19 March 2018

The Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Liturgy of the Palms
St. Mark 11:1-11 or St. John 12:12-16
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
St. Mark 14:1-15:47 or St. Mark 15:1-39, [40-47]

Background: An Embarrassment of Riches

There are some temptations that come with the celebrations of this day. The first is its dual nature with the seeming joy that accompanies the readings during the Liturgy of the Palms contrasted with the rather different nature that characterizes the reading of the Passion. I’ve served in parishes that have attempted to truncate the day, leaving behind the sadness of the Passion and only observing the “joy” of the Palms. This attitude seems to be blind to the reasons that Jesus enters Jerusalem. Was it for the joy of kingship? Or was it to meet the task at hand, the suffering and the crucifixion. To only fix on the joy is not to understand it, or to know the real nature of the day. The argument is that people will get the Passion in the subsequent days of Holy Week. That may be a false assumption however. Attendance at these liturgies, as important as they are, are diminishing. Forgetting the Passion means that many will go from joy to joy, and not experiencing the sorrow and the face of death that is such a big part of the week to come.

The second temptation is not to preach on this day, to let the richness of the Passion to stand on its own. I have done that, but I wonder if we do people a disservice by not preaching on this day – giving it some interpretation and application? The big assumption here is that people know the story of the Passion, and understand all of its symbols and events. Even for the most faithful of parishioners, I doubt that they are not in need of some kind of guided understanding of the texts. It is a rich day, with so much to look at and to understand. Whether lector or preacher, or participant in the Eucharistic Assembly, today is a day for deep searching.

at The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel: St. Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

There is a supposed humility that is evident in Jesus choice of a donkey, and yet in the ancient near east, the donkey often served as a royal beast, fit for a king. The symbolism of this animal is underscored by the notation that no one has ever sat on this animal before. It is virginal and pure. It is also interesting to wrestle a bit with the phrase, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” Is the word “lord” (kyrios) indicative of Jesus, or of the owner of the animal? Either is possible. One does get a sense of the emotion of the day, however. That the animal should be sent back “immediately” gives the reader a sense of the urgency of the situation. The adornment of the animal with garments underscores the royal aspect of the animal, and the use to which Jesus and the disciples intend it. The reference in Zechariah 9:9 points to this usage, “Your king comes to you…on a donkey.”

The action of adornment is taken up by those who stand by and watch the procession, as garments, and leafy branches are used to alter the scene. For this is not just a quotidian entry into the city, but rather an entrance that serves as an example. The senses are being brought into service here, and song soon joins in with the sung “Hosanna” (Save, please) of the people. We remember it and take up the song ourselves when we sing the Benedictus after the Sanctus, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” see Psalm 118:26. The quotation that follows is not a biblical quotation, but can be seen as interpretive of the former verse.

Breaking open Mark:
  1. What does it mean to you to talk about Jesus as a king?
  2. What does it mean to you to talk about Jesus as a human being?
  3. How did Jesus enter your life?


The Gospel: St. John 12:12-16

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

In John it is the people who anticipate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and who provide the background and royal scene surrounding his entry. It is after these notations that Jesus finds a young donkey and sits upon it. John also quotes Zechariah 9:9, as does Mark. The question that we need to ask as we read this text is, did Jesus intend to enter as a king, and if so, what kind of king? Later on he will say, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Here in John’s version of the entry, the crowd seems to be expecting something that is at odds with what Jesus will actually offer. John notes that the disciples “did not understand”. It is a confusing scene in John – which speaks well to the confusing nature of this day.

Breaking open John:
  1. How do you prepare for Christ to enter?
  2. In what ways do you mirror the disciples’ misunderstandings?
  3. Where do you see God’s kingdom in this world?

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 Confitemini Domino

     Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.
2      Let Israel now proclaim, *
"His mercy endures for ever."
19    Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.
20    "This is the gate of the Lord; *
he who is righteous may enter."
21    I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.
22    The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.
23    This is the Lord's doing, *
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24    On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25    Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! *
Lord, send us now success.
26    Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.
27    God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.
28    "You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you."
29    Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

Here we have the psalm that is quoted in the Marcan text. In this thanksgiving psalm we have segments that seem to speak to this day. A full reading of the text of Psalm 118 will give a fuller perspective on the text. Some commentators have noted that this psalm in medieval text is actually divided up into five different psalms. Its connection, however, to the Gospel for the Palms makes it an appropriate psalm for the day. There are other aspects that point to this psalm as being written for liturgical usage, “Let Israel now proclaim, ‘His mercy endures forever.’”

The symbol and idea of the rejected stone, now glorified in being the support for the whole structure is a theme that is used in the Christian Scriptures. The humility of the situation eventually leads to a glorification. One wonders if this psalm was not written after the defeat of the Seleucids, when Israel is lead from its humiliation under these kings to a glorification and renewal. We know the “Blessed who comes,” from its use in the liturgy of the Mass, and that seems to be its intent here – a liturgical entrance with branches by a group of priests and ministers into the temple. It is an anticipation not only of royal entry but of sacrifice as well, for the procession goes up to the horns of the altar upon which the sacrifice will be made.

