The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 5, 2020
Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
At Morning Prayer on Google Hangouts Meet
Psalms 24 and 29
First Letter of Paul to Timothy 6:12-16
Usually on Palm Sunday at this hour we would be sitting in the Church, palms in our hands, flush from our outdoor procession and all the breath it takes to sing “All glory, laud, and honour” and “Ride on! ride on in majesty!” As I begin the sermon, the room would be full of the smoke and smell of lingering incense and, on a beautiful day, its effect would highlight the great shafts of light penetrating into the church from the highest windows. I know your memories are, right now, making these sense impressions come alive.
Have I covered all the senses? Touching the palm branches, smelling the incense, hearing the words and music, seeing the spectacle around us, and anticipating the taste of Holy Communion. On almost no other day are our senses as engaged as they are at the liturgy of Palm Sunday. Yet, we are moving inexorably into Holy Week, the most physically demanding and tangible week of the Church year separated from one another, sitting in front of our computers or holding our phones or tablets, watching each other’s faces on a screen. In this moment when we most want to be together, experiencing our incarnational faith with all our senses, we are denied the chance.
While it is frustrating, to say the least, we are keeping apart out of love for our neighbours. We are in quarantine—on pause, in lockdown, or whatever it is called wherever each of us is— because we love each other and choose to give up our freedom not because we are frightened, but because it will save lives. It will allow those professionals (and all those who assist them) whose vocation is to care for our health and well being to treat and heal the sick without completely overwhelming and collapsing our capacity to do so.
Even so, what is being asked of us is extremely hard. It hits each of us differently, whether we have lost our livelihood or suffered separation and isolation or even fallen ill ourselves. None of this is easy and understanding its noble purpose does not magically make it all better.
This is why we practice Holy Week every year. We practice the triumphant entry into Jerusalem with Jesus, those times when we think all is going to be well. We practice being present at the Last Supper, Jesus washing our feet and giving us the Eucharist, showing us how much he loves us and that he will always be with us. We practice, minute by minute, the events that take us from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Judgement Hall with Pilate to Golgotha. We watch our Lord die on the cross, be taken down, and placed in the tomb. We practice the hours when we believe Jesus dead and gone, that the promise of all he brought had come to nothing. We practice the loneliness of Holy Saturday, the sense that nothing will be right again and that all our hope is gone. We do all of these things with the material of life, with branches of palm, the water of foot washing, and the elements of the Eucharist, and with the fire and light of our watching and waiting.
Right now we are in the midst of our global Holy Week that has fallen during actual Holy Week. We are denied those objective markers of remembrance that put us there with Jesus and, more profoundly, make him present with us in this moment. We are, however, left with our sense memories and the muscle memory we have developed in and through our worship together over the years. And so without those tangible items that have helped us in our practice, we still look to the liturgies and stories of Holy Week and Easter to sustain us. We have practised so that now, when we are in the midst of experiencing suffering and death, loneliness, isolation, and, perhaps, hopelessness, we have the tools, the knowledge that will allow us to make some meaning of these things, to engage them with a sense of hope, and to sustain us in this season of absence.
Remember the feel of those palm branches in your hands. Moreover, look to the branches that are bursting with life in the park (I’ve got some here). In the absence of palm our medieval English forbears in the faith used willow and flowering trees, whatever was on hand, to carry in procession and lay before our Lord as signs that as he entered Jerusalem in triumph, a new reality was unfolding. Nothing would ever be the same. The path Jesus and his friends would follow would lead them into the depths of pain and despair, to the cross, to utter desolation, but then..., but then...
We are going on a journey this Holy Week into uncharted territory. We are not making the trip in our accustomed way or with our usual comforts. No palms, no familiar songs, no incense. We are not, however, making it alone. We see all around us the signs of people engaging in the works of love in the face of current events. And we ourselves are prepared to do what we can. We know the whole story, we know that while that which awaits us may be preceded by loss and tragedy, and that the results will not be what we expect, that God will turn dust into flesh, that God will turn darkness into light, and that love will triumph.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Martin Luther King, Jr., Martyr, 4 April 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume