Palm Sunday Whiplash

       I have always struggled with Palm Sunday.  Theologically, liturgically, and practically, every year, Palm Sunday feels like whiplash to me.  The problem is right there at the top of your bulletin.  While we call it “Palm Sunday” colloquially, in truth today is “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” We might walk into it with an expectation of only hearing the shouts of joyful Hosannas, but the reality is that before it’s over, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is going to catch us all short.  One year, back in Alabama, Keith and I made the decision to avoid it all together.  We just didn’t read the Passion narrative, and instead invited everyone at Saint Paul’s to join us as we walked the whole week with Jesus.  Of course, that didn’t happen, and the vast majority of the congregation came to Easter services having not heard all that lead up to the miracle of the resurrection.  For a few years, we skipped the Passion Gospel in its normal spot, went through the whole service, and then returned to the spot where the Palm Sunday liturgy started to hear it at the very end.  I found that experience to be quite moving.  It gave enough space between the “Hosannas” and the “Crucify Hims” to not make my neck as sore, and, until two years ago, I would have told you it was my preferred pattern for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.

       After two years of disrupted Holy Weeks due to COVID, I am now fully committed to the Palm Sunday liturgy as it is printed in the Prayer Book.  I’ve come to realize that the whiplash is a necessary part of Holy Week.  It helps us in our own journey with Jesus to see that the same crowds that shouted “Hosanna” would, in no time at all, be crying out “Crucify him.”  Each of us has those same crowds within us, alternating between the “Hosannas” of living into the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus brought to earth and the “Crucify hims” of a life lived in fear, self-preservation, and sin.  The reason that The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday makes us so uncomfortable is because it is the story of our own lives – vacillating, sometimes minute by minute, between joyfully following Christ and selfishly following our own desires.  And so, at the entrance of the nave, in the moment of transition between joy and sorrow, we stop and pray, that this disjointed path we walk from a triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to trudging toward death on the cross on Good Friday might be for us the way of life and peace.  In that prayer, we confront those two very distinct parts within ourselves, seeking to follow Christ all the way to the cross, yet knowing that like Peter and the rest of the disciples, it is very likely we will stop short in fear, in discomfort, in hope of another way.

       For the first time in three years, we have the chance to walk the Way of the Cross together.  From waving palm branches this morning, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, foot washing, and the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, to somber prayers before the cross on Good Friday, to the Great Noise and the joyful proclamation of Easter at the Vigil, to brass, eggs, and alleluias on Easter morning, I hope that all of you will take the opportunity, in-person or online, to walk with us through the full range of emotions that this week will bring.  If the last two years have taught me anything, however, it’s that this just might not be possible, for any number of reasons.  If you can’t walk to and through the tomb with us this week, I hope that the whiplash of this morning will be enough for you to feel the emotional roller coaster that Holy Week invites us to experience.  I pray that as the week goes on, you’ll think back on the joyful “hosannas”, the frightful “crucify hims”, and the sorrowful last words of Jesus from the cross and see in them the very path of life, holding them in your hearts with joyful expectation of what is to come next Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection.

       Dear friends in Christ, this is The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday and the entrance into a most Holy Week.  I pray that you might find a way, anyway, to walk in the way of the cross this week, and that through the grace of God, it might be for you, nothing less than the way of life and peace.  Amen.

Save us, we pray!

The those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In the Episcopal Church, we use lots of unfamiliar words.  With some education, this is done well when we strike the balance between embracing the mystery of holiness, while helping newcomers find their way through the narthex and into the nave for Holy Eucharist.  During Lent, we forego the use of word alleluia, but our liturgy, especially on The Sunday of the Passion *colon* Palm Sunday is rife with the word with which it is often confused:

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I am often asked why we can’t say alleluia during Lent, but hosanna is ok.  Its context within the Liturgy of the Palms is a helpful teaching tool.  As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, it would be easy to see this scene as nothing but a joyful victory parade, but upon further review, we realize that this is actually the humble entrance of one who has come to offer himself as a sacrifice for the whole world.

Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem riding on a white stallion or in the back of a jewel encrusted chariot.  Rather, he arrived in town atop an unbroken colt.  This animal was not a symbol of power and control, but a humble beast of burden, only borrowed by our Lord as a means of transportation.  The imagery must have been clear to the crowd, for even as they laid down palm branches along the path as a symbol of honor and respect, they cried out not “Alleluia” or “Praise to God.”  The cry of the crowd, as they watched their long-awaited hope ride into town was instead, “Hosanna” or “Save us, we pray.  Sure, maybe they thought salvation would look like a military victory over their Roman occupiers.  Perhaps they hoped that this Passover Feast would be a second opportunity for release from bondage and oppression.  But they didn’t assume that, and give praise to God.  Instead, they simply asked for God’s help and salvation.

