Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Passion
In line with modern practice, the Sunday universally known as Palm Sunday now has two names. Strictly, it is called ‘The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday’. This is because, uniquely, there are two Gospel readings on one day. The first – in the Liturgy of the Palms – recounts Jesus ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem, that bright moment when children waving palm branches led him – fleetingly -- to be hailed as king. The second, the long Gospel usually read or sung by several voices, recounts the dark sequence of events that followed – betrayal, abandonment, intense physical pain, humiliation and finally death.
This combination of readings frames Holy Week which is, we might say, a story of two processions. The first is triumphant – the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, accompanied by cheering crowds; the second, a slow, immensely painful journey to Golgotha and crucifixion, accompanied by shouts of condemnation. These two processions are polar opposites of each other, and it is in their sharply contrasting character that their meaning is to be found. The popular acclamation of the first procession reveals how false and fickle the human attribution of royalty is. The second procession, with its ironic ‘crown’ of thorns, reveals how radically different the reign of divine love is.
In different ways, the Old Testament lesson (from Isaiah) and Epistle (from Philippians) both underline the fact that the ultimate significance of the Crucifixion is not to be found in the terrible suffering it involved. Many famous historical figures have died painful deaths struggling heroically for what they believed to be right. This is not Christ’s Passion, which has nothing heroic about it. Jesus died in the most shameful and humiliating way that the ancient world was able to devise, and did nothing to defend himself.
Isaiah makes this the ultimate test of faith. ‘I shall not be put to shame’ because ‘it is the Lord GOD who helps me’. Paul finds still deeper theological significance in the ignominy of it all. It is precisely because Jesus ‘humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ that God so ‘highly exalted him’ and gave him ‘the name that is above every name’. This might seem like some horrible sadism on God’s part, until we connect it with the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas. ‘God was in Christ’, reconciling Himself to the world.
Astride the colt and claimed as King
that Sunday morning in the spring,
He passed a thornbush flowering red
that one would plait to crown his head.
He passed a vineyard where the wine
was grown for one of royal line,
and where the dregs were also brewed
into a gall for Calvary’s rood.
A purple robe was cast his way,
then caught, and kept until that day
when, with its use, a trial would be
profaned into a mockery.
His entourage was forced to wait
to let a timber through the gate,
a shaft that all there might have known
would be an altar and a throne. Marie J Post (American hymn writer 1919-1990)