christ’s suffering are important, because the empty tomb is rendered meaningless if we do not know and understand how Christ was put in the tomb to begin with. Missing Holy Week and skipping ahead to Easter is like winning a race that was never run. Or, in other words, Easter is meaningless without the struggle.
The struggle is important. Unfortunately, as a society, we all too often cut out the struggle. When crafting games for children, political correctness has allowed the struggle to be cut in order to “make everyone a winner.” In life, if we don’t like our place, we can move. If we do not like a person, we can avoid them. If we don’t like our job, we can search for a new one. If we don’t have money, we can borrow it. We can do many things to elevate ourselves from suffering, and so could Christ.
In another way, it is similar to our secular lives. The freedom that we have as a people is due in great part to the suffering and struggles of those who came before us. In the same way, there are many who, because of the struggles of their parents, are able to live better and more comfortably than any prior generation in their family. Thus, history plays an important role, and the struggles of our previous generation shape who we are.
The same is true of our faith. It is in the struggles of Christ that we understand the importance of the Resurrection. God’s choice to send Christ into this world allows us to see God through Christ as fully human and fully divine. We know that he felt the same pains that we feel. He got sick, as we get sick. He was tempted, as we are tempted. And he suffered as we suffer. Thus, he suffered so that when we suffer, we know that he is suffering with us. Furthermore, he did all this out of love; he did this so that we may receive his grace and have life—not magical moments that are fleeting, but the sustained presence of God from before we are born until after we die.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen