I remember as a kid, Palm Sunday always felt a little ... out of place. I could tell that Lent was serious, even somber. And then all of a sudden, there we were, parading through church, singing, celebrating, waving palms, and shouting “Hosanna!” It was almost like Easter. But then we plunged right back into somber – with the gravity of the rest of Holy Week and Good Friday.
Since seminary, I’ve learned that we actually have a choice – we can think of this Sunday as Palm Sunday – focusing on Jesus’ triumphal entry. Or we can think of it as Passion Sunday (Passion in thesuffering sense of that word – like com-passion – suffering with). With Passion Sunday, we focus not so much on the triumphal entry, but on Jesus’ suffering in the garden, and in the courtroom, and on the cross. And that choice feels somehow odd too. We can think of today as EITHER Palm Sunday – with its ironic hope – OR as Passion Sunday – with its suffering and pain.
I suggest we consider them both, as we move toward communion.
Now the first thing I notice, though, is the crowd. And I think: “Y’all need to stay home. Y’all need to do your social distancing. Y’all need to stay six feet apart.” And then I snap out of it. But I have to say, oh, what I would give for us to be able to be in a big crowd– I’d just love the freedom to go join a good protest right about now.
But that’s their world, and this crowd has been popping up throughout the Gospel of Matthew. They’ve followed Jesus out in the wilderness to be baptized. They’ve listened to him preach his Sermon on the Mount – “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are those who mourn.” They’ve been miraculously fed – thousands of them – twice. And here they are. Laying down palms in the street – shouting “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a donkey and a colt. They’re thinking, “maybe, maybe this is the one.” The one who can change everything.
The scene is set up to look like a triumphal military parade – like the Roman army, with their chariots entering a vanquished city – or our modern day equivalent – with tanks rolling in. But I like the way that Katie Hines-Shah describes it in the Christian Century. She says if this is supposed to be about a show of power, then “Jesus gets it all wrong.
Instead of entering Jerusalem on a tank, Jesus rides in on a tractor.”
And we realize that this parade isn’t so much about a display of power-over. It’s more like Dr. King gathering a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial to defy and dismantle the power of white supremacy. It’s more like Gandhi, marching with thousands to the sea to make salt, to defy and drive out an empire. This gathering is a flash point, that rises up out of the hard realities of their lives, in the long arc of collective action that will lead to a better day. Maybe that’s why Palm Sunday felt so out of place to me years ago. It’s this shout of hope – in the midst of a hard, hard world. And after the shout, they are still there in those hard realities – they carry that hope, back into their world of bare-subsistence living, back into their world of imperial violence, back into their world of hurting and harm.
That’s the world that Jesus keeps moving into as he enters Holy Week and the story of the passion – the suffering – that unfolds from this point on. The religious leaders go after Jesus. They do everything they can to trap him. Jesus is betrayed by a friend. Knowing what lies ahead, Jesus prays and agonizes in the garden. He is arrested, and beaten – tried before religious leaders – and then by Pontius Pilate. The crowd turns on him. Jesus is mocked; the soldiers put a crown of thorns on his head; and he’s crucified.
By Good Friday, just days after Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry – we’re find ourselves in this scene of abject suffering. The shout is less like “Hosanna!” and more like the lament we hear in the Psalm I just read: “Be gracious to me, God, for I am in distress; my eyes waste away from grief; my life is spent with sorrow.” Jesus quotes another part of this psalm as he is crucified, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”
In Holy Week, we find ourselves in the midst of the whole of life – every bit of it – all the hope and hosannas, all the hard realities, all the suffering and lament. All the stuff of life – it’s all there in Holy Week – for them, then – and for us, now. And Christ is present in all of it – present in and voicing the lament.
I can feel an echo of their lament in my bones these days. Can you? We’re living in the hard realities of our world – a world wrapped in pandemic. The nightly news brings harder realities with every broadcast. So many people sick. So many people dying. It’s always before us, all around us. And we’re scared. And in the midst of it we are trying to live our lives, to do our best, to help, and to survive. Students are doing their schoolwork online. Parents are watching over them, and working from home, and preparing the meals – trying to provide some source of stability and normalcy.
We shelter in place. Our older adults and others in higher risk groups have been sheltering for some time now – all of us now in this new time of “social isolation,” and all that comes with it.
And we gather here, in this new space we have created, to persevere in worship, and in Hosanna, and in lament – persisting in both the cry and the hope that God’s people have resounded across the ages.
And at the heart of Holy Week – theirs and ours – there’s communion. In between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, Jesus gathered his disciples at a table. In the midst of this day of Palms and of Passion, we are making our way toward communion, too.
