Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Sunday of the Passion - Palm Sunday

Thus begins the most sacred two weeks in the Christian year, Holy Week, which includes the Triduum, and Easter and its Octave. Each of the days of the next two weeks has its own proper, and so Proper of the Day will observe all of them. Carbon Fast activities fall in Holy Week and will be incorporated in the Proper for each day.

On this day, the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, the Church observes both the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, recorded by Matthew, Make and Luke (but not John) as well as the Passion which begins chronologically five days later. I actually address in my sermon why we actually do it that way, especially since, as many people know, the church observes the Passion on Good Friday as well, with its own solemn ceremonies. One of the first recorded instances of the observance of the Triumphal Entry by Christians in Jerusalem was noted by Egeria, a traveler who wrote a diary of sorts that scholars date to 380 or 381 AD. I refer obliquelly to whate she observed in Jerusalem in my sermon for today:

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon, NJ

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (BCP)

Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:19-29

Isaiah 45:21-25; Ps 22:1-21; Phil 2:5-11; Matt 26:36 – 27:66

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May these words be in the name of the Crucified One, Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Well, ten minutes ago we were proclaiming, Hosanna to the Son of David” and just now, “Crucify Him!” Today we’re whipsawed from great joy to the deepest despair, from “Blessed is who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

Perhaps some of you, like me, have wondered why we do both on this day. We zoom all the way from Sunday to Friday of Holy Week, with hardly a moment to catch a breath. In the traditional prayer for Holy Week we ask, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” That seems pretty reasonable. Why not follow in our Lord’s footsteps day by day as this week progresses, from the Triumph of the entry into Jerusalem to the ignominious exit to the hill of Golgatha six days from now? Why whoosh through the entire Passion just minutes after celebrating with Jesus in glory? Don’t both events deserve more that that, after all?

There are lots of answers to that question. I’ve been reflecting on this all week. I think the most important reason why we read the Passion on the Sunday before Easter is because, well, it’s a Sunday. The very first thing Christians began to do, very soon after the Ascension, was meet together on Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection. We met to hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture, to mediate on it, to hear stories of Our Lord, and to eat his Supper in both remembrance of him and in celebration of his continued presence among us. We still do these things Sunday by Sunday today, pretty much in the same order too. Coming together as the people of the Lord, as the community of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, is the principle joy and chief duty that we have. And so it’s right and proper that on the Sunday before the Great Sunday, we hear and participate again in the Passion story. We enter in to it and we become part of it, just as Jesus enters in and becomes part of us.

It really wasn’t until much later, after Christianity became the state religion, that the custom of literally following in Jesus’ footsteps in and around Jerusalem took hold. People wanted to show their faith by making pilgrimage to the Holy City and visiting the locations described in the Gospels. They began re-enactments of what had been recorded, and various liturgies were developed to commemorate the events of the Passion at the very holy places where they believed those events took place. Thus, on the Sunday before Easter, pilgrims would take branches of Palms and re-enact the entry into Jerusalem. But even so, on every Sunday the entire Passion, including the Resurrection, would be read. What we’re doing today is actually extremely ancient – we start with something unique to this day but then proceed with the entire sequence of events from Thursday through Sunday of that first Holy Week. And we do it, as our ancestors in faith did it, on Sunday. You may think of it as different or interesting, but I wonder if we’ve lost something by not reading the Passion – the central narrative of Jesus on earth - on every Sunday of the year.

And why did the faithful do that? What was it that caused them to want to hear the tale of Jesus suffering and death again and again, week after week? Why does this retelling so capture our hearts and minds as it does? What is it that makes it so important that of all the events in the birth, life, and ministry of Jesus, it’s the sequence with the most detail, taking up more verses than any other narrative in Scripture? I mean, after all, the story itself is an abject tragedy. A completely innocent man is framed by his enemies, tried in a rump court on trumped-up charges, sentenced to death, and executed in the most humiliating way the government of his time could come up with. Where’s the Good News in that?

Again, there are as many responses to that question as there are Christians. But I think a key to remember is what we do on Sundays. On this day, as on every Sunday, we recall the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He didn’t just die. He was fully human of course, and so when he died he really did die, with all that that means. But leaving off the account at the moment of the death of Jesus, like we did today, isn’t enough. There’s more. The Good News is that Jesus suffered and died and that death could not hold him. It was the Resurrection that proclaimed him once and for as God’s Son, just as we proclaimed him just a few moments ago. And on Sundays, we don’t just listen to Scripture and sing some songs. Those are important tasks, and worthy, of course. But we also celebrate and make real the presence of our risen Lord among us here at the Table. That’s why we read the Passion on this day. We do it because we don’t leave off at the end of the story, even though the words themselves end. We do it because we know the rest of the story, and in fact, the Good News is that entire story. So we remember the entire story in what we say at the Ambo and in what do at the Altar. We actually do what our ancestors in the faith did, we recount the entirety of the Good News of Jesus every Sunday, even if, like on this day, we concentrate on one particular aspect of that ministry.

My friends, the Passion of Our Lord is central to what we believe about Jesus. The suffering he went through, the betrayals he endured, the humiliation he accepted, and the death he accepted with shame, show him to be not only fully human, but the very embodiment of what Scripture says about the Messiah. Jesus became the Christ on that hill of Golgatha. Christ on the Cross points us once and forever to the reality of God’s love. We are adopted daughters and sons of God, forgiven and beloved. God turned the most awful death someone could endure, and inflicted on God’s very own Son, into life for you and for me.

It’s somewhat ironic that we don’t actually recite the Creed today, because the key to all of the Good News is that little phrase “for us.” For us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. For us, and for our salvation, he was crucified, died, and was buried. For us and for our salvation on the third day he rose again. Everything that Jesus did, he did for us. Not for God. God didn’t and does not need a blood sacrifice to appease his wrath. After all, you recall that “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word Was God.” If that is so, then how could God turn on Jesus who is the Word? God never did that, although Jesus in his humanity certainly felt abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Passion of Our Lord is Good News because the Resurrection happened. No Resurrection, and the Cross is merely a horrific means of execution of an innocent man. Nothing more. But it’s in the Resurrection that Jesus and God say to us, “Nope. Not bad enough. You can do anything you like. You can even kill my greatest gift to you, my only beloved son, and that still isn’t enough. That still isn’t bad enough for me to turn on you. I forgive even this the greatest of sins. You are beloved and forgiven, and not even the betrayal and torture of My Son can turn me from you. There’s nothing that can do that – nothing!”

We enter deeply into the great Mystery of the Cross on the Sunday before Easter because the Resurrection itself means nothing without the Cross. And the Passion means nothing without the Empty Tomb. In these next six days, as each of us enters anew into the story of the climax of Jesus’ ministry to us on earth, I invite you to take some time each day to ponder what this Holy Week means to you at this time in your life. Reread the Passion Gospel each day – take the card with you, we can make more. Where does it challenge you? Where do you take comfort? How does the Good News of Jesus enter into your own life? How is your life different because of Jesus’ death? And ask the Lord to mercifully grant that each of us, walking in the way of the cross, may this week truly find it none other than the way of life and peace. Amen. RFSJ

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