Palm Sunday – Year C
Luke 19:28-40 Isaiah 50:4-7 Philippians 2:6-11 Luke 22:14 – 23:56
The Church’s Palm Sunday liturgy begins with an assembly out of doors, away from the usual place of worship. Everyone ought to gather there, not in the church building. But, be prudent when engaging those few in each parish for whom claim to a seat overrides any good sense of “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy! Outside, a Gospel account of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is proclaimed, the palm branches which give title to the Sunday are blessed, and a commemorative procession (including some light-hearted chaos, to be sure!) to the usual place of worship is engaged by all. For Sunday Lectionary Cycle C, we hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and his Passion Narrative. The word “passion” is a noun for the suffering described in today’s texts. The word “passionate” describes qualities connoting significant intensity of feeling and emotion. The Gospel announcement of the suffering and death of Jesus is often labeled “the Passion of the Christ” or “the Passion Narrative.” Each of the four canonical Gospels has one, and each is similar to, yet somewhat different from, the others. A commonly held scholarly opinion is that the earliest proclaimed Gospel message (i.e., the Kerygma) which began at Pentecost was essentially the simplest account of the Passion Narrative along with the good news of the Jesus’ Resurrection. The other anecdotes – about ministry, teachings, miracles, controversies, healings, and even the infancy narratives which found their ways into the written Gospels – were gleaned from what must have been a tremendous amount of Gospel lore in the oral (and possibly some written) tradition of the first two generations of Christianity.
The earliest Christians were Jews who were quite familiar with the practices and customs at the Jerusalem Temple. Theological reflection in earliest Christianity made use of the familiar (to them) vocabulary of temple worship, e.g., offering, victim, sacrifice, high priest, Sanhedrin, Pasch, lamb, atonement, expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, righteousness, etc. Conspiracy, betrayal, false accusation, court hearing, and the physical abusiveness and degradations of mocking, scourging and crucifixion – all these words describe the harshness of life in Imperial Roman Palestine in the tenure of Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD) during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (14-37 AD). These vocabulary words and circumstances are generally quite alien to us in how we speak and think today. Thus, we will hear the proclamation of God’s Word about Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection to our benefit if we listen more attentively and thoughtfully than we usually do. To make meaningful sense of the Gospel for our own times and places, we further use our imaginations to evaluate our own relationships and situations in ways parallel to and yet different from those of the earliest Christians. The prophetic dimension of the Gospel message serves to provoke us into active and engaged reflection about our lives with God and each other.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, the crowds acclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Luke allowed the crowd to insinuate that Jesus was a much hoped-for political messiah. Days later the popular acclamation was very different when Pilate appealed to “the chief priests, the leaders, and the people...” (23:13). They collectively shouted out, “Crucify him!” (23:21). How fickle were the crowds from one day to another!
Today’s Isaiah lesson could well be considered the Constitution description of all who proclaim, teach or otherwise announce God’s Word at liturgy. Lectors, deacons, priests and catechists ought to see this description as about them (beards aside). The well-trained tongue, the energetic ability to rouse the weary and the discouraged, the clearly determined and engaging communicator – these herald God’s message in ways that demonstrate the very power of the Spirit. Anything less is unjust, ineffective and unfaithful to the Word. Poor preparation, mispronunciation, inept phraseology, lifeless delivery, apathetic or detached tone of voice – these impede the Good News from either Testament. God bless all who proclaim the Word with power and grace!
The famous Christ Hymn in Philippians is an enigmatic description of the power of God freely reduced to powerlessness. Purposefully done for the very sake of demonstrating Jesus’ perfect love and total obedience, this poetry allows God’s power to be seen in ways at once clear and unmistakable. It is first a hymn of generous self-abasement, conveying the willingness of Jesus as savior to spend and sacrifice himself for the good of others even at the cost of his life. Secondly, it becomes a hymn of exaltation showing how God’s power raised up Jesus to glory, not abandoning him in death, but enfolding him in everlasting life. That glory was the divine salvation of Jesus’ total gift from which he excluded no one. This pairing of human self-emptying (in Greek: kenosis) with divine exaltation is the model dynamic for all who have been buried in the waters of Baptism and then raised up to the Chrismation (anointing with Chrism) of the Spirit. This hymn, then, becomes an anthem of faith for all disciples of the Risen Christ.
Luke’s Passion Narrative is proclaimed today and, except in rather grave circumstances, the longer form of the reading should be used. This is adult Liturgy of the Word at it’s most powerful. To abbreviate the Good News of the Paschal Mystery cheats the assembly. In whatever mode the text is proclaimed, make sure that it is well prepared in order to be effective, well-heard, and without avoidable distractions. Use the best voices possible. Today’s occasion is one reason why every church setting must have the very best possible audio system for those who participate. A homily is expected, even demanded, by good liturgical sense. It must continue the Good News and exhort, encourage and enable the assembly to embrace the Paschal Mystery personally and communally. A dramatic proclamation of the Passion Narrative with multiple voices is appropriate today. It is in Luke’s account that the crowds ask for Barabbas, a murderer and inciter of rebellion, in place of Jesus, the falsely accused. It is also Luke’s crowd which shouts out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Luke includes the powerful memory of Jesus praying that God forgive his executioners (23:34), just as he includes the memory of a dialogue between Jesus and the two thieves crucified along with him. Luke describes a dramatic afternoon for the crucifixion, including a 3-hour-long total solar eclipse, indeed a literary exaggeration. Jesus expires with a loud cry and a self-commendation prayer to God.
An effectively proclaimed Passion Narrative might well leave the assembly in a mood of profound silence for a moment or two. It is respectful of the narrative and respectful to the audience to allow just such a quiet time. Unavoidable distractions might insert themselves, but a deliberate, longer-than-usual pause after the proclamation can be constructive and appreciated. May the heralds be eloquent, the homilist be inspired, and the assembly be rapt and attentive!