This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached during the online Palm Sunday worship service, April 5, 2020.
Palm Sunday 2020 April 5
In Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday we see two dramas enacted on the same day, even during the same liturgy, all in a little over an hour.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem humbly riding a donkey, and he is greeted by a large crowd who has prepared his way with branches cut from trees. Tradition has it that these are palm branches, which makes sense, as the palm was a symbol of Roman victory. The palm branch was a symbol of achievement and triumph, so this parade into Jerusalem is a triumphal entry.
Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with palm branches waving – again, signs of victory. And then we live into this sudden reversal expressed in the reading of the Passion, moving from the Garden of Gethsemane to Pilate to Herod to the cross at Golgatha to the tomb. And of course, that’s where today’s story ends – at the tomb.
We move from parade to crucifixion, as Jesus moves from a celebrity status to a criminal guilty of blasphemy and treason – soon to be just another forgotten criminal.
We start with the procession, the parade, the triumphal entry. Typically, we process with palm branches waving, even wearing palm branches folded into the shape of a cross. This year we’ve more likely picked up palm branches at the church parking lot than in the narthex, and our parade has more likely been in motor vehicles than following on foot behind a cross, but it remains Palm Sunday.
You may or may not know this, but it is tradition that we take these palms after Palm Sunday, and we save them, and then sometime before the next Ash Wednesday we burn them. And the ashes we use to mark our foreheads on Ash Wednesday – when we say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” these ashes are those burned palms. The symbol for triumph becomes the symbol for our mortality. We move from the parade to the cross.
Symbols are like that. Look at the cross itself. The cross was an instrument of execution – no different than a guillotine, an electric chair, a gas chamber – an instrument of execution. And now, we wear this cross, a powerful symbol which claims that God was on that very cross at Golgatha – that God was on that cross.
I don’t know about you, but the cross is the only way I can make sense out of life sometimes. When someone challenges the existence of God, or the goodness of God, or evidence of God because of all the evil in the world, or because of natural disasters, or because of plagues, or illnesses, or untimely deaths; when we are challenged with the question: “How could a god, if a god exists, allow bad things to happen?” it’s fine to sit around the coffee table or the classroom and talk about free will, and speculate other theological answers.
And that’s important to do. It’s important to struggle with that, and I encourage such theological exploration and study. But when all those questions move from the theoretical to a moment of grief, or pain, or struggle, or doubt, those answers are kind of lame for me.
Sometimes, only the cross makes sense to me. For God was on that cross. God was in the concentration camps. God was in the Twin Towers. God was in those children’s classrooms. God is in the gas chamber. God is in those hospitals with all those suffering and dying, as well as with all those doctors and nurses as they risk their lives fighting this virus.
When we wear the cross we are claiming that God was on that cross at Golgatha. We are claiming where God was, and where God goes, and where God is. Because God goes where there is suffering, and grief, and death – even to the tomb.
It’s safe to say that there are suffering people wondering where God is in the midst of this novel coronavirus crisis. This virus has taken lives. It has taken away jobs and livelihoods. This crisis has changed – at least for the moment – our way of life. It has changed our way of being the Church, changed our way of being together, changed the way we communicate, changed the way we participate in liturgies – even during Holy Week.
Our clergy have been gathering by Zoom frequently – partly to check-in pastorally with one another, partly to make some decisions together in our rapidly changing context. Our conversations have ranged from the profound to the practical.
One priest asked a question about the Reserved Sacrament, the consecrated bread and wine kept on reserve to take to the homebound or hospitalized. It’s customary to consume that wine on Maundy Thursday or after the Mass of the Pre-sanctified on Good Friday.
With physical distancing, we won’t have the usual gathering to consume the consecrated wine, so the priest wondered aloud if there was something we should do differently this year. The normal practice is to consume it, or pour it into the ground, or pour it into a special sink called a Piscina.
It was decided that our circumstances don’t really change our practice in this case, but I want to say something about the Piscina. (I’m going somewhere with this.) Any time a priest has blessed too much wine – more wine than we need to keep on reserve – we pour that consecrated wine into this special sink (this Piscina), because it drains straight into the ground, rather than into the sewer system.
We treat the consecrated bread and wine with reverence. We don’t pour the Body and Blood of Christ into the sewer, but rather into the earth. I’m not suggesting that we should do it any other way. I’m not suggesting that we should be anything less than reverent with the Body and Blood of Christ. And yet, I have wondered what we are saying.
For surely we are not suggesting that there is some place that Christ does not go, or should not be, or should not see. Surely we are not suggesting that any place on earth, any sewer, any tomb is beyond or beneath the reach of Christ.
After all, every time we proclaim the Apostle’s Creed or recite the Baptismal Covenant we say, “He descended to the dead,” or else “He descended into hell.”
As tradition has it (and this comes from Saint Peter), Christ descended to the dead to proclaim the Good News of forgiveness and release to the captives – those who thought they were beyond redemption, beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s grace, beyond and beneath God’s love.
In the Eastern Orthodox portrayal of the Resurrection, their icons reveal Christ in His glory trampling down the broken doors of hell. And in one hand Jesus pulls up Adam from the darkness, and with the other hand he pulls up Eve. Adam and Eve and all of humankind are raised with Christ.
No place is beyond or beneath his reach. No one is beyond or beneath his grace and love. No sewer, no hell, no tomb is beyond or beneath God’s love. The tomb is not the last word. Those ashes from Ash Wednesday are not the last word. God breathes life into dust – that’s our story. God breathes life into those ashes. And we proclaim it on Palm Sunday, as we wear the symbol of victory – the palm cross (or any cross) – a sign of God’s triumph.