Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year C

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

At the Liturgy of the Palms 
      Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2,19-29

Luke provides a straightforward account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem that is close to his peers except in one tell-tale variation.  On the last overlook into Jerusalem, the Mt. of Olives, Jesus instructs two disciples to go into the "village ahead of you" find a colt that has never been ridden before, untie it and bring it to him.  If asked what they are doing, say "the Lord needs it."  They follow his directions and every thing unfolds as he had said.  Jesus mounts the colt.  As he starts his descent into the valley before the final ascent into Jerusalem, crowds spread their cloaks in his path and singing starts up spontaneously.  Only Luke writes that "the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God...."  The song they take up  (from Psalm 118:25-26) (in which we also join in the  appointed processional psalm which follows the Blessing of the Palms) surely seems like a liturgical hymn reserved for usage in Temple worship.  It is adapted with the honorific title, "King."  Some Pharisees ask Jesus to stop the singing, but Jesus tells them that if these went silenced, "the stones would shout out."

The cantor invites worshipers to "Acclaim the Lord" and initiates their response, "forever is God's kindness."  The worshiper asks for entrance: "Open for me the gates of justice"  Although once like a stone deemed unfit for the construction of the Temple the worshiper has become "the chief cornerstone."  This remarkable transformation is the Lord's doing!  This joyous day would not be possible otherwise.  Happy/blessed is the one who has received acceptance bestowed upon her.  Proceed with leading the sacrificial animal by ropes to the altar.  The psalm concludes as it began: Acclaim the Lord's goodness/ "forever is God's kindness."

The Liturgy of the Word

Isaiah 50:4-9a (see the same Sunday in Year A); Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14- 23:49

The  psalmist  expresses distress that is so sharp it is visceral.  He is numb from exhaustion.  He is disgraced before his neighbors and friends.  He has been ostracized, slandered, and plotted against.  At his wit's end, he surrenders:  "My times are in your hand-- O save me/from the hand of my enemies, my pursurers."

This text from Paul letter easily falls into the verses of a hymn (Presumably used by but not composed by Paul).  It relishes the scandalous paradoxes at the heart of the church's proclamation about Christ from her beginning.  This One whom the  church adores "was in the form of God" yet "emptied himself," becoming a servant at the mercy of humankind, "even to the point of death, even death on a cross."  But God took independent action.; "God has highly exalted him."  Due to God's action, when his name is invoked, "Every knee should bow... and confess "Jesus is Lord" to God's glory.

Luke's account of the chaotic, emotionally wrenching roughly twenty-four hours from sunset Thursday to sunset Friday includes traits that are wonderfully consistent with the rest of his gospel and initiates themes developed in the second half of his narrative, the Acts of the Apostles.

Passover supper

In the same manner disciples followed Jesus' detailed instructions for his entry into Jerusalem, so he now instructs Peter and John to arrange for a room and other preparations for Passover (22:7-13).  With everything and everyone in place, "Jesus took his place at the table and the apostles with him...."  He took "a cup", said the blessing and told them to share it for he will not be with them to drink "of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."  After similar actions with the bread, he says "this is my body which is given for you...."  And, adds the instruction: "Do this in remembrance of me."  He takes another cup after dinner and identifies it as "the new covenant of my blood." He discloses that even in this cherished, intimate moment someone at table will betray him.  In the non sequitur chatter around the table about their status, Jesus uses the moment to confer on them his role of servant.  He singles Peter by name for whom he has prayed that he will not fail when tempted.  Peter, of course, cannot fathom such a terrible thing in himself.  But Jesus assures him he will fail not once but three times that very night!  Jesus rejects violence, in an interjection unique to Luke (25:35-38), with an allusion to Isaiah (53:12).  

Betrayal and Arrest

After the Passover meal, they go to a place on the Mt. of Olives "as was his custom" when Jesus goes alone to pray: "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet, not my will but yours."  He returns to find his disciples asleep.  A mob appears, led by Judas.  The betrayal is quick; a kiss.  Jesus is taken by the crowd to the home of the high priest.  Peter denies knowing Jesus three time "before the cock crowed."  Jesus turns and looks at Jesus at that moment, Peter flees the room and "went out and wept bitterly."  Meanwhile, the mob taunts and accuses Jesus of "perverting our nation."  Next they take him to Pilate, who asks a few questions but concludes he finds him innocent.  The crowd adds a charge that would matter to a Roman authority; he is a troublemaker "though all Judea." In that case, the matter should go to his superior, Herod, Pilate announces.  Herod has been relishing the encounter with Jesus "for a long time"  The abuse by "the chief priests and scribes" piles on Jesus joined by Herod's men who mock the charges of Kingship.  Herod sends the case back to Pilate, who reiterates that he finds no merit to the charges against Jesus.  The anger of the mob increases,  shouting "Crucify, crucify him."  After three attempts to exonerate Jesus, Pilate caves to the mob and Jesus is led away.  Luke inserts a conversation between Jesus and some women nearby who began to weep.  Jesus addresses them as "daughters of Jerusalem" and tells them not to mourn for him, but "for yourselves and for your children."  


Jesus is marched with two criminals to the place called The Skull,  "and they crucified him," Luke says plainly, letting the horror speak for itself.  Only Luke writes that the first words from Jesus are "Father, forgive them...."  He even exonerates all -- friends, strangers and the mob-- who played any part in his execution, adding: "for they know not what they do."  But the crowds joined by the soldiers on duty continue to mock him.  One of the criminals hanging next to him joins in the derision.  But the criminal on the other side believes Jesus to be innocent and asks to be remembered.  To which Jesus replies, "today you will be with me in Paradise."  At the ninth hour, with daylight fading, the veil of the Temple is rent in two, Jesus gasps his last breath and utters, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."  A centurion who has witnessed all that has just happened concludes, "this man was innocent."  Others began to beat their breasts while "all Jesus' acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance...."  A stranger, identified as Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea, who was a seeker "for the kingdom of God," asks Pilate for the corpse.  The women followers of Jesus helped with preparation of the body for burial as the Sabbath began at sunset.

From the beginning of Passover at sunset on Thursday until the beginning of Sabbath at sunset Friday, Luke tells the story of an innocent man who was betrayed and abandoned by friends, unjustly charged and executed by a frenzied mob led by threatened religious leaders, abetted by weaseling government authorities.  This sad story only makes the counter-story that much more amazing-- at every turn in this tangled web, in response to every individual and the crowds who caused his suffering and death, Jesus forgives.  But this is not just the tragic story one man; this man had accepted a mission.  Although he knew what to expect and deeply regretted its necessity, he willingly took on the role of announcing and demonstrating love at this unprecedented caliber as his self-conscious obligation to announce and to demonstrate the Father's love. But in Luke's account, there is one more vital aspect to this story-- Jesus not only fulfills this role, he hands it off to those who had perpetrated his execution but were changed by it!  Jesus characterized the community that comes out of these events as those "who serve" (22:26).  And then he makes the actual hand-off when he says (only in Luke)  "as my Father appointed me, so do I appoint you...." (22:28)

Michel de Certeau writes in "How is Christianity Possible Today (from The Postmodern God, Graham Ward, ed) that this change of heart of those who participated in the execution of Jesus actively or passively, as written in the gosepls, is "the first statement of fidelity" and it is made possible only because "Jesus effaces himself to give faithful witness to the Father who authorizes him, and to 'give rise' to different but faithful communities, which he makes possible."  (p. 145)  Following Luke's agenda-- completed in his Acts of the Apostles-- Certeau continues: "For Jesus to die, is to 'make room' for the Father and at the same time 'make room' for the polyglot and creative community of Pentecost...." (p. 150)  And the truly exciting prospect is that that experience of a changed heart is as possible today as it was in those whom we have just read/heard about in Luke's account: "the process of the death (the absence) and the survival (the presence) of Jesus continues in each Christian experience."  (p. 145)