The Sunday of the Passion - Palm Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Liturgy of the Palms
St. Luke 19:28-40
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Passion
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Saint Luke 22:14 – 23:56


Background:  Palm Sunday

There is an overlay of symbolism on the Liturgy of the Palms at the Sunday of the Passion, and it might do us well to point some of them out.  The visuals and the texts all supply us with an understanding of Jesus and his ministry and mission as we begin the week of his passion.  Like a lot of events reported by the evangelists, this one is underscored by a passage from Zechariah (9:9) where the prophet anticipates the return of kingship to a ruined Israel.  The common beast of burden in Palestine was the donkey – the horse being later, and reserved for war.  Thus it is not a symbol of humility so much as a symbol of kingship and of peace.  Another ancient practice was to decorate the path of the king, returning in triumph.  We have a record of such an entry in II Kings (9:13), where the Israelite king Jehu is so honored.  In the same way Jesus is honored with the scattering of garments and palms, another symbol of both victory and peace.  Since the palm is not native outside of the Mediterranean realm, other parts of the world have used other leafy branches such as olive, willow, and yew branches.  The response of the people, as Jesus enters, is a quotation from Psalm 118:26 (see below). The procession that we make on this day allows us to become a part of the symbolic structure as well.  Once during a procession in San Francisco, a member of the congregation came up to me as we processed down a rather gritty commercial street in the neighborhood, and said, “this doesn’t seem very holy to me.  Why are we out here?”  Such actions help capture the event in a more real way, tossing aside the cleaned up version imprinted on our brains in Sunday School.  So I told him this as a kicked aside a cigarette butt.  Thus we are in the world as Jesus was in the world.

The Liturgy of the Palms

Luke 19:28-40

After telling a parable to the crowd at Jericho, Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

The first verse of the Liturgy of the Palms Gospel completes the preceding section of the Gospel – The Journey Narrative.  Here Luke, using his own material and material from Matthew, constructs his take on the ministry of Jesus, preparing a Christology that will enable to understand the events of the Passion Narrative.  Of note in this section are the Mission of the Seventy-Two, Mary and Martha, Jesus’ comments on “A Sign”, A Series of Parables, and the Third Passion Prediction.  Thus the journey ends with the parables at Jericho and Jesus moves on to Bethany and then Jerusalem. 

Suddenly we are at the Mount of Olives.  Great things happen on mountains in Luke – the Transfiguration, the scene here, and the Ascension.  In Luke we only have garments that lend a regal air to the scene.  There are no palm branches here.  There are other omissions as well.  There is no mention of the Kingdom of David, for Luke’s concept of the Kingdom of Heaven revolves around the acceptance of the poor and lowly.  Nor are hosannas sung.  The crowd does rejoice in a chanting of verses from Psalm 118 (see below), along with the addition of the angelic song (and glory in the highest heaven) from the Nativity.  The comment of the Pharisees is strange, and we cannot be certain that they are friendly or unfriendly.  They do honor Jesus with the title “Rabbi.”  Jesus becomes a prophet in answering their concern.  The question is “who shall witness to the righteousness of this man?”  Jesus responds that nature itself (the stones) will bear witness to him.

Breaking open Luke:

1.     What images of humility do you sense in this reading?
2.     What images of majesty?
3.     Which journey ends here and which begins?

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

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

Let Israel now proclaim, *
"His mercy endures for ever."

Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the LORD.

"This is the gate of the LORD; *
he who is righteous may enter."

I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.

The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the LORD'S doing, *
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

On this day the LORD has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Hosannah, LORD, hosannah! *
LORD, send us now success.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the LORD.

God is the LORD; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.

"You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you."

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

This is a thanksgiving psalm (see the initial phrase) that is quite diverse in its structure.  Some medieval manuscripts separate the psalm into five distinct parts.  With the phrase “Let Israel now say,” we understand a liturgical use that is implied here.  The psalm for this day, leaving the introductory material behind, advances to verse 19.

“This is the gate of the Lord, the just will enter it” begins the new section.  The city gate in the ancient near east was the place of justice.  Suppliants would meet judges and officials at the city gate to plead their case.  In the context of this day’s liturgical import, the gate is more symbolic of entry than justice.  The following verses make us understand the gate indeed may be the gate not of the city but of the Temple Mount area, and here we enter into an interior state of the psalmist.  This section of the psalm plays righteousness against a person caught in sin’s thrall.  Thus the psalmist sees himself as an ordinary and rejected stone (in comparison to the buildings all about him) that suddenly has meaning in light of God’s justice toward him.  The quoted section from the psalm in the Palm Gospel is verse 26 (Blessed who comes in the name of the Lord) also accents the use of the psalm in a Temple Liturgy, and the verses following (“Bind the offering”, “the horns of the altar”, and “acclaim the Lord”) underscore such use.  It is interesting to note that in verse 28, two separate names for God (‘el, and ‘elohim) are used.  The richness of the original language doesn’t make it into the English translation.

Breaking open Psalm 118:

1.     What have been your entry points in your practice of Christianity?
2.     Have you found justice there?  When?
3.     Do you come and go “in the name of the Lord?”

The Liturgy of the Passion

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?

In chapters that become exceedingly dark, the second Isaiah introduces the Third Servant Song, that serves as an appropriate introduction to the Liturgy of the Passion.  In the liturgy, we have moved from the joyous attitude of entry to the serious business of suffering.  In words that make us think of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (and to the initial parts of the Creation story) we hear the prophet’s contention that God’s word is salvation.  Any who would follow the discipline of the Servant must be several things: a disciple and a teacher must allow the possibility that she will be ignored – indeed persecuted, must awaken to the word of the Lord each morning, and be a student of the word. 

The scene shifts to the courtroom – a common prophetic device in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Here the accusations (an Israel that has ignored God’s word) are confronted with words of judgment.  Witnesses are called for (the same witnesses who heard the words of the Covenant repeated on mountaintop and Temple).  The final grace is that the real witness is God, the God who will stand with the sufferer and vindicate the sufferer.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     How is God’s word salvation for you?
2.     Where do you find God’s word?
3.     Who defends you in life? 

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.

For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; *
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.

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.

I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am as useless as a broken pot.

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.

But as for me, I have trusted in you, O LORD. *
I have said, "You are my God.

My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.

Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me."

This is a psalm that borrows phrases and sentiments from other psalms.  The Lectionary chooses a set of verses that reflects the theme of suffering on this Passion Sunday.  It begins with a series of physical references that give scope to the psalmist’s distress.  Usually the word nephesh is translated as “soul” or “breath”, but here, to complete the references to the eyes and to the belly, the translator has chosen to translate it as “throat”.  An alternate translation is used in the next verses, where “affliction”, used in the Septuagint and Pishitta, replaces the Masoretic text – “crime”.  Like Job he notes the discomfort of his neighbors at his situation, and like all the dead, he is soon forgotten. The closing verses seem prayer-like, and form a substantive request in the context of the Passion.  Compare Jesus’ prayer in the Garden.

Breaking open Psalm 31
1.       Do you ever physically feel the presence of God?
2.       Do you ever physically feel the presence of failure?
3.       How do you bring these two parts of your life together?

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.

These verses come from a set of instructions that Paul gives to the Community at Philippi.  The series consists of directives on Steadfastness, Harmony, Humility, and finally, Obedience and Selflessness.  Our reading today is from the section on humility, which uses an early Christian hymn representing the kerygma, the preaching of the early Church.  The hymn is carefully structured to represent not only the Christology of this confession but also a dynamic representation of the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus.  The pattern is:  Verse 6 – Devine Pre-Existence, Verse 7 – Humiliation (Incarnation), Verse 7b-8 – Humiliation (Death), Verse 9 – Exaltation, Verse 10 – Cosmic Adoration, and Verse 11 – Jesus as Kyrios (Lord).  Thus in teaching the Philippians about the sanctity of humility, Paul uses as a model the very life of Jesus – the Lord.  In the arch of Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation Paul sees the pattern available for the life of the individual Christian.

Breaking open Philippians:

1.               How can this early hymn serve as an example for your own mode of living?
2.               In what ways are you obedient to what God desires of you?
3.               How has God exalted you?

Luke 22:14-23:56

When the hour for the Passover meal came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!" Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this.

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

"You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

"Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." And he said to him, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!" Jesus said, "I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me."

He said to them, "When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?" They said, "No, not a thing." He said to them, "But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, `And he was counted among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled." They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." He replied, "It is enough."

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, "Pray that you may not come into the time of trial." Then he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial."

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, "Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?" When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, "Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!"

Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, "This man also was with him." But he denied it, saying, "Woman, I do not know him." A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, "You also are one of them." But Peter said, "Man, I am not!" Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, "Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean." But Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are talking about!" At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.

Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, "Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?" They kept heaping many other insults on him.

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, "If you are the Messiah, tell us." He replied, "If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God." All of them asked, "Are you, then, the Son of God?" He said to them, "You say that I am." Then they said, "What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!"
Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king." Then Pilate asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" He answered, "You say so." Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, "I find no basis for an accusation against this man." But they were insistent and said, "He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place."

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him."

Then they all shouted out together, "Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!" (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, "Crucify, crucify him!" A third time he said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him." But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.' For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?"

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, "Certainly this man was innocent." And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

We who have lived with the Passion Narratives of all the Gospels for all of our lives have forgotten the potential embarrassment that such a narrative brings.  Paul, one of the earliest chroniclers of these events comments on their very nature in I Corinthians when he characterizes them as a “stumbling block”.  Luke has his own unique presentation to make in spite of some dependence on Mark, and an even greater similarity to John.  An era ends in Luke.  Now it is the disciples of Jesus who participate in Satan’s temptation – “Then Satan entered into Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve” (22:3).  Others will be tempted as well and early on (the dispute over who is “the greatest”.  Luke also reserves a symbolic and theological place for the City – Jerusalem.  It is the place of judgment and death, and Jesus’ gradual journey to this place suffuses the Passion with a sense of suspense.

Thus we begin with the Meal – a preparation and sustenance for that which is to come, and during which, as Paul notes, the faithful “proclaim(s) the death of the Lord until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:26) What we then see in the Passion is the emergence of large themes that serve as a resource for the coming kingdom – the Meal, the Trial, the Suffering and Death, the Burial, and the Resurrection/Ascension.  Also we meet characters that are either engaged in the actions, or represent them – Judas, Peter, the Jewish Leaders, the Romans (whose role is downplayed in Luke), Pilate, Simon of Cyrene – a powerful Lucan symbol, and the Women.  That the women and the one thief find themselves as focal points continues to clue us into Luke’s program of “lifting up the lowly.”

In the recasting of the Lectionary following Vatican II, each Cycle preserves a reading from Matthew, Mark, or Luke on this Sunday.  The Passion according to Saint John is reserved for Good Friday.   Reading the Passion in its completeness (rather than the shortened version) allows the hearer/reader to see the web and flow of Luke’s patterns and themes.  It is a good Lenten discipline to immerse oneself in all that Luke has to offer.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What stands out most for you in Luke’s Passion Narrative?
  2. What images are there of power and might?
  3. What images are there of helplessness?

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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