Breaking open Psalm 118:
  1. Have you ever rejected something, or some idea only to use it later on?
  2. In what ways have you been humbled?
  3. In what ways have you been lifted up?

at The Liturgy of the Word

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

The second of the Isaiahs has a clear understanding of his role, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher” and perhaps for us the role of this particular reading on this day – an instruction. It is directed to the weary, the Judean exiles who are on the verge of return to the land of their fathers and mothers. Isaiah indicates motion and intention in this text. It is movement toward something new, not looking back at former indiscretions and rebellions. There is an aspect to the reading that moves the Christian eye and ear to see this reading as indicative of Jesus’ interior motive, “I gave my back to those who struck me and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.” This dialogue between the many who are lead out of humiliation, and the one who is lead into humiliation serves to instruct us who would follow. God stands beside both.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What do you need to look away from?
  2. Why do you need to look away from this?
  3. To whom or what do you need to redirect your gaze?

Psalm 31:9-16 In te, Domine, speravi

     Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; *
my eye is consumed with sorrow,
and also my throat and my belly.
10    For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; *
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.
11    I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; *
when they see me in the street they avoid me.
12    I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am as useless as a broken pot.
13    For I have heard the whispering of the crowd;
fear is all around; *
they put their heads together against me;
they plot to take my life.
14    But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. *
I have said, "You are my God.
15    My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
16    Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me."

In this psalm the author is supplicant, in terror of those who are out to trouble and distress him. He is in total despair, his whole body troubled, “my eye is consumed…and also my throat and my belly.” He is aware of his transgressions and his sinfulness. In verse 10, this translation, “because of affliction”, reflects the Septuagint, but the Masoretic text sees the phrase as “Through my crime”. The psalm vascilates between outside and interior evil. Whatever has happened the psalmist appears as someone to be avoided, and shunned. The following verse ups the image in which he is compared to a dead person, or an object lost and forgotten. There is hope however in God’s protection and loving-kindness.

Breaking open Psalm 31:
  1. When have you been in total despair?
  2. In what ways were you responsible for your despair?
  3. How were you healed from it?

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The author wrestles with the question of how we are to live, and in this pericope uses Jesus as the example par excellance. Here we see the dual nature of this day, the humiliation and the exaltation. Who is the Christ and how does his life teach us to live and to die? This seems to be Paul’s question and his approach to the people he is attempting to lead. If this is indeed a hymn, as some have maintained, it is a hymn that guides and leads – it is a narrative. There are several states: a) Preexistence, b) Incarnation, c) Death, and d) Exaltation. The phrase that signals Paul’s intent here is, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In each state, Paul reveals Jesus as a) either God or Man, and then follows that b) with what Jesus did and c) how he carried out this intent. For example

a.     Though he was in the form of God
b.    But emptied himself
c.     Taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Taking each of the states, and phases and studying them should make for a good lesson in following Jesus.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What does Paul’s hymn teach you about Jesus?
  2. What does it teach you about yourself?
  3. Who governs your mindset?

The Gospel: St. Mark 14:1-15:47

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled.

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and

‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’

and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

Offering a complete commentary on the Marcan Passion Narrative is beyond the scope of this blog. However, let me offer some thoughts on the uniqueness of the Marcan text, and the advantages it offers to the faithful as they follow Jesus to cross and tomb.

If we have been faithfully following Mark during this liturgical year in which the Lectionary focuses on his Gospel, we will have been prepared to hear the Passion as Mark presents it to us. Already in the third chapter, we realize that Jesus is fated for death and destruction. Jesus himself clues his disciples in on what will happen in three separate passion predictions (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34). We have scenes of preparation, for the scene in the cleansing of the temple, and for Jesus himself as he is anointed by the woman. In Mark Jesus wrestles with this destiny, and the disciples too seem not to understand what is necessary for the situation. Jesus sees them as being scattered in the face of this reality, and Peter, the leader, will be foremost in denying its necessity. The silence of Jesus at his betrayal by Judas is a sign in Mark that Jesus is resigned to his fate. As Jesus says, “Let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” In Mark, Jesus is totally abandoned to his fate. The young man who looses his garment and runs away naked is for Mark a symbol of the totality of this abandonment. The dark and gloomy nature of the Marcan Passion is not formed for the drama of the moment, but rather guides us into an existential experience of death and life, explored not only by us in our living, but by the one who would save us as well.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does the idea of “one flock” mean to you?
  2. In what ways is this a difficult concept for you?
  3. Who is gathered with you at the cross?

Question: Who am I when I stand at the cross


1.     The Exile (Isaiah)
2.     The Sinner (Psalm 31)
3.     The Model of a godly life (Philippians)
4.     The Women (St. Mark)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller