Today is the day the Church long has called Palm Sunday, and it’s celebrated in many places with elaborate processions and many shoutings of “Hosanna.” Because it’s a celebratory re-enactment of the Gospel story, it’s a memorable favorite for young children. It stays with them all their lives, helping them to feel that they were actually among the children in the temple welcoming Jesus into their presence with cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:15).
On the other hand, this is also the 6th and last Sunday of Lent. Since 1970 the official name of this day in the Catholic Church has been "Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord," acknowledging that in addition to the liturgy of the palms this service also includes the reading of the Passion story from one of the Gospels, often done with various parishioners taking the roles of persons in the story and the congregation calling out for Jesus to be crucified. This day ushers us into Passion week, when we bring ourselves once again face-to-face with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for our sins, as we say every week in the Creed, “for us and for our salvation.”
And so this is a Sunday of contradictions, of conflicting emotions, of both highs and lows. Because in our human nature we have a strong preference for highs, many churches have let go of any emphasis on the Passion, preferring by far just to wave palm branches in celebration and rejoicing over the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But this definitely is a “both/and” sort of day, one where we are called on to observe all that this day represents.
Admittedly there are those who may go too far in draining Palm Sunday of any hint of “triumph,” while there are others who try to make the Cross itself either disappear as the primary symbol of our faith or who in the name of “triumphalism” turn the whole of Holy Week into one protracted Hosanna-happening. Do you know that “Hosanna” is best translated into English as “hip, hip, hooray?” There’s definitely more to Holy Week than that!
Was it this same Hosanna-shouting crowd that only days later transmuted their cry from “Hosanna” into “Crucify Him?” Perhaps some of the same persons were in both crowds, just being the sort of people who enjoy a festive gathering and will submit to peer pressure to shout whatever is the slogan of the day. We see a lot of that on both sides of the American political scene today.
But assuming for the moment that the Palm Sunday crowd was made up principally of persons who were genuine in their acclaim of the prophet from Nazareth, the One coming in the Name of the Lord, the Son of David Who was about to restore David’s Kingdom, we still wince in hindsight over their misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. Would we have done any better? Wrong expectations characterize every generation of human beings; and it’s hard to fault us for continually clinging to some level of optimism, whether it’s misplaced or not.
Welcome to Holy Week. It does get off to a rousing start. We’ve come in with our palms, we’ve placed them by the altar, we’ve blessed them, we’ve heard the Gospel story, and maybe, just maybe, we’ve remembered that ashes from these palms will be imposed on our foreheads next Ash Wednesday, as we hear these words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return; turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
Our faith is the source of greatest comfort: truthfully, the greatest comfort that’s available to anyone in this world. It sustains us in our times of deepest sorrow and of greatest pain. It keeps us looking upward and forward when looking down is depressing. We’re comforted by our faith because we know it to be true, even when we struggle with some of the spiritual fine print.
Yet we always are aware that the comfort comes with its challenges. That’s a truth that fundamentally underlies this day in the Church calendar. Do you think that the Son of David, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to unprecedented acclaim, really thought that the throne of David was awaiting Him? Or did He realize that He was about to be enthroned on the Cross? Listen to the words of this collect that we read every evening this past week for Evening Prayer:
Blessed are You, Lord God of our salvation, to You be glory and praise for ever. As we behold Your Son, enthroned on the Cross, stir up in us the fire of Your love, that we may be cleansed from all our sins, and walk with You in newness of life, singing the praise of Him who died for us and our salvation.
That collect summarizes all that this day represents. It both begins and ends with our giving praise and glory to God. In between, it views Jesus on the Cross cleansing us from our sins and inspiring in us the desire to be stirred up with the fire of God’s love and to be walking in newness of life. Were we all to cling to those thoughts throughout the week ahead, our paths would be flooded in the light of what Holy Week truly means.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14). We echo those very words when in our hymn, “When I survey the wondrous Cross,” we sing: “Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His Blood.”
Do we think about that when we come to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist? One of you wrote this to me a few weeks ago:
It was always very difficult for me to understand and accept Jesus saying, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my Blood.” Now I believe that it’s the symbol that Christ used to set forth the assignment for us to become like Him. Every time one receives the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ one has the opportunity to become more like Him in one's life, which is our duty and responsibility as Christians.”
Holy Week gives us more opportunities than usual to receive His Body and Blood, and there’s no time in the changing seasons of the Church year that this intense focus is more desirable or more meaningful. Holy Week reminds us that the holy sacrament is not just something we do: it’s something God does. He does it in and through us in order to change us, to make us more like His Son, to allow us spiritually to participate in His sacrifice on our behalf, to shower us with His grace. It’s a week dedicated to surveying the wondrous Cross and to assessing our lives in its shadow. Only then are we prepared to say, “I take, O Cross, thy shadow for my abiding place.” And only then are we truly prepared to come to Easter morning understanding more fully why without the Cross there is no Easter, without the sacrifice there is no victory, without the shedding of our Savior’s Blood there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22).
But with those things there is also victory over sin and the grave, and the power to overcome ourselves, our failures, our temptations, our reluctance to surrender the things of this world for the sake of the One “Who yielded His life an atonement for sin and opened the life-gate that all may go in.” “To God be the glory, great things He has done, and great our rejoicing through Jesus, His Son.”
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen