LITURGY of the PALMS
LITURGY of the PASSION
Though still commonly called Palm Sunday, in modern liturgical practice the Sunday before Easter Day is referred to as ‘The Sunday of the Passion’. This is because it is the first liturgical observance in the season of Holy Week and Easter when a Gospel narrative of the sufferings (passion) of Jesus is read. The older title is not lost, however. This Sunday is unique in the Lectionary because it prescribes two Gospels, and the first of these -- for the Liturgy of the Palms – tells the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover. Riding on a donkey, and greeted with enthusiasm by a crowd waving palm branches, it is traditionally described as his ‘triumphal entry’.
It is only after modern worshippers have enacted this scene by taking part in their own procession, that they listen to the first Passion narrative of Holy Week – usually read or sung in a dramatic form by a number of different voices. Though this second Gospel, whether in the full or the abbreviated form, is much longer, the first is no less crucial in establishing the shape of our journey to Easter. On Palm Sunday we begin with triumph, but the triumph is short lived – and hollow. The Bible readings for the days that follow reflect the rising tension, and contention, that surrounds Jesus. It culminates in the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday -- his betrayal, trial and death.
It is vitally important to see that in this intervening period, his enemies not merely gain the upper hand; in the world’s terms, they are completely victorious. What better outcome for those who see Jesus as a radical traitor to their faith, and a threat to their political security, than that he should be killed in the brutal way reserved for the worst of criminals? And what greater evidence of his missionary failure, than that his most loyal disciples abandon him in fear and wretchedness, and even deny that they ever knew him? We need to grasp the depth of the degradation, pain and failure, to which Jesus is subjected, together with the strength of his unwavering obedience to God, in order properly to understand the shallowness of his ‘triumphal’ entry on Palm Sunday.
The fact that there are two Gospel readings, and the second one is so long, naturally deflects attention for the other readings. Yet both serve to amplify the meaning of the passion. In the Old Testament lesson, Isaiah speaks with the voice of the ‘Suffering Servant’, the ancient harbinger of Christ: “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. . . therefore I have not been disgraced. . . and I know that I shall not be put to shame” The Epistle is drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a brilliant post-Resurrection summation of the Christian faith. Though rich in theology, this passage is so poetic, it has the character of a hymn. Its opening line, however, presents us with a very great challenge. By the mighty act of Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Day, God does not undo or reverse the horrible reality of the Crucifixion. Rather, God transforms it, showing us, contrary to our normal human standards, where true victory is to be found.
This year, unhappily, we cannot re-enact the triumphal procession, or make a journey to the Cross on Good Friday. Yet by reading and reflecting carefully on the scriptures, we can still do our best to follow Paul’s opening injunction: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. The key word is ‘Let’. Deprived of the aid that corporate worship gives us, and especially the sacrament, persisting with a Christian life is undoubtedly harder. Still, whether we can go to church or not, our spiritual task is always to find the grace to make the mind of Christ our own.
In each of these stories there is a miraculous element, and the dramatic nature of the miracle intensifies from one episode to the next. Jesus, somehow, knows the Samaritan woman’s personal history without asking. This impresses her greatly, but it pales in comparison with the miraculous gift of sightedness to a man who had never been able to see. The restoration of Lazarus from death to life is more dramatic still, but it also has special significance for John's Gospel as a whole. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is overturning the tables in the temple that finally leads the Jewish authorities to the decision that Jesus must die. In John's, it is the raising of Lazarus that brings them to the same conclusion. Why is this?
In the verses that follow, John proceeds to tell us. The Jewish leaders are afraid that Jesus' growing popularity as a miracle worker will lead the Roman imperial authorities to anticipate a popular rebellion, and order a violent suppression of the Jewish nation in order to prevent it. So, fearful for their religion, they resolve that action must be taken against Jesus. Caiaphas, the high priest comes up with a more sophisticated proposal; they can best protect the nation by contriving to have Jesus condemned to death by the Roman authorities as a rebel.
If the raising of Lazarus is what gives rise to this plan, it also reveals its futility. Read in the context of this week’s Old Testament lesson -- Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones into which the Spirit of God breathes life -- Jesus’s miracle is placed beyond mere revival, and cast into the context of redemption. The extract from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans invites us to pursue this line of thought even further. It challenges us to think quite differently about life and death. “To set the mind on the flesh is death” Paul says, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. . . . If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Lazarus’s putrefying body, then, is not the only form of death. Nor is it the worst. Jesus displays God’s creative power in a spectacular act that reverses the normal processes of nature, and yet the point is not to give Lazarus a few extra years. Rather, it is to show that a quite different life-giving transformation is on offer and to warn us, paradoxically, against clinging desperately to this mortal life.
