Some years ago, the staff at St. Paul’s and I were planning the Holy Week liturgies. Our very talented director of music raised the question of why we don’t give emphasis to the majestic aspect of Palm Sunday. When this service was fashioned in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was intended to provide a full taste of the entire span of Holy Week all in one day with the thought that most people in attendance would not be back in church until Easter morning.
It began with unusual energy and a procession with palms and grand music and within fifteen minutes we stood in our pews listening to the long narrative—what we know as the Passion—recounting the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. It seemed like we were on an emotional roller-coaster, moving from the jubilant parade as Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shock and sorrow of his suffering and death. It felt as though the first step in the drama of Holy Week, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, got the short end of the stick, in our rush to get to the Passion story.
But Palm Sunday as the Gospel writers recorded it was a day of celebration, of crowds welcoming a Messiah, of children waving branches and singing Hosannas to this young Rabbi entering Jerusalem on a donkey. So, after wrestling with this dilemma for years, we made a sea change by eliminating the Passion story altogether, making the story of Palm Sunday the emphasis of the day, telling the story in the Gospel reading and offering a sermon to present some thoughts about it, a liturgical tradition I’ve brought with me here at St. Andrew’s.
There is another aspect of the Holy Week story and drama with which a number of us who are charged with planning and observing these liturgical rites have been wrestling. It is the emphasis in the passion story on the Jewish people as being solely responsible for the death of Jesus. You may wonder why we substituted “the people” for “the Jews” in the Gospel reading last Sunday. John’s Gospel regularly describes Jesus' opponents simply as "the Jews,” and is more consistently hostile to the Jewish religious authorities than any other New Testament writing.
Mother Louise Kalemkerian, my good friend and a wonderful priest known in this community, addressed this in her Sermon last week: “While scholars recognize that these references reflect the divisions that existed between the early followers of Jesus and the Jewish community when this text was written,” she preached, “Christians through the centuries have used these and other references to justify Jewish persecution, including the Holocaust.” It even promoted the horrible epithet “Christ killers.”
So, I made this change in the text to raise our awareness how bias and prejudice towards the Jewish community can be both subtle and extremely hurtful, especially when it is not based on truth. This Good Friday we will listen to a more accurate and kinder rendition of the Passion story.
Remember that it was the Jewish people with whom God made the first covenant, gave the commandments, and it was the Jewish people who came out in droves to be baptized by Jesus, hear him preach, fed by his miracle of loaves and fishes, healed and even raised from the dead, and a band of them who became his intimate friends and disciples. And, yes, it should not be lost on us that Jesus was a Jewish male.
The instigators and agents of the arrest, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus were the religious leaders threatened by his popularity and charism and the Roman authorities who were complicit in all of this for political reasons. Antisemitism is the oldest prejudice in the world. We need to stand with our sisters and brothers and speak out and oppose it whenever we encounter it. Jesus never coerced or strong-armed anyone; he always spoke words of invitation and love.
What about that first Palm Sunday? So, we’ve intentionally veered away from the sadness of the passion and made the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem our centerpiece today. What does it mean for us? If we could travel back to the year 30 AD, we’d find a Jerusalem that is rife with conflict and tension.
There were religious factions within the Jewish community, Roman authorities tried to impose their culture on the people, Caesar levied taxes on them. The political rhetoric was fierce and oppressive. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Marginalized people were demonized by the mainstream religious community. In short, things were not much different from the way they are today.
We are living in callous times, not unlike the political and emotional climate in which Jesus lived so long ago. It is a polarized and
scary time in the world. Some people feel that the only solution to deep, complex problems is to react to others with hatred, blame and violence. Our present day world is not very different from the world in which Jesus lived and died.
What has happened to the moral and ethical conscience of our society? Especially those in power to change the culture? We now have a state in this nation that enacted a law against female impersonators entertaining in public places but relaxed laws that allow a person with serious mental illness to purchase assault weapons. The right to own an AR-15 seems to be more sacred than the right that school children have to be educated in safety and, in fact, the basic right to life.
Jesus walked through that toxic environment in which he lived as a peace maker and reconciler with a message of love and compassion for one another rather than one of mistrust and hate. He came to lift up those around him, making whole what was broken, healing the sick, comforting the broken hearted, bringing others to know God’s mercy and all-embracing, unconditional love.
Now he asks us to do the same.