PALM SUNDAY — 1 April 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am
The Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Mark 15:1-39
Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, a colleague and friend of mine made this statement about Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, and it has always stuck with me: “It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.”1
We’ve all gotten very accustomed in the Church to how we celebrate what we usually call “Palm Sunday” – which, as you will have noticed in the Prayer Book, has the full title “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” And the two elements of this double title, while closely related, are by no means synonymous. The service today actually consists of two liturgies: First the Liturgy of the Palms, and then the Liturgy of the Word, where we are now and which will continue into the Eucharist or the Holy Communion.
And these two liturgies, though related and conjoined, have very different tones. The first is – or seems to be – very celebrative and joyous. The Gospel is the story of a triumphant parade, along a route lined with cheering crowds, singing hymns of victory. For hundreds of years we have sung “All glory, laud, and honor!” (Well, the tune goes back only to the seventeenth century, but the original words of the hymn to the ninth, and the liturgical celebration itself to the fourth.)
And then suddenly the mood changes radically and abruptly. We put all that aside and pick up the story later in the week, when it has become very dark. Now it is about betrayal, arrest, condemnation, torture, and death.
“It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.”
So what’s going on here? Well, a few days back, according to St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. They had been in Galilee, where Jesus had been teaching and healing. But in these latter days Jesus had started getting a little weird. It may have started while they were up north; Jesus had asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter had replied, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus then explained that this meant that the powers-that-be would kill him, and Peter got all upset about that and Jesus had to straighten him out. We heard this in the Gospel last month. [Mark 8:27-33] Then a little later Jesus tried to explain to them again what was going to happen, and the disciples still didn’t get it. [Mark 9:30-32] But now Jesus starts really getting weird – the bit about how hard it will be for the rich and powerful to enter God’s kingdom. [Mark 10:23-27] And so they started up to Jerusalem, which must have seemed to the disciples a pretty spooky thing to do. (We all grew up looking at maps, and so for us to go from Galilee to Jerusalem would be “down,” like going “down to St. Louis,” but for Galileans hiking along the Jordan River, Jerusalem was very much “up,” climbing over 3000 feet, walking all the way!) And a third time Jesus told them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles [that’s “the Romans”]; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” [Mark 10:32-34]
So now they have arrived outside Jerusalem, and in the well-known story (and if we read between the lines we know it even better), Jesus stages this little parade down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem. He’s riding on a donkey that he has borrowed. Just like the prophet Zechariah had said about the coming of the king. [Zechariah 9:9] And like blind Bartimaeus had cried out a little earlier while they were still down in Jericho: “Jesus, Son of David!” [Mark 10:47] Nudge nudge wink wink.
(It has been suggested by scholars – and it’s just a suggestion, I don’t think there is any direct proof, but I like the idea – that at the very same time Jesus was leading this somewhat rag-tag Jewish procession into Jerusalem from the east, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem from the west, at the head of a cohort of his legionnaires from the imperial headquarters down on the Mediterranean coast at Caesarea Maritima. One can well imagine that while the peasants over at the east gate were shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” the upper-class folks were lined up at the west gate, gritting their teeth and muttering “yay Caesar.” I like the irony.)
Of course Jesus knew perfectly well how this was all going to turn out. (This isn’t because Jesus had some infallible divine foreknowledge. Orthodox Christology requires us to understand that Jesus had a genuinely human mind. But Jesus wasn’t stupid, and he understood very very well the meaning and implications of the Kingdom of God.) And so although the cheering crowd along the road, and even his own disciples, thought that this was a victory parade, Jesus knew that it wasn’t.
Last month we also heard Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8:34-35]
We talk about the events of the Friday of this week, what we call Good Friday in Holy Week, which we hear in the second Gospel reading today, as the Passion of Christ, meaning his suffering and death. But the word “passion” also has a wider meaning that we often use, when we say we have a passion for something. It may be utterly trivial, as when we say we have a passion for chocolate ice cream. It may be much more profound, as when we have a passion for our spouses and our families. Johann Sebastian Bach had a passion for music, evidenced among many other compositions by his settings of the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion, which some of us may have had occasion to hear at this season. Well, Jesus too had a passion, beyond what happened to him in his final days in Jerusalem. Jesus had a passion for the Kingdom of God. His whole ministry expressed his passion for the Kingdom of God. And he brought this passion down the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem on this Sunday. And, staggering, he brought this passion out of Jerusalem to the stakes at Golgotha on Friday. Because that is what the kingdoms of this world do to the Kingdom of God.
Or try to do. Because as we know in hindsight, the kingdoms of this world are not ultimately victorious. It was not obvious to anyone on that Friday, but it began to be obvious on the following Sunday, and we will celebrate that next Sunday.
“It begins with a defeat that looks for all the world like a victory, [and] moves on to a victory that appears to everyone to be a defeat.” But it was a victory. It was the victory.
1 The Rev. Charles Peek, Diocese of Nebraska, ca. 1979.