The Reverend Kathleen Killian, Celebrant
Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion 2021
March 28th 2021
More than two thousand years ago, in year 30, on a spring day under a full moon, the Jewish festival of the Passover was being celebrated in Jerusalem, faithful pilgrims pouring into the city to commemorate Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt, its population swelling from 50,000 to more than 200,000. The Roman governor of Judea—at the time Pilate—would ride into the occupied city from the west, in a dazzling display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot solders, helmets and weapons, banners and golden eagles mounted high, all emblematic of the might and wealth of the Roman empire that ruled the world.
But on this particular day another procession also entered Jerusalem, but from the east. At its center was an itinerant Jewish healer and teacher named Jesus riding on a small colt. Barefoot peasants and dusty disciples ran along beside him, the oppressed and hungry throwing rushes, palms, and cloaks onto the road in welcome of their hoped-for king and Messiah, paving his way with shouts of hosanna!—or as this Aramaic word means—save us! deliver us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna!
Two processions. Two kingdoms. Stallion or colt. Parade or protest. Power or powerlessness. Palms or passion. Which will we choose—where are we in this landscape of triumph and tragedy, faithfulness and betrayal, innocence and guilt? Life and death, king and criminal, savior and slave . . . the curtain of the temple torn in two, our hearts rent in two . . . worship that begins with joyous praise ending in desolate silence.
From acclaim to condemnation, how do we reconcile these splittings of conscience? For we are players alike in the great drama of God’s redeeming love, and part of the crowd of humanity, as capricious and volatile as that of the multitude in our two gospels.
As early as the fourth century, the Church has ritually enacted Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and his Passion on the Sunday before Easter. Some two thousand years later, on a spring day under a full moon in the year 2021, at the time of the Jewish Passover, Christians will enter into and partake of the Paschal Mystery. This is the deep journeying of the Holy Week that is before us; for we who would be disciples of Jesus must make the pilgrimage to the cross with him.
In this last leg of our Lenten journey, it would be prudent to ask of ourselves: how are we doing? Has anything changed? Are there ways of our being that have remained intractable and recalcitrant? Or have we gained some freedom from oppression of sin and moved closer to the One who calls, the One who waits upon our hearts to open, soften and yield?
As Jesus was, we are free to veer right or left to the cross or the crown, to pride or to pardon, even arriving to the feast without first having the fast; free to ask, Father, Abba, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Perhaps we have come to this day with swords at the ready, or like Peter, in fear and denial, wanting little more than to warm our hands by the fire. Maybe we are afraid and run away into the night, or have questions and doubts, but like Pilate, evade the truth. Have we come here today accused, rightly or falsely? Or are we like the soldiers simply doing their duty. Like Mary Magdalene and many other women following Jesus, perhaps we approach the cross already crushed by grief, or like Jospeh of Arimathea, we are yet waiting for the kingdom of God.
In the power struggle of our own ambivalence and complacency, St. Paul exhorts us to great faith in Philippians, with these words from an ancient hymn: let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. The mind of Jesus is the pattern of Christ, which is one of self-offering, essential humility and lack of guile. Let it be that Jesus’s purpose of heart and cruciform will is our own. But bearing the mind and heart of Christ is not as simplistic as asking: what would Jesus do? Rather, we must reflect on what Jesus is doing, now. For even as we speak, Jesus is emptying himself out in unending abandonment to love.
In self-offering of God in Christ, Jesus hangs on the cross, his flesh laden with death but teeming with life: take, eat; this is my body given for you; take, drink, this is my blood shed for you.
Jesus passes from mortal life to death to undying life for the world and all creation, his cross a bridge, that souls might pass over it from the dwelling of the dead to the dwelling of life (Ephraem the Syrian). He passes from being anointed with costly and fragrant oil to being crowned with worthless thorns, anointed with the spit of soldiers and his own sweat and blood. Life and death, love and lament, despair and hope, suffering and salvation are of a piece, in belonging to the transfiguring pattern of God in Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being. This transformative reality in which we are called to die to self in Christ, and rise again, is our passion and our thanksgiving.
Whether two thousand years ago, this day, or some day in the future, we cannot help but arrive to the Passion of the Lord with the weight and complexity of life in tow, our restless timeless journey ever beckoning us to the real: who are we?—and who is Jesus? The Messiah! exclaims the hope-filled crowd. But after Jesus is scourged, stripped, and crucified, the answer is taunting and mocking: Hail, the King of Israel! Let him come down from the cross. He saved others, but he cannot save himself. In the end, the centurion who was facing Jesus as he breathed his last, blurts out his answer: Truly this man was God’s Son! How do I answer? How will I? How have I?
Of Holy Week, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: Be watchful, brethren, lest the mysteries of this season pass you by without your gaining from them their due fruit. Abundant is the blessing; you must bring clean vessels to receive it, and offer loving souls and watchful senses, sober affections and pure consciences for such great gifts of grace . . .for the Passion of the Lord is here in truth, shaking the earth, rending the rocks and opening the tombs; and His Resurrection is at hand.
A blessed Paschaltide to all.