I want us to think some about what we are doing today – as we gather for communion – because this is at the same time a sacrament and a tradition as old as our faith, and in this moment, it is something entirely new. We celebrate communion, as we say, in communion with all those who have ever gathered at Christ’s table, with everyone around the world. We know its rhythms; we can say the words. And we’ve never done it quite like this. Let’s claim that, and give thanks for that. Let’s consider some of the things that we will do here, and what all this looks like, for us, today.
Communion is a sacrament. It is one of the moments in worship where the Word comes to life – when it is embodied – in us – when we see the Word embodied in community. We are used to seeing it embodied in the bodies around us – in person. But we can’t be in person. For our own health and the health of the world, we can’t be in person today. And so what we see here – is a broader glimpse of the body that we are talking about – the Body of Christ – the fullness of the Body of Christ – each of us a valued and beloved part – the Body of Christ –stronger than anything that separates us. Here we are together, the Body of Christ, this sacrament embodied in this community – across distance – spanning continents and oceans. Though we are dispersed across distance, we are gathered together. Here. Now.
And think about the specific things we do. When we celebrate communion, we give thanks. That is what Eucharist means. We give thanks to God for God’s abiding, unshakeoffable love. And I don’t know about you, but my prayers of thanks lately have expanded almost as much as my prayers of concern. I’m noticing things to be thankful for that I’ve long taken for granted. I’m grateful just to get up in the morning. When I take my one daily walk, I’m grateful for every flower – for the bright sunshine – for the rain -- for each neighbor I have to give 6 feet of distance to. And when the nightly news comes crashing down on me, I’m grateful that I have a place to stand – solid ground – I’m grateful for Jesus – and for this community. Maybe you have prayers of gratitude like that. (Feel free to share those with each other in chat.)
And in communion, as we give thanks, we tell a story – and not just the story of what happened that night in the Upper Room. We tell the story of God’s saving love across the generations, God in action for our sake and for the sake of the world. Yes, God present with us in Jesus Christ, and even before that... We remember how God brought the people up out of slavery and into freedom. We remember how when the people were in exile, God brought them home. We remember how when we needed God most, God came to us in Jesus Christ, and how God has never abandoned us – how God is present with us in the Holy Spirit.
And as we tell that story in communion – we add to it – we say, right here, right now – God is with us – in pandemic, and in isolation, and in fear – God is with us. We remember the story, and we add to it – this story that we will tell in the years to come – to ourselves and to those who will follow. Do you remember when God came to us and never left?
And we share a meal. We come to this table, and we are nourished. Now, we usually have one bread, and share one cup – a sign of how we are one in Christ. But again, we can’t do it exactly like that today. So today – each of us in our own shelter – we each have our own cup – we probably have brought a variety of breads. In this sacrament, we are one in Christ, AND, as we live it out today, we get a glimpse of the diversity that we embody within that unity – all of us one, and each of us wonderfully ourselves.
In this meal, God nourishes us in the midst of our wilderness – manna for our desert places. And we are reminded of those who hunger – and of our responsibility to share our bread. And we’re nourished not only in body – but as we do communion like this – God nourishes another of our deep needs. In these days of isolation, we hunger for the companionship of each other. We share this meal, like this, and we are fed.
And as we celebrate communion like this, we have an even broader glimpse of what we call the communion of the saints. As we enact this sacrament – this deep tradition – re-imagining it as we must for our times – we think of all the communities around the world who are doing the same thing in their own way. And if we let that settle in, we realize that this is how it is every time we break this bread. Every time that we or any community celebrates this sacrament, we do it in our bodies and our voices – the specific bodies gathered together – somehow, someway – every time embodied in a way that the world has never seen before – and yet – embodying a truth that has been with us since before time began.
And that truth we embody – the truth we claim in this sacrament – it is what we call “the real presence of Christ.” You know, over the centuries, folks have loved to argue about what we are doing here – Is this really the body of Christ? Really the blood? Where Presbyterians landed is to say this: This is the real presence of Christ – this (bread), this (cup), this (all of us). The real presence of Christ. What we embody – when we celebrate this sacrament – what we embody for us and for the whole world – is the real presence of Christ –
Christ above us and Christ below us;
Christ behind us – from the beginning of time;
Christ before us – on out into forever;
Christ beside us, and all around us;
Christ within us.
Whether we think of this as Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday or both, here we are – in the midst of all of it – in the midst of all the stuff of life – the trouble and the tenderness of our day. And what we find, as we move into Holy Week, as we move toward communion, is the real presence of Christ. God has come to us in Jesus Christ – and God has never abandoned us – and never will. Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna.
© 2020 Scott Clark