This is a message of special relevance at the moment. In response to the coronavirus, some occupations and activities have been declared “essential” and others “non-essential”. It is clear from the way this distinction is applied, that it relies upon a key assumption: it is "essential" that people avoid death for as long as possible. That is what ultimately matters. Such an assumption, though, runs contrary to the Easter theme of the Christian gospel.
At the Crucifixion, the plotting of the chief priests and Pharisees seems to succeed. Jesus is indeed put to death by the Roman authorities. Yet his death was followed by another 'rising from the dead' far more significant than that of Lazarus -- the Resurrection on Easter Day. This offers us, if we choose to take it, the kind of life that really matters – a life in Christ that transcends our mortality. Sometimes, however, as at the present moment, the world presses Christians very hard indeed to answer this question:
Do you really believe that?
The Gospel for this Sunday is unusually long. It starts out as a miracle story and then turns into a perplexing parable. A man who is literally blind is given sight for the first time in his life. The Pharisees are highly suspicious of Jesus. So they look for ways to discredit this miraculous deed, while at the same time dispelling any idea that he might be the Messiah. First, they doubt if the man really was blind. Then, they try to get him to admit that Jesus is religiously at fault; healing on the Sabbath is a sin. By implication, the miracle cure is no reason to praise him. To this line of reasoning, the man makes a memorable response "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, though I was blind, now I see."
When the Pharisees finally engage with Jesus himself, it seems that the whole episode is not primarily a healing miracle at all, but what we might call a ‘parable in action’. The miracle reveals something about spiritual sight and spiritual blindness. Puzzlingly, Jesus says that those who are blind will be able to see, and that those who can see will prove blind. How are we to understand this? An important clue comes right at the start of the passage. The blind man is not blind because he is a sinner. Though it looks like a curse, his blindness is in reality a very special attribute, since through it Jesus will reveal the works of God. The content of that revelation is that Jesus is the one true light. That is to say, it is by close attention to the works and words of Jesus, not by scrupulous attention to religious regulations, that we can discern God’s will for us. By refusing to acknowledge this, the sighted Pharisees show themselves to be purblind, unwilling to see. By acknowledging it, the blind man, paradoxically, shows himself to have a degree of spiritual insight that the physically sighted lack.
Spiritual sightedness, no less than physical sightedness, concerns reality -- the truth about ourselves, the lives we lead, and the world we live in. Like ordinary eyesight, it requires light by which to see. Yet sinfulness flees from the light, because it prefers that the truth should remain hidden. The short passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians reflects this dichotomy, and turns it into a choice with which we are confronted. “Christ will shine on you” verse 14 declares. For those who want the truth, these words represent a liberating promise. For those engaged in “works of darkness”, however, these very same words constitute a threat. The choice is clear, and real. We can continue to act according to our own lights, and inevitably stumble around in darkness. Or we can avail ourselves of the light of Christ, and gladly embrace the truth that it reveals, however painful or uncomfortable that might be for us.
Symbols are indispensable to theology and religion. Since God is not a ‘thing’, but the source of all things, symbols are essential to talking about the relation between the created world of which we are a part and the transcendent Reality that created it. In the Bible, ‘bread’, ‘water’, and ‘light’ are used symbolically again and again. It is easy to see why. All of them are essential to biological life, and so they readily lend themselves as means by which to point beyond the biological, to the essential elements of spiritual life.
The Old Testament lesson and the Gospel for this week are linked by one of these symbols – water. Moses, tormented by yet more complaining demands on the part of those he has led out of slavery – on this occasion it is “Give us water” -- cries out to God in his frustration. God responds by aligning himself (almost literally) with a miraculous supply of water in the wilderness. “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb”, he tells Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it”. Thereby, the Israelites’ biological need for water is satisfied, but also made the means of demonstrating their dependence upon God.
The episode reveals both God's providential generosity and the weakness and waywardness of the Israelites. They have taken it upon themselves to test God, and thus expose their underlying faithlessness. The Gospel passage offers us an interesting reversal. Here too the symbol of water plays its part, and the need for it is made the means of a test. But it is God in the Person of Jesus who wants water, and the humble Samaritan woman who is asked to provide it.
Being Samaritan, she is not one of the ‘Chosen’ people, but part of a group regarded by Orthodox Jews as renegades. Nevertheless, she passes the initial test by drawing water from the well. This proves her worthiness to be put to a deeper test. Does she long for ‘living’ water of a different kind, and can she see that Jesus is offering it? The woman is convinced, almost, by the extraordinary insight Jesus shows into her life and character.
This gives us a clue to the nature of the ‘eternal life’ to which Jesus refers -- life in God. In the Epistle, St Paul’s description of this life also makes an implicit reference to water. “We have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God . . . because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”.
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