Several years ago, a beloved parishioner complained I had ruined Palm Sunday for her. Somehow, somewhere in the recesses of her memory, she could recall a time when the church celebrated both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday on separate days. “Why can’t we go back to that?” She asked. “Palm Sunday is supposed to a happy day. Having the Passion as part of the day just ruins everything,” she complained. As we talked, I explained to her that I was not aware of there ever having been a Palm Sunday and a Passion Sunday, but I would certainly look into past years and see if St. Luke’s had celebrated Palm Sunday differently prior to my arrival.
What I found in my research is what I had thought. The structure of the service that year was no different than the ten years of service bulletins that I pulled. Instead, something different happened for this parishioner as she experienced the liturgy that day.
As I have mentioned on many occasions over the years, when we read the Bible, we need to be aware that there are many levels to what we are reading. It is as if most of the Bible can be read as stories within stories. This is especially true of the Gospels. On the outer ring of the Gospels there is the biographical and historical documentation of Jesus’ life and ministry. This is the literal, objective reality of the story. The next level becomes the theological story as the account tells us about who God is and how God relates to us. When we come to the third level, the focus of the story suddenly changes. No longer is the story about something outside of ourselves, instead, as we encounter the metaphorical realities of the story, the story suddenly becomes about us and how we relate to God.
And let’s be honest, the whole of this morning’s liturgy is designed to pull us into the heart of our story.
Our first Gospel reading is easy. Who doesn’t want to be part of the crowd celebrating Jesus entering Jerusalem as we sing “All glory laud and honor,” as we wave our palm branches in procession behind the cross. After all, this is who we are as twenty-first century followers of Jesus.
But then the story changes. Suddenly, as we enter the passion, no matter where we turn, no matter where we find ourselves in the story, the outcome and message is not good. In this passage, as Jesus is tried and crucified, we are confronted by the very aspects of our own being we rarely, if ever, want to look at, let alone admit to. . .our own darkness, our own human frailty, our own very real need for God.
If we find ourselves connecting with Peter, like him, we start our morning convinced our loyalty is unwavering, our faith steadfast, and truly one of Christ’s most dependable and loving of servants. In the end, we find ourselves reduced to tears as the cock crows as we realize our own survival trumps all other loyalties. “I swear,” Peter protests, “I do not know this man!”
Sadly, there is no safety within the depths of the crowd either. Where we often find ourselves. As part of the crowd we are overwhelmed by how quickly we move from exalting Jesus as the savior, to condemning him to death. We find how easy it is to deny another the fullness of their humanity as we condemn him to death. And we discover how cruel we can be when we mock a powerless and dying man.
Yes, there is no safe place, no safe person in the midst of today’s Gospel readings as they leave us hanging and wallowing in our own darkness without the assurance of hope. I find the words of the Centurion resonates deeply into the soul.
Here was a person, a man trained to be little more than a part of Rome’s great lethal arsonal, a human, trained to be cold, heartless, and unquestioningly loyal to the command of the Emperor. A man, who, almost daily stood and watched victim after victim die unjustly at the hands of Rome. Here is a man who suddenly, in the midst of death comprehends the enormity of what he is part of, and then recognizes who Jesus of Nazareth is.
“Truly he was the Son of God.” As I hear these final words, I also hear a subtext, not My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, as Christ calls out,” but, My God, My God, what have we done.”
Here is where Palm Sunday leaves us. We are surrounded by our own darkness. We are overwhelmed by the evil we are capable of. As we kneel at the foot of the cross with death hanging over us, we find ourselves in total desolation. That which we need most, we have destroyed. That which we seek, is no longer present.
This morning ends with the balm of the Eucharist behind us, and no words of comfort before us. There is only darkness, and the stark reality of the cross. We are unsure of what will come next. . .We hope and we pray that God can restore life from death, and still bring about the promised reign of God for which we wait.
To our dear parishioner who has long since passed away,I apologize for ruining Palm Sunday, but today was never meant to be solely the festival of our childhood imagination. Instead, Palm Sunday is designed to be the opportunity we need to confront that which we are most afraid of, the darkness which lies within, so we can be ready for the light of Christ come Easter Morning.