Lectionary Commentary

April 5, 2009
Palm/Passion Sunday in Lent

"It is that continual turning to God as an unwavering factor in the self-constitution of our moments of experience that amounts to 'having the mind of Christ.'”

Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow

See also: [Year B Archive]

Lenten Candle Liturgy

Good Friday service

Lenten Benedictions/Commissioning/Blessing

Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16

Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

On this day, more perhaps than any other, the readings from scripture are at the service of the liturgy, and commentary, reflection, and preaching on the day’s readings must take into account how they fit into the overall flow of the liturgical action. This Sunday is unique in having two Gospel readings assigned, and the tension between these two Gospel readings, set as they are in two different moments of the liturgical action, is an inescapable factor in their functional meaning for this day. The purpose of the Palm/Passion liturgy is, more self-consciously than on most Sundays, to allow the congregation to participate in a reenactment of a particular moment in Jesus’ ministry, and all the readings serve the purpose of that reenactment, more than standing on their own as discrete units of meaning. That said, the Palm/Passion liturgy should not be understood as a “reenactment” in a theatrical or presentational sense: the liturgy is not a passion play, nor should it be staged as some sort of spectacle to be set before a congregation of essentially passive spectators. In many churches the Passion story is read in parts, with different readers assigned to the different characters in the story; and while this kind of dramatization can be helpful, it should never be forgotten that this is a proclamation of the Gospel, an invitation to believe the Good News, not a costume drama or bit of chancel theater. The purpose of the liturgy is to exemplify for the congregation those divine ideals embodied in the ministry of Jesus, so that congregants can feel them and embody them in their own actions and ministries. Every liturgy has this purpose, of course; but on Palm/Passion Sunday it is raised to a higher degree by the sheer intensity of the events proclaimed. In fact, it would not be going too far to say that the entire aim of the Palm/Passion liturgy is summed up in one verse from the Philippians passage: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”: the entire aim of the liturgy is to create the conditions for the worshipers’ own experience of the “mind of Christ” being formed in them. With that in mind, the comments on the individual passages that follow will focus less on the details and nuances of the passages in themselves, and more on how each passage contributes to the larger liturgical flow.

Mark 11:1-11
The liturgy begins on a high note, with Mark’s account of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem is marked by two important sets of symbols: he arrives riding a donkey colt, as Zechariah prophesied the Messiah would arrive; and he is greeted with shouts of acclamation and leafy branches strewn on the road, as an ancient Near Eastern potentate would be greeted. Mark’s Gospel makes much of the “messianic secret” throughout its narrative; here the secret is abandoned and Jesus accepts the crowd’s identification of him as Messiah outright, as the crowd cries “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” when Jesus rides by. Mark adds to this traditional symbolism one other sign of Jesus’ power: Jesus knows beforehand that the disciples will find the colt in the village ahead, that the villagers will protest its removal, and that the villagers will agree when told that “the Lord needs it.” All of these elements combine to make the passage an unrestrained outburst of praise—praise to Jesus as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” and praise to God who sends him. This praise is reflected in the liturgical action: palm fronds are distributed to the worshipers and are blessed, and in many congregations the worshipers make a procession, either around the church, or through the church grounds, or in the streets nearby the church; some congregations even join together in an ecumenical event of a palm procession through a downtown or neighborhood area. The feelings exemplified for the worshipers’ participation at this point in the service cluster mostly around joy in the recognition of Jesus as the one who comes to save. The palm procession should be upbeat and joyful, and can be a time when children in the congregation can be given a specially prominent role in the action. This need not be taken as a kind of naive re-enactment of the states of mind of the original Jerusalem crowd; unlike the bystanders in Mark, today’s worshipers know what is coming next, they know what a very different response the crowd that gathers outside Pilate’s headquarters will have. But there need be no irony in the unabashed joy of the liturgy of the palms: Jesus comes to the City of Peace in peace, riding a donkey and not a war stallion, and spontaneous community breaks out around his peaceable presence; the liturgical remembrance of that moment makes available to worshipers a feeling for Peace that can arouse joy and hope in their own life experience.

Isaiah 50:4-9a
The mood of the liturgy begins to change with this reading from the First Testament. The Isaiah passage sets before the worshipers two contradictory sets of feelings. One set of feelings clusters around rejection and suffering: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting”; the prophet acknowledges the threats of disgrace, being put to shame, contention, adversaries, and being declared guilty. On the other hand, however, are feelings of the strength of God: God “wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught,” God “helps,” God “vindicates,” God “has given me the tongue of a teacher.” These contradictory feelings are transmuted into a contrast through a third set of feelings, the prophet’s feelings of his own strength strengthened by God: because God has opened the prophet’s ear, therefore “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward”; because God helps, “therefore I have set my face like flint”; because God vindicates, therefore the prophet can “stand up” and contend with adversaries. This sense of being strengthened by God to bear suffering, moreover, is not limited to the prophet alone, but, because of God’s help, the prophet can “sustain the weary with a word.” The feeling of being sustained through suffering is here exemplified in order to become a constitutive factor in the feelings of the worshipers. At this point in the liturgy, the feeling of being sustained through suffering is a foretaste of what Jesus will endure in the Passion story, as well as a preparation for worshipers to transmute their own contradictory feelings into contrasts in their participation in the Passion proclamation.

Psalm 31:9-16
The psalm selection echoes the same themes of threat from adversaries and trust in God found in the Isaiah reading; but here the two sets of feelings are distinctly out of balance, with the sense of suffering uppermost. While the psalmist trusts in God enough to pray “deliver me” and “save me,” there is little of the experience of being actively strengthened that we find in Isaiah. Instead, the strongest feeling tones are around “grief,” “wasting,” “scorn,” “dread,” and the sense of having “passed out of mind like one who is dead.” The feelings of the psalmist prefigure the experience of Jesus in the Passion, most explicitly when the psalmist laments “I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life,” and the worshipers know that is what will happen to Jesus before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate. The psalm introduces into the liturgy the pathos of feeling that God is distant from one’s suffering; that feeling will reach its nadir in Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross.

Philippians 2:5-11
The Philippians passage includes the well-known “Christological hymn” which many commentators say Paul is quoting from an earlier liturgical source. In the specific context of Palm/Passion Sunday, the hymn has the effect of placing the Passion story in a broader frame of reference, showing that Jesus’ suffering is only one stage in a greater process of preexistence, incarnation, ministry, death, exaltation, and universal acclamation. Functionally, the hymn is a reminder that the soon-to-be-read story of Jesus’ betrayal, rejection, torture, and death is not the final word, but that it points beyond itself to vindication and exaltation. There is a hopeful hint of Easter given, before plunging into the terror of the Passion. But there is also here an invitation to the worshipers to remember that the reading of the Passion is the proclamation of good news: it is because Jesus was “obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross”—not in spite of that death but because of it—that the worshipers themselves are now among those who “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In the flow of the liturgy, then, the Philippians passage is a ringing call to worship in preparation for the Passion reading; on ordinary, non-Lenten Sundays, there is often an “alleluia verse” sung or chanted before the Gospel, calling the congregation to worshipful attentiveness to the Gospel reading; in the Passion Sunday liturgy, the entire Philippians passage serves such a purpose. Moreover, Paul introduces the Christological hymn with the line “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” which, as said above, serves as the interpretive key for the whole liturgy: the liturgy is a reenactive remembrance of the divine ideals embodied in Jesus, so that those ideals can be a constitutive influence in the lives of the worshipers. Before engaging the Passion story, the worshipers are called to be mindful that this is not merely a story of a long-ago injustice, but is the revelation of the pattern of dying-and-arising that is the core reality of creative transformation in God, the core reality God offers to us all.

