Liturgy of the Palms and the Passion

From yesterday morning’s Palm Walk (the monthly Euclid Prayer Walk gone seasonal, complete with flowers and fliers to hand out to passers-by, inviting them to Holy Week at any or all of the mainline churches on Lakeshore Boulevard), through yesterday evening’s Saturday service with its centre on the Palms and its end in the Passion, to this morning’s more traditional BCP service (by the time the third person came into my office to ask about “rumours” that we would or would not be processing outside, I was given to opine that this was less rumour and more rebellion…). Hot on the heels of Friday evening’s divine rendition of the Seven Last Words, it has been a full and heartfull weekend. One sermon did not seem to cover it, so here are two briefer responses, one to the Palms and the other to the Passion, the best this soul could do this weekend, although in reality, my spirit was mostly left speechless.

Palms

The children are playing “parade.” They cut branches and leaves and grass to wave like flags. They throw their coats on the earth to make a colourful parade ground. They ride on their neighbour’s baby donkey and their friend’s large dog. They take turns riding, while the others sing and shout and laugh, Hosanna! – a childish parody of Pilate’s parade processing in by another gate across the city.
The stranger comes in through their little decorated gate. They have heard of him; strange stories, wonderful things. He is riding a small donkey, as though he were one of them.
The children sing and wave their branches. Their parents join them, laughing and singing “Hosanna!”
“Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our Lord!”
Their voices trail away as they listen to what they say, and the stranger continues to smile and to wave and wink at the children …

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, writing on The Last Week of Jesus, compared and contrasted the Palm Sunday procession, as we have come to know it, with Pilate’s procession into Jerusalem coming in through the front gates on their armoured warhorses. Jesus and the Jews are making a mockery, they suggest, of Roman and its perceived power and might, by their own little ragtag parade of donkeys and cut branches, the symbols of the power of their humility before their God.

Jesus “did not regard equality with god as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” says the letter to the Philippians. Even at his highest hour, with the crowds laughing and bowing before him, he knows enough not to let it go to his head, even the Messiah, knowing that to a man, the people here would die, that as a man, he was as vulnerable to the evil of this world as the next man.

And it was precisely because he knew what it was to get down amongst the children, to laugh at oppression and blow raspberries at pompous parades of power; it was his very humility that made him strong, strong enough to know, as Caesar did not, that no mortal man is equal to god, nor woman either, although they are made in the divine image, although they are not slaves but cry out with a spirit of adoption, Abba, father, even though he, Jesus, is God Incarnate.

There is something in the divine wisdom and love which has a heart of humility, a heart to offer for the world, rather than to lord it over the world. We humans struggle to find such humility within ourselves; we want so often to compete with God for attention, adulation, even just a little extra control. But there is something in the heart of the divine which has the humility we humans harden ourselves against.

It is that humility which allows Jesus to find himself at the heart of the parade, and keep his focus on God. It is that very softness which is the strength that allows him to stand before his own people, rejected and betrayed, before the strength of the state of Rome, and be silent, stay himself. It is that facility for the offering of himself that lets him forgive them from the cross, love us even to death.

Next week the story will be very different, strange and wonderful and very different. This week, we travel with urchins and agitators, priests and politicians through dangerous territory. We are tempted to hold on to our power, but Jesus, at the heart of it all, offers himself humbly for the sake of us all.

What can we offer him in return for such humility, such forgiveness, such love? Nothing except our own humility, our little attempts at mercy, our small, quiet acts of love.

And it is enough. He doesn’t require of us the pomp and circumstance of the Roman circus. It is enough to invite him into our scattered ceremonies, our tattered celebrations, our humble, holy lives.

I pray for you a Holy Week filled with small celebrations, echoes of majesty, humble holiness; hints of the humility of a God who rides on a donkey, and gets down among the children to play at parades.

*

Passion

When I got home yesterday, there was a gaggle of girls in my living room sporting slightly scary facial masks and discussing slightly scary movies. We began to reminisice about youngest daughter’s early adaptive behaviour in the face of the minimally scary stuff found in the Disney cartoons that her older brother and sister would watch. As soon as the drama began to rise, daughter would fall asleep. “Not dealing with that,” her baby brain would say.

The line in the Passion Gospel which caught me with its poignancy was this:

“He found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they didn’t know what to say to him.”

One of the hardest things that we do, in my experience, is to keep vigil with someone who is in pain, or despair, or at the point of death. To sit still and witness to their suffering, without relieving it, without denying it, without leaving. I sat with a dying woman once who she told me, in so many words, that her circle of friends had become divided into those who would hold her hand, and those who would shift away, slide away, leave her alone even while they sat a few minutes longer at her side.

There’s a very simple answer to the seemingly profound question of why Jesus had to die, and it is this: that he was human. If he had come down from the cross, if he had been swept up to the skies by flaming chariots like Elijah, or even done a disappearing act like Lord Lucan or Jimmy Hoffa, we would not trust God; it wouldn’t count. The whole Incarnation would be for nothing, if it didn’t end just as we all end our lives on earth. With or without resurrection, the whole thing would come undone if Jesus didn’t die.

And why death on the cross, unjustly accused, unfairly executed, oppressed, rejected, betrayed and agonized?

Because none of us should be able to say to God, it’s ok for you; you got off easy. Try my life for a change.

Of course, we say it anyway; but the drama of Holy Week, the highs and the lows, the pinnacle of fame and good fortune, everything falling into place – go find that donkey, and there it is; red carpets and paparazzi all the way into town, and a good meal with good friends at the end of the day – for all of that to disappear in a moment, to turn on a dime into torture and the mercilessness of murder at the hands of the state, the protectors, the peacekeepers; the denial of disciples and the falsity of friends, the collusion of the clergy and the hypocrisy of the faithful; all of that drama is part and parcel of Emmanuel, God with us, the God who gets it, who knows our lives inside and out, the lows and the highs and the fragile fortunes of the brave.

As we go through Holy Week, following Jesus’ precipitous descent into darkness and death, if we can stay with him, hold onto him, bear with him even through his suffering, we will know the strength of which we are capable, when we are needed by another. We will know the comfort that comes from being a comfort, the blessings of blessing another.

And if we can bear with Christ in his suffering, we will find that he bears with us in ours; that he shares in our highs and our lows; that he is with us when the crowds are shouting glory, and with us when the silence is almost too loud to bear. That he is in the circle of those who hold our hands.

Because none of us should be able to say to God, it’s ok for you; you got off easy. Try my life for a change. Or when we do, at least we will know that God, who neither slumbers nor sleeps, is right there with us, saying yes, yes my child, I know.

Amen.

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