Tradition begins with a story. The story for the day ahead, Palm Sunday, is Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and the crowd waving palm branches and laying them on the ground for the donkey to walk upon. In the drama of Jesus’ impending death, this story is about the crowd cheering on and supporting Jesus-the-donkey-riding-Messiah.
And traditions like this one call for re-enacting. So, Christians on Palm Sunday, wave palm branches, sing hymns like ‘Ride on, Ride on’, and if you have a donkey in the neighbourhood convince the poor animal that coming to church once a year is fun.
Such tradition and re-enactment invites the question about what did that story mean when it was first told (and was it based on some historical happening). So you have probably heard sermons about the symbol of a leader riding on a donkey (humility) juxtaposed with the symbol of a leader on a mighty war horse (not humility). And, no, it probably wasn’t a historical event, but rather part of the early Jesus’ movement’s liturgical reconstruction of his last days. (The donkey was borrowed from an earlier tradition in Zechariah.)
But finding what all this meant when the story was crafted can be overrated. Sometimes we just need to let our imaginations lose. Poets have long led the way. You may recall Joy Cowley’s psalm about a scruffy bikie Jesus coming in on a Harley and the crowd being all on the other side of town looking for the messiah. She is of course raising the issue of what a leader, a messiah, might look like, and what are our expectations.
For the critical question to address to a tradition story is how does it connect with our story today? Does it help us to see the movement and serendipity of grace moving among us today?
Our story is that currently we are inside. We are inside our houses, or out on our porches. Some of us are inside others’ houses. We have formed bubbles. Some of us – essential workers – daily transition outside of our bubble and then back in again. None of us though are gathering together (whether in churches, streets, or town) to find palm branches, or anything else, to wave at a messiah or anyone else. So, how might this story of old speak now?
Well, as I reflect on the old story, there are three things that speak to me – and all are interconnected. There is an animal. There is the flipping upside-down of expectations. And there is the smiles associated with that flipping.
Domestic animals have enjoyed the lockdown. In our zoom meetings cats, and sometimes dogs, just join in. These animals love their interactions with us, and we with them. Just prior to the lockdown the SPCA reported the huge number of dogs, cats, and kittens that went to new homes.
Wild animals too are enjoying this time. Less cars, in particular, and less vibration and noise, has seen more birds out and about on our foreshores and gardens. There is a lovely picture from England of moles making a comeback in urban parks and gardens.
But the animal that is really to the forefront in our neighbourhoods at present is the bear – the teddy bear. Bears, often accompanied by other cuddly friends, are gracing the windows, the fences, the letterboxes, and even the couches of many a home. As those of us who are able to walk our streets (or ride them on a bike) get about, there are bears everywhere. There is even a website to tell you where – www.bearhunt.co.nz
And it makes most of us smile. Or feel a little bit good. Or evoke a memory or two when a bear or other stuffed toy was a big part, or at least a constant part, of our lives.
Smiling, humour (and here I join in grateful praise to all the comedians working overtime), and little bits of ‘feel good’ are all part of building resilience both as individuals and a community - resilience to deal with being shut in, and also resilience for the time ahead (a time we hope will not come) when our hospitals and mortuaries might be overwhelmed.
I’ve always liked bears. In indigenous cultures, where bears are/were in the wild, they are symbols of wisdom. So the idea of Jesus as a bear (like this picture of the last supper) is not just comedic.
I read a story to the children of St Luke’s via YouTube last week https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvBeB0eRLBs called ‘Lucky Bear’. I like this story because the luck of the bear is not due to circumstances but attitude. When ‘shit’ falls a lucky bear uses it to fertilise. It is an optimistic attitude.
Spirituality and religion are about attitude. Are we sinful creatures who need correction and rules? Or are we magnificent creations whose imaginations and humour are part of the divine? I liked the Lucky Bear story so much that I named a blog I once wrote after it. The wonder of the internet is that you can still access that blog http://aluckybear.blogspot.com/
And like Lucky’s attitude, it is attitude that is behind the movement across New Zealand right now. It is about encouraging people when faced with discouragement, to do a little something (putting a bear in a window), a little something feel-good, in order to encourage those who walk on by. And as you put a bear in a window I suspect you will start to look out for other bears in other windows; and also start to feel a little better yourself.
This is not just a children’s game. This is about something almost anyone can do in the face of a pandemic in which most of us feel we can’t do almost anything about. This is about giving smiles, giving positivity, in the face of negativity and fear. This is about reminding each other that little things – like teddy bears, cats on the lap, donkeys, wee acts of kindness – can have a power stronger than all that death, suffering, and fear throw at us.
This is the grace of God, the mysterious grace, which is in the wee, the humble, and which is usually pushed to the periphery in the course of normal life (not many teddies in boardrooms or churches), now making a comeback in a time of unbelievable isolation and uncertainty.
Thomas Aquinas taught that play and fun are virtues (eutrapelia). He tells the story of how an archer was asked if he could shoot a bow and arrow indefinitely, and the archer replied that if he did so the bow would break. He then concludes: ‘In like manner a person’s mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.’
We need to find ways in lockdown to relax ‘the tension of the bow’ by playing and laughing. The ‘bow’ is not only our individual self, or the bubble we are living in, but wider society too. As Eckhart put it: “What happens to another, whether it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to me.’ We need to help each other cope with this terrible time by works of encouragement, sharing jokes, staying in touch, and finding little ways (like bears in windows) of expressing our resistance to the virus, our resilience, and our determination to overcome.