We who will remember the events of that day would do well to know the word we will sing in the refrain of “All glory, laud, and honor.”  From this side of Easter, it would be easy to let our sweet hosannas be a cry of victory, but it doesn’t take too long to see that the world is still very much in need of God’s saving love.  Save us, we pray.  Save us from our idolatry.  Save us from our greed.  Save us from our scarcity mindset.  Save us from our selfishness, our oppression of others, and our bondage to sin.  Save us, we pray.  Hosanna!

Hosanna!

As my children get older, the time we spend listening to CDs of children’s music grows shorter and shorter.  I can’t say I’m that sad to see this particular era of their lives go away: listening to “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” on repeat can get a little monotonous; but still, like every phase in their young lives, there is some wistfulness for the way things were.  That, and the ever repeating HSK&T has merely been replaced by “Shake it Off” or some other bubblegum pop song.  There is still one CD that gets lots of airtime in Mommy’s Car, the surprising combination of Fisher Price’s Little People and Sunday School Classics.

Featured on this album are such classics as “Arky, Arky,” “Father Abraham”, and Give me Oil in my Lamp (Sing Hosanna), which our Music Minister, JKT, has declared “a perfect Palm Sunday song.”  I’m not sure of that, but this is the “perfect Christian song lyric video.”

Sunday School songs are full of teaching opportunities, and “Give me oil” is no exception.  The word that makes up most of the refrain, a word we will hear repeated during the Liturgy of the Palms this Sunday, Hosanna, is one of the Church words that we use, but I wonder how many people actually know what it means.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines Hosanna as “(Heb. ‘O save now!’ Greek form of the Jewish cry used in the procession of the Feast of the Booths (Ps 118.25-26).  In the New Testament it is associated with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).”  Bibleworks translates it as “Save, we pray!”

Hosanna is a cry of a people totally dependent upon God.  It’s use in the Festival of the Booths serves as a reminder of the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness when food and water came from the hand of God alone.  Hosanna, Save us, we pray, is the cry of a people who realize that it is only by the hand of God that salvation is possible.  It is a peculiar cry for those of us who live in ease in 21st century America; a people who often forget that our gifts aren’t the result of our own hard work, but rather, the effect of God’s saving grace poured out upon us.

Every Palm Sunday we are reminded that Holy Week is the story of God’s saving love for us.  We cry out, “save us,” and God does so, even as moments later we cry out “crucify him.”  The irony is that the cross, a torture device inflicted on God by humans just like us, is ultimately what saves the world.  Hosanna indeed.

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – So Which is It?

For regular readers of this blog, this post will be nothing new, but the truth of the matter is that I’m not a big fan of the mash-up of Palm and Passion Sundays.  I’ve written about this ad nauseam: having posted on this issue in at least 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013.  My liturgy professors last summer, The Very Right Reverend Doctor Alexander (is that the title of a PhD retired bishop who is now dean of a seminary?) and The Reverend Canon Doctor Turrell, were adamant that the disjointed nature of the Palm Sunday liturgy, that we move from waving palms and shouting “hosanna!” to crying out “crucify him!” in a matter of minutes is the only proper way to celebrate this particular special day, but to be honest, I still don’t buy it.  Here’s why.

The Church has become fatalistic.  Because we don’t believe that people will come during Holy Week, we make provisions to enable them to not miss anything.  In so doing we perpetuate the problem by a) assuming they won’t come, b) enabling that behavior, c) skip a bunch of holy and good stuff in the name of “they would have missed it anyway.”  I’ve decided recently, however, that I’m not concerned with those who, for various reasons both good and contrived, won’t make it to services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  My level of discomfort with them missing the Passion Narratives is waning as I become more and more interested in the experience of 25+/- disciples who will walk the way of the cross, the way of life and peace, with us every day from Palm Sunday until Easter Day.  I’m excited about offering those who desire it a full immersion into Jesus’ final week.  I want to be with them at about 12:30 on Good Friday when we stand at those haunting words, “when they reached the place called ‘the skull.'”

To me, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is simple.  It is Palm Sunday, the first day of a Holy Week, the Holy Week.  It is about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Pilate is making his royal entrance across town.  It is about cries of “hosanna” which means “Lord save us,” from a crowd of people who desire God’s real presence in their lives.  It is about the whole city of Jerusalem boiling over with turmoil at the sight of Jesus riding on the foal of a donkey.

This isn’t to say we won’t read the Passion this Sunday.  I’m coming around the truth that as an ordained clergyman in The Episcopal church, I can’t just skip it because I don’t like it, but I’ll be darned if you’re going to hear about it on this blog or in my sermon this week.  Nope, this week is about Palms, the Passion is important enough to have its own day.