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Palm/Passion Sunday

  • To:
  • Subject: Palm/Passion Sunday
  • From: Grant Mauricio Gallup <grant73@turbonett.com.ni>
  • Date: Fri, 23 Mar 2007 11:56:24 -0600

H O M I L Y       G R I T S      PALM SUNDAY - YEAR C

                        (The Sunday of the Passion)

April 1, 2007
Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:29-40, Psalm 118:19-29
Liturgy of the Word:
Isaiah 45:21-25
Psalm 22 Deus, Deus meus
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke (22:39-71) 23:1-49 (50-56)

The real name for today is "The Sunday of the Passion," that is,
Suffering Sunday." In old times,  there was no mass on Good Friday at
all, and the Passion had only this day for its liturgical observance,
not as a funeral, but as a victory. Because Good Friday is for most
people a working day the Church opted to celebrate it now, so that we
hear the story of Jesus' humiliation and suffering proclaimed as
celebratory, and not merely observed in shadows, as a tragedy, and
with the singing of dirges. The three synoptic gospels are read in
turn on this Sunday--Luke's today, Matthew's in Year A and Mark's in
Year B. John's proclamation of the passion is read, sung, or enacted
every year on Good Friday. For on these days of passion something
different happens; instead of only listening as ministers proclaim
the gospel story, we are asked to take part in the play. No one can
remain a spectator, we are all material witnesses, we are all actors
in the drama, we are all participants. And because the day is so
pivotal, and so important, it is really two Sundays conflated into
one--it is hinged, like a diptych, to be not only a day of the
Passion, "Suffering Sunday", but also the Sunday of the Palms--the
triumphant festival day of Hosanna. There is in this day a dialectic
of the Jesus of History WITH the Christ of Faith, and each has a
liturgy essential to that union--that hypostatic union, you might say
if you are preaching in a seminary today.

As the Palm Liturgy recalls in triumph the divine Liberator, the
Christ of faith--the Lord of the Church's processions and songs of
glory, so the Passion gospel kneels before the human Jesus of
history, our Salutaris Hostia, our saving victim. Pantokrator rides a
mule today. The word "Hosanna," like the words "Eloi, Eloi, Lama
Sabachthani" is an Aramaic word--a reminder of our Jewish religion,
our Jewish Jesus, our Jewish Messiah. But "Hosanna" is the prayer of
Palm Sunday's triumphant (and triumphalist) Church, where "Eloi,
Eloi" is the prayer of Jesus' rejection and despair. These are the
old words of our story, words which are too freighted with meaning to
be translated into any language, and so are left in Jesus'own tongue.
We begin the liturgy with Hosanna on our lips--our modern equivalent
might be "Jesus saves!" except that now does not sound very
revolutionary. "Hosanna!" was a nationalist and revolutionary cry on
the lips of an oppressed people. It was more like "Allah Akbar!" as
shouted in the Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine today. It
was inflammatory, not suitable for Sunday school. Roman occupation
soldiers would have heard it as provocation, as a rock thrown by an
Arab youth at Israeli occupation troops. We sing it gladly as a
triumphalist ditty, unaware of its political power. Perhaps the
Church does not yet realize its own plight in the 21st century, or
"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtahni" would be a more frequent prayer than
once a year. We don't yet know the depth of our daily abandonment.

This great dramatic liturgy comes from the 4th century in Jerusalem.
The churches and holy places that Helena, the mother of Constantine,
had embellished and endowed had become the sites of annual
pilgrimage, and in those days Christians went to Jerusalem as Muslims
will go to Mecca still, or Baptists to Tulsa, and the bishop of
Jerusalem was escorted into the city from the Mount of Olives, riding
upon a donkey.

By the sixth century the procession and the palm blessing had been
taken up in churches throughout the city of Rome, and ultimately
throughout the world, even to this place this morning, thousands of
miles and years away. Irascible Saint Jerome, curmudgeon, hammer of
the heretics, and Bible translator, lived the last 34 years of his
life in Palestine, and in the 4th & 5th centuries wrote that it is in
our hearts that we must go in Holy Week to Jerusalem, and not merely
to visit it in a geographical sense. "It is not a question of having
been in Jerusalem," he wrote, "but what matters is to have lived well
in Jersualem and it is for this that we must be happy. The city we
seek is not the city that has killed the prophets and shed the blood
of Christ, but the city that can rejoice in a powerful river, the
city that, built on a mountain, cannot be hid, the city that the
apostle proclaims to be the mother of saints and that he wishes to
dwell in with the righteous." Jerome writes, "I would not dare to
restrict the almighty power of God and to confine to a small country
or a small corner of the earth him whom heaven cannot contain. Every
believer is estimated according to the merit of his faith and not on
account of where he lives."

Every year at this time most of the clergy begin to get mailings from
travel agencies which offer a free round trip to Jerusalem if they
can get eleven paying customers at thousands of dollars each to sign
up and go along with them as their tour guide. I went on one of these
trips once, recruited by a scholarly priest friend, arranged by the
Israeli tourist department, and found it to be an exercise in
pro-Israeli propaganda, which left the people of the Holy Land--the
Arabs--completely out of history, as if they had been pushed into the
Dead Sea and never surfaced through the salt. At such times, I am
comforted by Saint Jerome's words too, assuring me that what matters
is to have Jerusalem in the heart, Bethlehem in the bones, Gethsemane
in the guts. The church's liturgy today is a free round trip to
Jerusalem, a "virtual pilgrimage." Just remember it's occupied
territory now, as then. But those who were occupied then are the
occupiers now!

