A reflection on the Sunday readings for March 28, 2021 — Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
It is an interesting thing to be asked to offer my first reflection for this website on Palm Sunday, the one Sunday of the year when priests are asked to give minimal reflection, asked to offer “a brief homily, if appropriate,” or even simply observe a period of silence. It’s easy to understand why. The famous science-fiction author Kurt Vonnegut (high school English class flashbacks, anyone?) was once asked to preach on Palm Sunday at his Episcopal church when he remarked that “people don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.” Now, I certainly think good preaching is a very important part of our worship but, at least where Palm Sunday is concerned, there is a kernel of truth in that observation. On Palm Sunday we are confronted with an absolute roller coaster of emotion and experience, stunning highs and devastating lows, that prepares us as Christians to participate in the most meaningful seven days of the year. Perhaps the best thing a preacher can do during this period is to simply get out of the way and allow scripture and ritual to speak for themselves.
Think about Palm Sunday Mass itself. Early in my priesthood a Dominican friar advised me to always conclude homilies with hope, with resurrection. That’s good advice in general—we are a people of hope, a people of resurrection, and the Gospel we proclaim each Sunday is undeniably good news. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to redeem it, after all. But as helpful as that instruction has always been, Palm Sunday once again seems a bit different. Think of how our celebration plays out:
We begin with a triumphant and joyful display. The Messiah enters the Holy City amidst fanfare and celebration. All the outward displays of Kingship, all the prophetic realizations, all the rejoicing crowds. He rides into Jerusalem upon a donkey, like the great King Solomon himself, and just as foretold in Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, and Zechariah. The people lay branches out before him, firmly in the tradition set by 2 Kings and 1 Maccabees. His followers shout out “Hosanna”, quoting Psalm 118. There can be no doubt in this moment that this man is both reminiscent of kings from past glory days and the fulfilment of the prophetic promise of a messiah. We begin Mass on Palm Sunday with our branches in hand ready to party. It looks like Lent is over–break out the dessert, start eating fried food again, reactivate the Facebook account, whatever, good times are here at last. But then…
…the Passion. In blatant disregard for the advice to end our preaching with a sign of hope, the Liturgy of the Word on Palm Sunday begins with hope but ends with despair, with the dramatic recounting of the suffering and death of our Lord. So where do we go from here?
Of course, we know that Palm Sunday is not the end of the story, it is only the beginning. The ups and downs of Palm Sunday are introducing us to a week full of ups and downs. On Holy Thursday we experience the intimacy and emotion of the Last Supper, Christ sharing himself with his disciples in the Eucharist and instructing them how to lead and serve. That evening in the Garden of Gethsemane we sit and pray with Jesus in his agony and anticipation. On Good Friday we walk the Way of the Cross and experience the suffering and death of Our Lord. We sit in silence during the isolation of Holy Saturday and on Easter Sunday we rejoice in the glory of the Resurrection, welcoming new members into the Church and praising the God who saves.
Palm Sunday and the entire Holy Week it introduces reminds us of the full spectrum of human emotion and experience—of tragedy and beauty, of suffering and joy. It introduces our faith to us not as a set of beliefs that we pay lip service to on Sundays, but as a way of explaining and understanding our lives and the world around us. How is it that the world can be at times so beautiful but at other times so tragic? How can we make sense of the fact that our lives are filled with moments of joy and moments of sadness, sometimes simultaneously? How can we find reason for hope while taking seriously the suffering experienced by ourselves and those around us?
The answer, of course, is nowhere more profound, more meaningful, and more convincing than in our Christian faith and in particular our Christian faith as it is expressed during Holy Week. Jesus Christ, God-made-man, takes on himself the full range of human emotion and experience—sorrow and joy, suffering and hope, death and resurrection. He is a king, yes, but a king who lays down his life in service. He suffers, yes, but it is a suffering that leads to the redemption of the world. Palm Sunday and the week that follows represent the realization that not only are we not alone, for we have a God who has experienced the ups and downs of human life, but that each and every one of our experiences has the potential to be redeemed. Of course we feel close to God during the high points of our lives, in our experience of the beauty of his creation, the consolation of the sacraments, the joys that come at so many moments throughout our years; but we are also united with him, perhaps even more closely, during the trying times, the suffering, and the uncertainty we so often face.
Perhaps it is fitting for us to close with a line from the conclusion of the Passion account we will hear this Palm Sunday from Mark’s gospel. Immediately after the death of Christ we hear that
“The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.”
The veil of the sanctuary in the Temple, which separated God’s presence in the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world, the singular location of God’s dwelling among his people, is torn open. No longer is God present only on the Temple Mount, he now dwells fully among his people. He dwells among his people during the good times and the bad. Allow Palm Sunday and this entire Holy Week to remind you of the closeness of your God in all of your experiences, all of your emotions, in every moment of your life. Palm Sunday is not a day for preaching, it is a day for an experience, an experience of a God who is with us always, of a God who saves.