March 25, 2018

Palm/Passion Sunday Year B 2018

It is difficult for most of us to identify with the horrific story we have just heard read. An innocent man tortured and executed on charges that had been conjured by those who felt threatened by Jesus peaceful existence. Days earlier, as we just re-enacted, the people of Jerusalem were rejoicing at the arrival of what they thought was a new king who would throw off the Roman oppressors and re-constitute the kingdom of Israel’s heroic past, the kingdom of David. But how fickle are human hearts that can be moved from praise to cursing in a fortnight.

Our liturgy today encapsulates in one service the beginning and end of Jesus’ final week, what the church calls Holy Week, set-apart to remember, re-enact, and internalize the central events of the one whom we follow, Jesus of Nazareth.

When I came to Grace Church as a parishioner 18 years ago and inquired of the priest, Fr. John, what sort of church is the Episcopal Church? His simple, yet profound response was an invitation to simply come and participate, to worship and allow God to use the liturgy to shape my experience and through that experience of worship I would come to understand. Not through reading about the church, although he didn’t discourage that either, but by experiencing it. This is the root meaning of the Hebrew word “to know” – not an intellectualizing of some categories but an intimate experience of the divine mystery we call God. There is even a word in our Eucharistic liturgy that incorporates this idea, “anamnesis”, to remember, but in such a way as to experience the memory anew, as if for the first time.

And for the first time in my long Christian life I reflectively walked with Jesus through the story of his passion, taking in the experiences of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem waving palm branches that would be burned to be used for next year’s Ash Wednesday service and shouting “Hosanna, Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” walking around the outside of the church feeling a little self-conscious, “what kind of crazy people are these Episcopalians any way!”

In my previous tradition, I had gone from the celebration of Palm Sunday one week to the celebration of Easter morning the next with a sometimes brief stop-over at Good Friday. But in my new-found tradition, I heard the story of Jesus’ final week in detail, read from the Gospels with the accompanying Jewish background from the Hebrew scriptures and even acted out as a congregation through the liturgies of Palm Sunday, the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples feet on Maundy Thursday, the stripping of the altar in preparation for the starkness of Good Friday and its bleak, sparse liturgy of the crucifixion that was always the service I most wanted to avoid, but found its necessity in the culmination of Easter.

One of the keys to making the most of my Holy Week became not anticipating what was coming next, but trying to be present with the liturgy of the day, even though I knew the end of the story, the punch line so to speak. And by being present with the story of Jesus as it was presented, my experience of what came next was enhanced, almost as if I was experiencing it for the first time. So that, by the time I got to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, it was like I was with Peter and John and Mary Magdalene as they discovered the empty tomb.

I tell you all of this because some of those who are new to Grace, like I was 18 years ago, have asked what might they expect of Holy Week services and how can they get the most out of those liturgies? I would give to you the sage advice that was given to me by my priest, Fr. John, just come and participate and let God do the work that needs to be done as you walk with Jesus this week.

As the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote:

"But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Holy Week? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death? Yes, Lord, I have to die-with you, through you, and in you-and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection.”