At the heart of the Greek Scriptures (what we call the New Testament)
are the gospels, and the heart of the gospels are the Passion
stories. Indeed, they are the oldest stories of our saga. There, in
the irreducible minimum of this day, is Politician Pontius Pilate,
and Luke begins the core of this story with "The assembly rose as a
body and brought Jesus before Pilate." Here Pilate hears the
accusation "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to
pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah."
Pilate is not surprised--does not ask Jesus if he indeed perverts
politics, counsels tax resistance (what difference would it make?
Taxes were not voluntary contributions. What would Jesus be doing
there in court at all if he hadn't counselled resistance to Rome? Was
he littering?) Pilate is concerned only about organized insurrection:
"Are you the king of the Jews?" and when Pilate finds that Jesus is
Herod's subject, he sends him off to that satrap, who happened also
to be in Jerusalem at the time. But Herod bounces him back in another
change of venue--indeed, Pilate finds Jesus "innocent" three times in
these encounters, a pertinent number!

Tertullian thought Pilate had been a Christian in his heart, and the
Ethiopian church included him in the calendar of saints. The Church,
the Bride of Christ, on her way to an infamous couch with the Empire,
turned to blame the Jewish people instead of the Roman Empire for the
death of Jesus.  As the Church grew into adolescence, it learned to
blame its Mother -- Judaism -- for Jesus' murder, and forgave Pilate
and the Empire.

"I have found no grounds", he said, "I will therefore have him
flogged and release him. I'll declare my amnesia in this case." But
the gospels record that it was Pilate nevertheless who designed the
"titulus" on the cross--some variant of "This was a Jewish
king"--deliberately insulting the occupied nation. And crucified him
between two insurrectionists, whom our imperialist history prefers to
remember as murderers or bandits. Blame the underclass of thieves,
not other insurrectionists.

And some of the rest of the story, from which we get the array of
passion symbols, is here--the Judas kiss, the ear of the high
priest's servant, the servant girl in the firelight, Peter's denial,
the rooster's scornful crowing, the elegant cloak, the pair of dice,
the blindfold, the insults, the Temple curtain torn in two--these are
here. There's no sponge here, in Luke, no vinegar, no reed, no
piercing of Jesus with a sword. But there is darkness over the land,
and there is mocking, and the deriding criminal rebuked by his fellow
convict. The irreducible minimum to be read today ends at Luke 23:49,
and this is a part of the passion story forgotten in the jumble sale
of details which we put together as a pastiche of the gospels. Luke
had said that it was a servant girl who put her finger on Peter. The
women in serving positions were not important enough to arrest,
'though they were eyewitnesses, too. So Luke concludes:

"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 day they rested according to the
commandments." The eyewitnesses of Jesus' judicial murder were all
women. The male coterie had fled. They have heard the rooster laugh
at their treachery.

How do we depict this betrayal on the Portugese tapestry altar
frontal? How do we show Judas' kiss? (I can remember when it used to
be forbidden in Holy Week to exchange the Sign of Peace, lest we
betray him again.) How do we show the betrayal, the treachery of
Christians who take up the sword of warare , who with Peter strike
out at the ears which someday might hear the gospel, and call nuclear
weapons by the name of "Peacemaker." And indiscriminately pay taxes
to support the military-industrial complex, to underwrite war and
mayhem. Jesus says simply to all of us, "No more of this!" "Are you
still sleeping? Get up and pray that you do not come to the time of

It is this sleep of the Church which is the continuing betrayal of
Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about the church full of Rip
Van Winkles who in the sixties slept through a Revolution in Human
Rights in the United States. What about the Revolution going on now?
The great and tumultous changes of the present, for it is not only
the Cross which is a symbol of Christ's passion, but the Church's
sleep, its avoidance which is equivalent to the apostles' sleep in
Gethsemane, to Peter's denial at dawn. "There is no way to peace," A.
J. Mustie insisted, "Peace is the way." "Peace" sounds so restful, so
sleepy. But sleep is not peace; sleep is indeed rest, but it can be
avoidance, the lack of consciousness, the lack of awareness,
somnolence. But Peace is the presence of justice and life, hope, joy,
vigor and the way to the future. Go back and listen to the
rooster--he laughs to wake us up, he laughs at our own silence, our
refusal to see the oppression in the garden, the high priest's
servant still has his sword and the popes and bishops and
fundamentalist pastors still bless it. The rooster crows thrice: Wake
Up! We seem to be waiting for an attack by aliens in space cadet
uniforms before we will rise and act to defend the human person who
is suffering. "That's enough!" he declares. Jesus turns and looks in
our direction very early each morning, in the firelight. We're
cringing there, next to Peter.

Take up the palm then, once again, symbol now not only of praise and
triumph, but of shame and betrayal. We who sang "Hosanna" at the Palm
liturgy have also shouted "Crucify" in the garden. Or we have
declared "I don't know him." Or we have slept. The Palm will be
burned next Ash Wednesday and its dust laid on our faces. So the
Christ of faith is reduced to the Jesus of history. Only a few women
remain to bury their pastor, their friend, their leader. The story
indicates they weren't even worth arresting, for they represent the
powerless, the homeless, the Marys--Magdalene and the mother of James
and Joses, and Salome. And many other women. The church recovered
qickly and put our men back in charge, but it was women who were
there at the cross, there at the tomb, present at the foundation, and
it was women who lived to tell the story even as apostles to the
apostles, and pass it on, and it runs through history like a powerful
underground river. In Holy Week, it emerges in the bath of Baptismal

It is still the powerless whom Jesus is closest to. And the converted
enemy. A turncoat imperial soldier praises God, declares the
innocence of Jesus, and writes the first creed. He speaks our own
faith across the centuries, over the Golgothas of world history. It
is our faith, and binds Palm Sunday with the Cross and the empty
tomb. "Truly," all of us aliens, women, and turncoats come to
declare, "Truly, this was the Child of God."