Palm Sunday 2009 – The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
It is often questioned why Palm Sunday is also the Sunday of the Passion. What starts off as what is sometimes called the “Triumphal Entry” to Jerusalem at the beginning of the Liturgy seems to race all the way forward to Good Friday by the end of the liturgy of the Word.
The stock answer, of course, is that it’s because so few people make it their business to go to church on Good Friday to hear Saint20John’s Passion. This way at least a Passion narrative is read and heard by those who only come on Sundays.
It has also been observed that Mark, which is our gospel for Year B, can be viewed primarily as a Passion narrative with an extended introduction. That is, to understand Mark at all, one must look at the cross. The whole narrative in Mark moves us toward the cross. As one reads the full version of the Passion, we immediately sense how the Passion events seem to play themselves out in horrifying slow motion.
As much as we would like to have Jesus not go to Gethsemane, as much as we might wish to stop Judas, as much as we would like to get after Peter for his three denials of Jesus, in Mark, the cross is not to be avoided. Mark concludes with a young man sitting in the empty tomb saying, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who has been crucified. He was raised.” For Mark, Jesus is the Crucified One more than the Risen One.
Also, on this question of why the Passion seemingly intrudes upon Palm Sunday – “It never did when we were younger!” the people cry – it is the Passion that places the entry into Jerusalem in some sort of understandable context.
We may as well face it, Jesus and his rag-tag parade of the poor, the halt and the lame, sinners and outcasts, and he himself riding into town not on regal horseback but on a pathetic little donkey, does not a p articularly triumphal entry make. “…others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields.” Way back in Leviticus 19:9 God orders, 'Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.’ This was so widows, orphans and resident aliens and sojourners might find a bit to eat – an extension of Manna Season if you will. Telling us that these people are without resources, without family, and without daily necessities. In a word, they are poor. So at best, in the midst of Passover, Jerusalem’s busiest week of the year, it was an annoying little demonstration of the poor that symbolically challenges the occupation of Rome and the authority of the religious professionals, the Pharisees, the Priests, and the Herodians.
We are to remember that all the way back in Chapter 3 of Mark, we read, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians were those Jews who were already conspiring with the ruling party of the successive Herods, who in turn were in a political alliance with Rome. They were considered by the people to be collaborators with the occupying enemy, Rome.
That is, we must recognize that the little demonstration we call Palm Sunday was, in at least one dimension, a political demonstration. Taken together with the next event in Mark, which is the episode at the Temple with the animals and money changers, it is easy to see how once word got to Pilate, whose primary responsibility was to maintain public order, something would have to be done to calm things down so that the Passover celebration could come off without any further disruption.
Also, given the fact that people in the streets wanted nothing more than to get rid of the yoke of Rome, Barabbas – which curiously translates as “son of the father” – a known insurrectionist, becomes a more attractive captive to liberate since he at least was willing to take to the streets and kill as many Romans and collaborators as necessary to inspire some sort of wider scale insurrection or civil war.
The key to this whole story very well may be that Jesus refuses to fight the pain that has been inflicted on him by inflicting pain. He refuses to overcome injustice with an easy, optimistic plan for progress. He refuses to fight back against the shame poured out upon him by a mighty, flashy display of Rome’s imperial power: crucifixion.
As we pray at Station Five of the stations of the cross:
“Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the frie ndless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Service. We speak of a service economy, and businesses looking eager to “serve” the public. But such service comes of self-interest. It is not service in terms of laying down one’s life for the customers’ sake, but rather it is service intended to impress – like Pilate, whom we are told wished “to please the crowd.” Jesus does not serve to impress or please, to win the favor and sympathy of those whom he helps, let alone those whom he confronts. Jesus is the chosen one of God who has displayed his power over demons and disease, who chose to serve and refused to avoid suffering and even death on a cross.
Because all those things that we decry as the power of sin in our world and in our lives, even death itself, will not be overcome by force. They will only be overcome by the service and ransom of the very one, the only one, who needs neither to serve nor to pay off any debt.
Meister Eckhart writes, “Our Lord says in the Psalms of a good man that he is with him in his suffering.”
“With him,” continues Brother David Steindl-Rast in his little book, Meister Eckhart: The Man from whom God Hid Nothing. “This is not the God above the clouds, enthroned in immovable detachment. This is a=2 0lover who suffers when we suffer. I ponder this mystery, and a word of the Dalai Lama comes to my mind… ‘Your Holiness,’ someone asked, ‘your Buddhist tradition has so wonderful a way of overcoming suffering. What do you say to the Christian tradition that seems to preoccupied with pain?’ With his compassionate smile the Dalai Lama gave an answer that went straight to the common ground of two traditions. ‘Suffering,’ he said, ‘is not overcome by leaving pain behind. Suffering is overcome by bearing pain for the sake of others.’” (p. xvii)
Could this have been done any other way? Perhaps it could have, if we could live lives without suffering and sin and death; which, of course, is another way of saying, “No.”
What we see in Mark’s version of this narrative is a Jesus who does not so much defeat death but rather refuses to avoid it. His forsaken cry from the cross should not be tempered into anything but a true cry of desperation that echoes the truth of the pains we experience in our lives – individually, as well as collectively as the church, as a community, as a nation, and as the world – the world God creates and loves.
Make no mistake about it, this entire narrative takes place within the context of an international military and political occupation and conflict. Jesus rises above the petty political, religious, and military background noise. He literally=2 0is raised above it all on the cross. He defeats sin through bearing sin. He defeats death by dying on a cross.
In Christ crucified we begin to experience authentic life. Such life is not easy in a world still mad with power and prestige, a world that wants to sell a path of service to others as a commodity to be purchased rather than as a life lived like Jesus lived his. It’s a good thing the good news can only be given away!