PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION – C – March 20, 2016

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 50:4-7

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians 2:6-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 22:14-23:56

Celebrating the Liturgy of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion should not be akin to the experience of attending a Passion Play, much less a viewing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  It is no wonder that some would expect this Sunday’s experience to be like a Passion Play.  After all, the Liturgy begins with a procession of the palms.  The members of the Assembly carry palms and march along singing Hosanna to the Son of David, all the while imagining what it must have been like the day Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph.

A church in my neighborhood advertised that there would be a special showing of The Passion of the Christ for Palm Sunday in place of their regular Sunday service.  Perhaps there is some merit in that, although for the life of me I can’t think of what it might be.  The film serves as a guilt trip for all who see it.  The last image in the film is of Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding his body as she glares accusingly at the audience.  The only thing missing are words to the effect: Now look what your sins have done.

This Sunday is not meant to be an opportunity for the church to make the people of God more keenly aware of their guilt.  That might be an unfortunate consequence of the reading of the Passion as a dramatic reading, with assigned parts going to the priest, the lector, and the Assembly.  The Assembly invariably winds up shouting at several points during the reading: Crucify him!  Crucify him!  Who wouldn’t feel a twinge of guilt shouting those words?

First, I would suggest adopting a different mindset.  As you enter into the Liturgy of the Word this Sunday, do not imagine this as an opportunity to look back and recreate that awful moment – unless you want it to reflect the original meaning of that word.  After all, this is a moment that should be awe-inspiring, a moment filled with awe.

When we celebrate Liturgy, we are never looking backward.  Rather we are entering into the new.  It is the Living Word that is proclaimed.  Christ’s actions were not once for all.  They are time-less, actions that continue outside of time until time ends.

Second, place yourself in the Passion narrative and live it as we transition to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Every Eucharist renews the Lord’s dying and rising.  Perhaps more precisely, we might see the liturgical action as one of reentering that dying and rising as the Body of Christ that we are.  Do you hear that?  Dying and rising.  No Sunday liturgy, even Passion Sunday’s ends with death.  We celebrate the Lord’s resurrection even on this Sunday.

Paul could not be clearer in this declaration than he is in today’s reading from his Letter to the Philippians.  The Christ he preaches came as the Son of God, but one who emptied himself of his equality with God.  That means that those who looked on, who heard him teach and saw his actions saw nothing that would indicate anything other than a human being saying and doing these things.  The observers who came to recognize Jesus as Lord had to make a leap of faith as they came to believe in something that they could not see.  For some, the crucifixion would be a scandal, the scandal of the cross.  Paul urges the Philippians and us to see things correctly.  Jesus took on the form of a slave and accepted the full implications of being human.  Every human being at the end of his or her earthly existence dies.  Jesus accepted that as his reality, too, even if his dying meant dying on the cross.

Paul says that we should not see Jesus’ crucifixion as a defeat, much less as a sign that God abandoned him.  That is what the world could see and conclude; but we must see exultation and final triumph because God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him the name Lord.  Jesus Christ is Lord.  Accepting and believing in Jesus as Lord gives glory to God.

Those who believe in Jesus Christ know that he has changed the meaning of the cross, transforming it from an instrument of horror to a sign of hope.  Why else do Christians wear crosses and hang crosses on the walls in their homes?  Why do we begin and end so many important things that we do and say with the sign of the cross?  We believe that just as Christ passed through his death on the cross and entered into glory, so also will we, if we are willing to die with him, enter that same glory.

Passion Sunday is not meant to be a depressing experience, one that stirs up guilt and fosters groveling in that guilt.  Rather, this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word proclaims that there is no such thing as a hopeless situation, not if we believe in Christ’s dying and rising.

What will you bring to this Sunday’s Liturgy?  Some will come conscious that they are in frail health, even bearing the death sentence of a terminal illness.  Some will come conscious of their advancing years and increasing infirmity.  Some will come mourning the loss of a spouse, a child, or a friend.  Some will come bearing the burden of mental illness or permanent disability.  Will the proclamation of the Lord’s Passion help them to recognize their experiences and burdens are shares in the Lord’s Passion?  Will they keep these words like a mantra running through their minds?  If we die with Christ we will live with Christ.

Luke’s Passion makes it clear that Jesus is the innocent victim.  Pilate three times voices his opinion that Jesus is innocent of anything that would result in the death penalty.  Herod comes to the same conclusion.  Both a Gentile and a Jew proclaimed him guiltless.  At the same time, Jesus is the reconciler and consoler.  Exchanging a kiss, he calls his betrayer, friend.  On the way to Calvary, he pauses to console the weeping women.  On the cross he offers hope to the thief who asks to be remembered by Jesus as he enters his kingdom.  Today you will be with me in Paradise.  And Jesus’ last moment on the cross is a triumph of trust and confidence in the One whose will he always sought to do.  Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

When Luke wrote his Gospel and the Passion in particular, Christians were suffering.  It was against the law to be Christian.  Christians were dying at the hands of the Romans.  Jewish Christians were being expelled from the synagogues.  Innocent ones suffered.  Is Luke’s message to inspire them to take courage in the one in whose name they suffer because, if they do, they will come to the same end he did and be raised up?  If they die with him they will rise with him.  God will raise them up just as God raised Jesus.

This Passion Sunday we are mindful of many horrible happenings that defy explanation and could be interpreted as signs of God’s wrath and abandonment.  The sufferings in Syria continue.  Refugees are turned away.  Consider the carnage in various countries of Africa and add to that the numbers dying from HIV/AIDS, malaria and sleeping sickness.  In our own country, is there a day that goes by without the evening news informing us of a mass shooting, or of people doing violence to people?  Then we hear of or may experience the ravages of tornadoes, and floods, snow and freezing temperatures affecting people without shelter, food or electricity.  People suffered in winter’s fury.

Each of these events affords us the opportunity to wonder why bad things happen to good people.  There will be some quick to rant that these terrible events are the results of God’s judgment on a sinful people.

This Sunday will not give us an answer to the question of why good people suffer.  It will, however, give us an opportunity to recognize in those sufferings the ongoing passion of Christ.  When an agnostic asked Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta why she spent herself caring for the sick and the poor in the city, she sat by the bedside of a dying man and sad that when she ministered to one like this, she believed she was ministering to Christ in his passion.  The agnostic documented Mother Teresa’s work.  He was struck by what he had seen and by her answer.  He pondered and found faith.

Passion Sunday tells us that there is no such thing as a hopeless situation.  Christ triumphed over sin, suffering and death, and caught us all up into that mystery.  The cross of Christ is our symbol of hope.  He has told us that if we would be his disciples we must take up our cross every day and follow him.  To do that is to have confidence in the face of whatever might threaten to defeat us.  Even if we die, we will live.

So we celebrate Eucharist this Sunday, renewing the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  We will share in the transformation of the Eucharist becoming more and more the Body of Christ, Christ present in us.  Do we remember that each celebration is our commitment to allow ourselves to be sent to be Christ’s presence in the world and be committed to being bread broken and cup poured out until all have been fed?  Do we understand that this pouring out of self, this doing what Jesus did, this share in Christ’s passion, will result in our sharing with Christ in glory?

That is really what this Sunday is all about.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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