March 28, 2021
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.
The Passion according to Mark
When about three weeks ago I decided that we would return to in person public worship on Palm Sunday, I didn’t give particular consideration to the symbolism of the date. It made sense for practical reasons: we needed a few weeks to prepare; churches that have remained open have not been particular vectors for spreading Covid; cases numbers and deaths have come down from their January highs; many people in our community have been able to receive the vaccine; people were expressing a desire to return to church; and the parish leadership and I knew that people would particularly appreciate being in church for Holy Week and Easter. So we decided to open today. And I am so thrilled to see so many of you back in the building for the first time since at least November, if not last spring. I am also happy to welcome all of you watching the live stream.
On reflection, however, I could not have selected a more symbolic date for our return to church. Despite the masks and the physical distance between us, it feels like our own festal entry into Jerusalem, a high point that stands between the austerity of our Lent, a Lent that in many ways has lasted the whole year since we last worshipped here on March 15,2020, and the Easter that waits ahead for us. Between this triumphal entry and Easter lies the way of the cross, the Crucifixion, more hardship and uncertainty. Trials still lay ahead of us, but we look to the promise and vindication of the Resurrection.
Even as we are reminded of Jesus’ passion and death, today remains for us a bright spot, a moment to celebrate, and we should allow ourselves to experience this sense of joy: joy that we are returned to life in community and the celebration of the sacraments; joy at Jesus’ return to Jerusalem, hailed as the king that he is, the king like no other who will suffer as we suffer, but who shows us that suffering and are defeated by Jesus supreme acts of Love.
This story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is remarkably well attested. There are not many episodes in Jesus’ life that appear in all four Gospels, not many stories that are so unaltered in their transmission from Mark to Luke and Matthew. Even John’s account, brief as it is, gives us all the salient points. Today we heard Mark’s version, the earliest of the four. Usually Mark’s narrative style is spare, at least in comparison to the other evangelists. He doesn’t linger in a single place, he is sometimes telegraphic in his use of detail, but here he is particularly expansive, particularly specific.
Indeed, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a moment that was recognised as especially significant by the earliest of those who began to tell his story. It was an episode that was related without much change along the way. Sometimes stories about Jesus seem like a game of telephone—changing in detail as the story passes from person to person, perhaps embellished to emphasise one point or another. We will hear this clearly when we compare today’s passion narrative from Mark to John’s version, which we will hear on Good Friday. In the Palm Sunday story, all the details remain mostly unaltered in their transmission from Mark to the other evangelists—the painterly narrative is neither enhanced or blurred. Everyone (even Matthew, who adds an ass to the story to help it conform it to Hebrew prophesy) seems to agree about what happened, in almost every detail.
In many ways, the level of detail and the widespread agreement among those telling the story conveys a sense of particular verisimilitude. This really happened. Jesus returned to Jerusalem at a specific moment, in a specific place, and events that changed the world unfolded. Almost more than any other event in the account of Jesus’ final days, the entry into Jerusalem stands with particular vividness.
One of the ways the evangelists accomplish this is through reference to specific places in and around Jerusalem. Topography matters. We are told at the outset not simply that Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem, but we are provided with a map reference: “when they drew near ... to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them....” These locations will figure prominently in what follows, as Jesus will return both to Bethany and the Mount of Olives. At the one he will be anointed for burying by the unnamed woman and teach his disciples about his impending death, and at the other he will pray on the night before he died and there be arrested. The starting point of the passion is also an end.
The location of each moment from here to the crucifixion and resurrection is recorded and remembered. The Romans knew this, and when in the years following these events, they destroyed the temple and transformed Jerusalem from the centre of Second Temple Judaism and the burgeoning Christian community into a far flung garrison town, they seem to have made an effort to blot out all traces of those locations remembered in the passion narrative. Such erasure—a common Roman tactic—did not, in the end, hinder the transmission of this memory. It was kept alive in the form of these stories, and consequently people to sought out these locations, rediscovered them, preserved them, marked them for pilgrims, and in doing so made Jesus’ journey our journey.
Perhaps this is why the story has been re-enacted by Christians almost from the beginning as part of our commemoration of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. People have blessed branches, dressed up, and made their own festive processional entrance into their own Jerusalem. From earliest days Christians have used real horses and donkeys, and real branches of palm, or olive, or willow, or whatever was available and to hand. The branches you hold in your hand connect you, physically, to that place and that moment.
Like the people in the story, even in John’s version, we also sing “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” as we welcome the king who is both humble and grand, human and divine, like us, who has suffered as we have, yet who is different, other, who will bring salvation with his death and resurrection. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he knew what lay ahead of him. He had told the disciples no fewer than three times that when he went up to Jerusalem he would be handed over to the authorities, would suffer, die, and on the third day rise again. Even if the disciples had a hard time coming to grips with this truth, even if they couldn’t really face up to it, Jesus knew and we know. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, beginning at those significant locations of Bethany and the Mount of Olives, and heralded by the crowds gives us hope, lifts our hearts. It does this while we are full in the knowledge that hard times are still close at hand, that the road to resurrection passes through great suffering. We rejoice now, taking this moment to remember that Jesus really did these things for us and was hailed by the people for who he was, holding in our own hands palm branches that connect us across the expanse of time and space to those cheering crowds, all the while knowing that, at the other end stands Easter.
We are together again. We will grow in numbers as we journey ahead from today. The road will more likely be marked by potholes and littered with stones than smooth and covered in a carpet of palm branches and flowers. But we will arrive at Easter, not just in a week’s time when we mark the feast, but at other Easters, other moments when we know that Christ is Risen and that death is defeated. These will come.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Lenten Feria, 26 March 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume