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”.
The season of Lent is modeled on Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, after his baptism by John and before the start of his three year ministry. In Year A of the Lectionary cycle, Matthew tells the story in much the same way that Luke does in Year B. It is given a distinctive slant, though, by the lessons that accompany it. The Old Testament passage from Genesis, and the Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans, make the connection with the Garden of Eden and Adam’s original sin very plain. To understand the wilderness episode, they say, we must see Christ’s resisting temptation against the background of Adam and Eve’s yielding to it. What they originally put wrong, Christ finally put right.
The line of interpretation is clear enough, but its contemporary meaning is not so easy to grasp. The worldview within which we operate today is radically different to the mindset of the Gospel authors. Can we understand their references to Satan? Can we accept the doctrine of original sin that Paul thought to be obvious? Mustn’t we reject the sheer injustice that seems to underlie the suggestion that the sins of generations long since dead can be visited on innocent descendants?
These are questions we cannot avoid. Yet, it is easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the people who lived two thousand years ago. Despite many obvious difference, there is important common ground between their way of life and ours. Human nature and experience remain pretty much the same as they were in Biblical times. Hope and despair, honesty and deceitfulness, innocence and wickedness, sickness and health, calamity and blessing -- these make up the fabric of human lives just as much as ever they did. We deceive ourselves if we think that modernity’s undoubted success in science and medicine has done very much to change that.
In short, the human condition is pretty much the same as it always has been. To believe in the Bible as Revelation is to believe that, however much interpretation the books of Moses, the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles may need for a modern audience, they all still speak profoundly to the human condition. So what, on this occasion, does Matthew's Gospel have to say?
Temptation is a perpetual human hazard. Most of us are not positively inclined to cruelty or injustice. Our failings arise from a sort of weakness – the tendency to avert our eyes from wrongdoing by re-describing it in more acceptable, and even attractive terms. It was thus that the serpent spoke to the archetypes ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The Satanic voice is the opposite of Conscience, and can speak to Man and Woman still, always in alluring whispers that suggest ‘this really is for the best’. It is this voice that Jesus heard deep within himself in his isolation – a fact that shows him to be Human. At the same time, he could see that temptation invites us to do something deeply idolatrous – namely, put God’s patience and justice to the test. That is what showed him to be Divine.
The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and nowadays public confession and penitence is almost unknown. Almost nothing is required of anyone who wants to attend church in Holy Week and at Easter. Yet, while this open and inclusive spirit has its strengths, and ‘holier-then-thou’ judgmentalism is to be avoided, we have lost something that previous ages found to be important – namely, the spiritual and therapeutic value of real discipline in Lent.
The readings for Ash Wednesday point us clearly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in our way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning". But he immediately adds a warning: we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"Rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning, even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not? Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress those who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition in the Christian tradition, however, is not a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible and visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and unto to dust you shall return" is the solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.
We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The problem of our mortality is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ. Lent is an opportunity to prepare our hearts and minds to accept this.
Depending upon the date of Easter, the season of Epiphany can vary in length. But regardless of length, in the Revised Common Lectionary, the final Sunday in Epiphany always has the ‘Transfiguration’ as its theme. This year the Gospel reading comes from Matthew; in the other two years of the cycle it comes from Mark and Luke. But there is an unusual degree of unity in all three accounts. Indeed, the Transfiguration is one of very few episodes in the life of Christ that gets substantial confirmation across different Gospels. In all three, a key connection is forged between Jesus and two highly venerated prophetic figures – Moses and Elijah. It is the connection with Moses that this year's Old Testament lesson picks up, recounting from Exodus the episode in which Moses is given the tablets of law.
It is this prophetic connection that gives the event its special significance. ‘Teachers of the Law’ were a common sight in Palestine, and they all attracted followers. But now, for the first time perhaps, the disciples understand that Jesus is different. He is to be placed in the company of the very greatest of prophets. This is powerfully confirmed by a second feature that all three accounts share -- the reference to dazzling light. Such light is the sign that the revelation given to them is of divine origin. On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses alone experiences the fire-like glory of God, and when he descends with the Ten Commandments, the resulting light that shines from his face is unbearable to those who witness it. For Peter, James and John, though, the dazzling light transfigures Jesus in their eyes.
One point on which the Gospel accounts differ slightly is worth noting. Luke tells us that the disciples resolved not to tell anyone about what happened on the mountain top. Matthew, even more emphatically than Mark, is clear that Jesus ordered them to keep silent. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” From this we may infer that ‘transfiguration’ in the eyes of his followers is not key to his mission. Rather, it is a preparation for what really matters – the transformation of death to life in the Resurrection. The passage from the second Epistle of Peter puts the point effectively. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Holding on to this thought gives the approaching season of Lent a special coherence. We should be attentive to the little lights of fasting, learning and giving so that we are prepared to apprehend the Resurrection light.
In this week’s Epistle, St Paul tells the new Christians at Corinth that, when he first preached to them, he had to treat them “as infants in Christ.” “I fed you with milk” he says, “not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”
It is easy to imagine some of them bridling at this remark, just as a modern congregation might take serious offense if a priest or preacher spoke to them in this way. ‘Who are you to assume such a superior tone?’ would be a natural reaction. Contemporary churchgoers tend to be very egalitarian. They think that everyone's experience of faith is equally 'valid', and individuals need no special qualifications to be Christians.
Yet, the passage from Matthew’s Gospel reads like exceptionally solid food – very hard to swallow, or even comprehend, on a first hearing. To understand these verses, we must first make allowance for the extreme Middle Eastern hyperbole that sometimes Jesus’ sometimes employs. He is not literally requiring his disciples to undergo bodily mutation. Still, the hyperbole is there for a purpose. Discounting it too quickly runs the risk of minimising the challenge with which we are presented. Jesus means what he says. But what exactly is he saying?
In addressing the Corinthians, Paul assumes that there is such a thing as spiritual and moral development. Christian discipleship is not a once and for all response. In the Gospel, Jesus is using powerful rhetoric to confront us with the highest ideal on which discipleship should set its sights. In the Old Testament lesson, Moses tells the Israelites “obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by . . . observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances”. We need not doubt that the commandments against murder, adultery, swearing falsely are all to be obeyed, while at the same time acknowledging that simply observing the rules is not enough for those whose minds are set on the things of the spirit. God is a spirit. Those who worship God must worship God in spirit, and the human spirit involves a perpetual struggle of thought and imagination, as well as obedience.
There is a very important lesson to be learned here. In our spiritual and moral lives, striving for excellence is no less important than it is in professional life, in sport or in music. Religious mistakes are possible and one of those mistakes is moral complacency. Kind-heartedness, good intentions and everyday decency are all part of what it means to be a Christian. It is tempting, however, to rest content with these, and make morality of this kind the heart of the Gospel. Jesus’ seemingly excessive demands run counter to this tendency. They point us to a far higher ideal. We cannot expect, and are not expected, to realize them literally, but we are challenged to strive for the sort of excellence that will bring our hearts and souls closer to the reality of God. As we approach Lent, this reminder takes on special relevance. No one can be argued into faith, but for those who believe, serious study and sustained reflection open up the possibility of greater spiritual wisdom.
How are we to understand this? The passage from Isaiah suggests one solution. It ridicules “bowing down the head like a bulrush” and “lying in sackcloth and ashes”, and instead praises “sharing your bread with the hungry”, and “bringing the homeless poor into your house”. ‘”Is not this the fast that I choose”, God declares, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
This ethical version of ‘righteousness’ sounds far more attractive to the modern mind than either the ritual observances of the Jews, or the austere devotional practices of the Desert Fathers and the Celtic hermits. And yet, we know in our hearts that most of us are no more likely to make the kind of sacrifices that this high ethical ideal requires, than we are to build shrines among desert rocks, or stand praying for an hour in icy water. The greatest possible effort will not enable us to exceed this alternative standard of righteousness, any more than it will the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel passage, in other words, still reads unhappily like a council of despair.
Fortunately, we can turn to the help and insight of the Apostle Paul. In this week’s extract from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul openly acknowledges his deep “weakness and fear”. This is the essential first step to putting his faith in Jesus Christ, and so believing that Christ’s perfection can overcome Paul’s own imperfection. We should not think of this as calling on Jesus to get us off the moral hook, however. Rather, the Gospel passage still assigns us a vital role in the economy of salvation – not to be perfect, but to be signposts to the perfect, as ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. In reality our lives as Christians will never be models of rectitude. But they can still ‘give light to all in the house’ if they tellingly reflect what Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’. Accepting the truth about our frailty should make us honest and humble, enabling us to turn our eyes and those of others to the real fount of righteousness – ‘Our Father in heaven’ whose name alone is ‘hallowed’.
Traditionally called ‘Candlemas’, the feast of the Presentation has several meanings. The lectionary readings are the same each year, and identify Jesus with ‘the Lord whom you seek’, the one whose unexpected appearance ‘in the temple’ is predicted by the prophet Malachi. The appointed Psalm, appropriately, extols the beauty and wonder of God’s ‘dwelling place’ and the joy of being there. The association with candles, carried in procession, comes from the fact that a central part of the Biblical episode recorded in the Gospel for the day is the aged Simeon's 'Nunc Dimittis' in which he expresses the remarkable insight that the baby he holds in his arms is 'a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God's people Israel'.
Candlemas comes forty days after the nativity, and has long been regarded as the very last feast of the Christmas season. This is not just because it records a Jewish birth rite, but because Simeon's words summarize so memorably the truth of the Incarnation, and thus give candles special meaning. The traditional observance of Candlemas emphasizes this by including a prayer of blessing for the candles that will be used throughout the coming year, at home as well as in church.
God our Father,
Source of all light,
this day you revealed to Simeon the light of your revelation to the nations.
+Bless these candles and make them holy.
May we who carry them praise your glory, walk in the path of goodness and come to the light that shines forever.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.
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