Mark 14:1-15:47
It has been said that the Gospel of Mark is a Passion story with a long prologue; certainly the two chapters assigned for today’s reading are the most vivid, disturbing, and compelling in the book. The lectionary allows for a shorter version to be read, namely, the first thirty-nine verses of Chapter 15; but the effect is more pronounced if Chapters 14 and 15 are read in their entirety. Read together, the two chapters of Passion narrative show Jesus being progressively and systematically stripped of everything: his ministry, his disciples, his freedom, his dignity, his closeness to God, his life. It begins at supper in the house of Simon the leper, when an unnamed woman—often assimilated to Mary of Bethany in John’s Gospel, and therefore also often, and erroneously, assimilated to Mary Magdalene—comes in and anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Jesus recognizes this as an act of compassion to prepare his body for burial, but “some who were there” take offense at the gesture as being too extravagant—most conspicuous among them Judas Iscariot, for whom the incident becomes the motivation to betray Jesus to the Temple leadership. Jesus is thus deprived of compassion from his disciples, even though he has shown compassion to them and tried to form them in his way of compassion for all. At the Last Supper Jesus notes that his betrayer is at the table with him, and so is stripped of the comfort of table companionship that has been Jesus’ main concrete gesture for demonstrating people’s equality in reign of God. Even the institution of the Eucharist during the supper is depicted in terms of Jesus’ sacrificial death, sealing the new covenant in his blood; it is a figure of the stripping away of his life as a ransom for many. After the supper, when they have sung the hymn and gone to Gethsemane, Jesus tells the disciples they will desert him, and then asks Peter and James and John to pray with him; despite Peter’s protest that he will never desert Jesus, he and the brothers fall asleep while Jesus prays alone, and this effectively strips Jesus of his role as teacher, master, and friend. When Judas arrives with “a crowd with swords and clubs,” Jesus is taken into custody and deprived of his freedom. The disciples flee, as predicted, including a “young man” who leaves his linen loincloth in the grip of the would-be captors, and whom tradition has identified as Mark himself. At his interrogation by the council, Jesus is deprived of due process and justice when witnesses give false testimony against him and when the high priest summarily declares his words to be blasphemy. He is stripped of his dignity when the guards mock him and spit on him, again when Peter denies him, and yet again when the crowd at Pilate’s headquarters (probably a far different crowd from those who had gathered at the Triumphal Entry) rejects him in favor of Barabbas. The mockery becomes outright torture when Pilate orders the guards to flog Jesus, and afterwards they put on him the purple robe and the crown of thorns—hitting him on the head with a stick to make sure the thorns press down good and hard—and flaunt their imperial power by hailing him as the defeated “King of the Jews.” At Golgotha Jesus is literally stripped of his clothes, and then stripped of the last vestiges of his messianic role when the passersby challenge him to prove he is king by coming down from the cross. Finally, after three hours of gradual asphyxiation on the cross, Jesus cries out his last sense of abandonment by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is of course a quote from Psalm 22; but it is worth noting that Mark presents this in a Greek approximation of Aramaic pronunciation, not the more formal rendering of Hebrew pronunciation given in Matthew; this has the effect of making Jesus’ cry seem more personal and immediate, and less like a formal quote from scripture. The cry seems a genuine expression of Jesus’ feeling of being stripped of the awareness of God’s presence. Alone in the most utter degree, Jesus is then deprived of his life. The story ends with Jesus’ body being laid in a borrowed tomb.

For the congregation witnessing this proclamation of the Passion, the feelings presented for their participation run a difficult and contradictory gamut. On the one hand, as those who acknowledge Jesus as their savior and pattern, worshipers will feel the pathos of Jesus’ being stripped of everything with an answering sense of desolation and loss. Old Roman Catholic spiritual manuals defined “compassion” as precisely the believer’s feeling of sorrow over Christ’s sorrows in his Passion; while we today might endorse a wider meaning of “compassion,” it is appropriate to recognize worshipers’ sorrow for Jesus’ sufferings as a component in the experience of the Passion reading. On the other hand, the reading also invites worshipers’ recognition of their own acts of rejecting Jesus and denying his teachings in their lives.

Especially when the Passion is read in parts, and the readers are all familiar members of the congregation, the people will see aspects of their own behaviors in the disciples who desert Jesus, the priests who reject Jesus, the soldiers who torture Jesus, the passersby who mock Jesus. Perhaps the most disturbing moment of all comes when the congregation as a whole reads the part of the crowd and chants “Crucify him! Crucify him!” of the one they look to as the source of life. The feelings evoked by the Passion reading include both identification with Jesus and complicity in the rejection of Jesus. These contradictory feelings can only be transmuted into contrasts by the introduction of a third set of feelings—and that third set of feelings comes from the flow of the liturgy as a whole. The worshipers must hear the Passion in the resonances of the Christological hymn and the prophetic oracle that precede it, and especially in light of the call to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Jesus throughout the Passion never turns from his trust in God—even when he feels abandoned by God, he nevertheless still cries to God—and it is that continual turning to God as an unwavering factor in the self-constitution of our moments of experience that amounts to “having the mind of Christ.” The contradictory feelings of sorrow for Jesus and horror at our own rejection of Jesus are transmuted in the feeling that, because Jesus endured such suffering without ceasing to trust in God, therefore such trust is a human possibility for us as well. As Philippians says, that is what has given Jesus the name above all names, that is what has made Jesus the object of our worship, and that is what has opened the way for our participation in Jesus’ exaltation as well.

The liturgy reinforces this third feeling when it turns from the solemn reading of the Passion to the celebration of the Eucharist, in that the Eucharist is simultaneously a remembrance of Jesus’ death, a proclamation of his resurrection, and a foretaste of his heavenly banquet. The celebration of the Eucharist, with which the Palm/Passion liturgy comes to its climax, is a further reminder that the borrowed tomb is not the end of the story, that the story will open up into Easter in a week, and that the story continues through the centuries to include us. The solemn reading of the Passion, along with the hymn from Philippians, along with the passage from Isaiah, along with the account of the Triumphal Entry, contributes its influence to the worshipers’ feeling of the dying-and-arising that is the gift of creative transformation extended to us by God.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World, and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.