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The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday: “Shattered”

 

Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 27:11-54
Psalm 31:9-16

 

In past years, I’ve been a complainer about the bipolar nature of this last Sunday in Lent. Its name points clearly to its two sides: “The Sunday of the Passion: [colon] Palm Sunday.” Passion from the Greek, “to suffer.”

 

But I’ve always struggled to hold together these two parts of our liturgy—emotionally and spiritually. The exhilaration of cheering our leader in triumph; followed by the brutality of calling for his crucifixion; and, finally, the devastation of watching his death. All in the sweep of one Sunday.

 

It’s left me anxious and confused. Why have we been asked to experience an accelerated version of this painful narrative? Often acting it out: first taking the part of the adoring, then the angry, crowd? How does this serve our spiritual preparation for Holy Week? Why break our hearts now? On this Sunday?

 

History tells us that even before the first gospel, Mark, was written, the earliest Christians relied on oral and written traditions that set up the sequence of events they believed occurred at the end of Jesus’s life. The Last Supper. The betrayal by Judas Iscariot. The arrest at Gethsemane. The appearances before the high priest and Pilate. The crucifixion and the burial. The resurrection three days later.

 

And before being formed into cohesive narratives by the gospel writers, this passion sequence served an important purpose for Jesus’s followers. These events provided ritual, “a means for the early Christians to relive the last days of their messiah . . . for instance [by] sharing the same meal he shared with his disciples and praying the same prayers he offered in Gethsemane.”[1]

 

And as early as the 4th century, we know Christians in Jerusalem began a special observance of Palm Sunday: first reading Matthew’s story of Jesus’s entry into the city (the same one I read today); then after hymns and lessons, processing down the Mount of Olives into the city, singing and waving branches, to the site of the Jesus’s tomb and the site of the cross.[2] This practice then spread worldwide.

 

So, part of the answer about this Sunday’s liturgy lies in our history as Christian seekers. From our beginnings, we’ve attempted not just to learn our Lord’s story, or to simply commemorate it. Together, we’ve attempted to live into his last days—to relive them at a deep level—through what’s called the kataphatic tradition.[3] That is, by using art, movement, drama, song, light, physical symbol and experience in Holy Week to come closer to Jesus’s presence and to the meaning of his suffering.

 

Over the course of this week, we wave branches. We act out his trials. We wash each other’s feet. We touch the rough cross. We darken and strip sanctuaries. We then light fires and candles and bring these spaces back to life. And we sound the entire story with our voices—particularly in Bach’s soaring choral masterpiece “The Passion According to Saint Matthew,” which TOCCATA again brings us on Good Friday.

 

And we make this sensory Holy Week journey together—in community. Year after year, we come together to search for new meaning in the ancient passion narrative and the resurrection story. We say: We have been formed from a crowd of individuals into the body of Christ. We ask: How do we experience this transformation?

 

And, I suggest, a central part of this transformation is our shattering. It’s the part of our liturgy today that I’ve always been eager to avoid on Palm Sunday.

 

Now, a critical piece of the story is missing this morning: Jesus’s radical “cleansing” of the Temple that followed his entry into Jerusalem. His challenge—that he would destroy the Temple and in three days raise it back up—not only enraged and threatened the Temple authorities, but was equal to an attack on Rome itself.[4]

 

But we do hear of all the disorientation, pain, and suffering that then followed his arrest. This Sunday, when we might just wish to enjoy Jesus’s triumphal parade—and then skip ahead, right to his triumphal resurrection next week, on Easter—we’re forced into the shattering. The fracturing of the disciples’ unity through Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial of Jesus. The split of the crowd into supporters and haters. The stripping and division of Jesus’s clothes. The breaking of his body on the cross. His shattering cry. The Temple curtain torn in two, along with the earth, the rocks, the tombs.

 

I suggest that to enter Holy Week, we too need to first be shattered. To break the illusion that we can avoid sorrow or that we can write it out of our spiritual journey as Christians by bypassing Good Friday. We’re not given the choice today. We have to go through the pain to arrive at the resurrection—to find what will become new in us, this year.

 

On the cross, Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—echoing David’s painful opening cry in Psalm 22. This is one of the great lament psalms, which outnumber any other kind of song in the Hebrew Psalter. These psalms are “ancient prayers of protest and pain,”[5] like the other one of David’s we read this morning, Psalm 31. Songs that complain to God about deep suffering. Songs that reflect the desperation of raw human grief: “I am forgotten like a dead man; out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot.”

 

And through this blunt outpouring of sadness, the “broken pot” David reaches a new intimacy with God: “My times are in your hand . . . Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving-kindness save me.”

 

It’s an arc that the great scholar of the psalms, Walter Brueggemann, says follows the movement of faith through our lives.[6] First, Orientation: the times when we are calm, resting, or joyful. Then, Disorientation: when we are thrown into the confusion of pain, death, or loss. And Reorientation: when we’ve faced that suffering, found God there to meet us, and matured in faith. Wounded—and then transformed.

 

In our Holy Week worship, we relive this arc in the life of Jesus in a concentrated, sensory way. As Christians who accept and allow repeated cycles of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation in our lives in order to come closer to God.

 

Is it possible in this life to skip the disoriented, suffering stage? Well, no. But there can be purpose in transformational suffering. Especially as Christians in community.

 

It’s said that only people who have suffered in some way can save one another—as wounded healers.[7] And I say for myself, I’m grateful for the way my experiences with family alcoholism, depression, cancer, death, separation, aging, emergency rooms and ICUs have transformed me and helped me reach out to others. And I’m grateful for the way you in this community have honestly shared your pain and compassion with me and with many others. That is our formation as the body of Christ.

 

As Christ’s body this morning, we’ve enacted his joy. We’ve experienced his pain. And as the last part of our ritual, we will take in his transformation in our Holy Communion. This shared sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, I now understand, is what balances and gives full meaning to this Sunday’s liturgy.

 

Through this complete cycle of joy, pain, and communion, we are strengthened and prepared for the Holy Week ahead. And we will live it together, in all dimensions, shattered in order to become something new. Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Associate for Interfaith Ministry

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

April 13, 2014



[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), pp. 153–4.

[2] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 223–4.

[3] Christine Valters Paintner and Betsey Beckman, Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2010), p. 50.

[4] Aslan, pp. 75–9.

[5] Paintner and Beckman, p.160.

[6] http://www.flavoryellow.com/2012/07/16/the-psalms-and-the-life-of-faith-with-walter-brueggemann/

[7] Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation: Transformative Suffering” (April 11, 2014).