There is an spiritual exercise that I have led several times that is called visio divina, or divine seeing. Essentially, it is the incorporation art and prayer. There is something truly powerful in the way that art draws us further and further in, layer after layer, as we patiently sit and listen with our eyes. Some of the most powerful moments of my experiencing God’s voice have come when sitting before a beautiful piece of artwork.
But this exercise isn’t limited just to beautiful paintings. One of the pieces I’ve used several times has been James Ensor’s, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, at the Getty. The painting is massive, and honestly, pretty disturbing. It is a wild, Mardi Gras style parade filled with images of debauchery and hypocrisy. It is chaotic, unsettling, and convicting. The participants are mostly masked, which becomes one of the central metaphors for reflection. You can’t help but look for yourself somewhere in the crowd.
It is funny, but even though Jesus is right in the middle of the painting, it often takes people a long time to find him. He is lost amidst the sea of chaos. Amidst the swirls of self-indulgent celebration. And when you find him, it is incredibly settling. A look of quiet serenity. A hand extended in blessing. As if to say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And it makes me wonder what it would be like for Christ to ride into Washington D.C. in 2018. I can’t imagine things would be much different. Surrounded by political parties all seeking to coopt his message as an endorsement of their platforms. Or religious institutions latching on to him as a way of self-validation. Everyone seeking to align his name with their kingdom.
Palm Sunday is a morning where we humbly acknowledge that our solutions don’t reach deep enough, nor do they possess the purity of intention to resist the cycle of corruption we’ve seen throughout history. Palm Sunday should convict us, to cause us to find ourselves in the midst of the crowd. To identify the masks we choose to wear. The false selves we hide behind.
But it does more than this. As we look closer at the story, we see the serenity of a savior entering the city with full comprehension of what it will ultimately cost him. And with a heart of love so big that it will willingly give everything for the sake of those who will ultimately forsake him. This is the heart of God. Not of judgment, but mercy.
And as we stare at the image, we realize that this hand of blessing extends to us today, like it did in 1889, and early A.D. Christ has come, a presence of peace in the midst of our chaos. A messenger of love in a world of division. And a promise of hope in a kingdom larger than this world.