St. Ignatius NYC Logo

Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
March 24, 2024

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 Saint Matthew

In the third Harry Potter book, we spend most of the novel thinking that one person is the villain, when it is actually someone else. We think this, because Harry thinks it. The scope of our knowledge is not simply within the world of the novel, but it is that of a single character. Although not a first person narrative, in all the Harry Potter books, the reader sees the world from Harry’s point of view. In fact, there are, I think, only two times in all the seven books when we see not through Harry’s eyes, but from the vantage of an omniscient narrator. Throughout almost the entire series, then, we know only what Harry knows, and we learn about events as they unfold. We owe the suspense and the sense of peril that we feel to this narrative device. It happens within each book, and it happens between books.

This device, however, is only effective on the first reading. While certainly not literary masterpieces – they really need some good editing – these are still books, like many others, including the Gospels, that one may read more than once. I certainly have. On second and subsequent readings, then, our perspective becomes immensely wider than that of any one character, despite how they are written. We know the whole story. We know how it ends. We become not the author’s omniscient narrator, but our own. This means that the first time I read that third book, which must have been when it came out in 1999, I believed that there was a soulless monster of a man, escaped from prison, hell-bent on murdering Harry. Now, close your ears and hum if you haven’t read the book and intend to. It turns out that this peron, built up to be the villain, is really an hero, someone who was framed for murders he did not commit, and is unjustly being pursued by the authorities. Worst of all, is that Harry spends most of the book believing the worst of someone who truly loves him and who will, in fact, die saving his life. Reading the story, then, on that second ... or fourth go, you read it squirming because you know how unfair this all is, knowing what tragedy will unfold.

The same happens with the Gospels, but even more so. The stories of Jesus life, death, and resurrection demand rereading. We read them as a church at the Eucharist and at the Office over and over again because they can reach us in the here and now as profoundly as they have for two thousand or so years. Yet, we only read them for the first time the once. Even more accurately, we have been spoilt, perhaps from childhood, as we learnt the stories, first of Jesus birth in the manger, and then of his death and resurrection. We fill in the details as we grow up and explore Scripture more fully, all the while knowing the whole story. When we reread the feeding stories, we already know about the Eucharist. When we hear the passion predictions that the apostles cannot process, we know that it is all true. When we read the parables of the Kingdom, we see them from the other side of the Cross, in the new age in which the Kingdom has been inaugurated. This is as true for the people who heard the stories for the first time still in the Apostolic Age as much as it is for us. Like the scriptures’ authors, we see the whole story, from the other side of the Cross and Resurrection. Our vantage cannot help being anything other than that of the omniscient narrator. We don’t even have the fun of seeing the story, at least once, through the eyes of someone on the ground, like Harry in his books, experiencing these events for the first time.

And I think there is no Sunday when we feel this tension more profoundly than on Palm Sunday. We began this morning with the Liturgy of the Palms and John’s version of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, telling us how the people “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’” We hear that Jesus then found an ass to ride in this procession, but that the meaning of this gesture was opaque to the disciples, “but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him.” Here, all in just a few lines, we are taken out of that moment, and our perspective is expanded to that of the other side of the Cross.

Nevertheless, we get the opportunity to be transported back into the moment, as I blessed palms and you received them. Holding the palms in your hands, feeling them, we all experience with our senses of touch, sight, sound, and, perhaps, smell, a physical object that connects our present reality with events taking place in Jerusalem, half-way round the world, two thousand years ago. The palms, the songs, the procession that takes us out into the world, allows us to live in the moment of Jesus’ triumphal parade, be there with him and the disciples, and put our bodies into parallel with their bodies. The action, perhaps, makes up for that reminder of things to come, and gives us the chance to put aside, perhaps for a moment, that nagging voice inside our heads saying, “yes, but, I already know what comes next....”

And then, as if that were not enough, we are truly shattered when the liturgy takes a turn and we listen to the Passion story itself. On its own, it is as powerful as the Palm Sunday liturgy. As we listen to the story sung in the voices of the narrator, Jesus, the various other characters, and the crowd, we can linger inside the narrative, imagining ourselves there in those moments. We are with Jesus at the Cross, with him when the others had fled, and left alone when it is finished. The liturgy gives us this gift through dramatic performance, something that reading alone does not.

Palm Sunday is working furiously hard to keep the narrator in our heads from getting ahead of itself, yet with all this stuffed into one morning, there isn’t time to linger in those moments. By the time we get to the end of the Passion, the palm procession is now a distant memory, a short-lived victory, as we are brought to the desolation of the Cross, and it becomes a challenge for any of us, let alone the preacher to take us back to the palms, branches, and flowers, without the weight of the Cross hanging over our heads.

How can we get inside Palm Sunday if we are drawn-up short and transported through the week in the space of an hour to the foot of the Cross? My colleague, the rector of Grace Church downtown, told us the other day at lunch that he addresses this by putting the Passion at the end of the service, and letting the Eucharist be that of the Palm Gospel. I’m not exactly sure how it works. I haven’t seen their Good Friday leaflet, and I don’t think I wholly approve of this ahistorical intervention, but I understand it. I haven’t tinkered with the order of service, but I thought it important enough to preach about. In the end, I think this tension is a good thing. In fact, it is intentional for this has been the shape of the Palm Sunday liturgy from as early as the fifth century. These two poles are perpetually in tension one with the other.

The liturgy refuses to allow us to forget that the Christian Passover is about, all at once, Christ’s triumph, his seeming defeat, and his victory in conquering death itself. The Palm Sunday procession is always leading us to the foot of the Cross, and the Church has always believed it was essential we remember this. In fact, the historic cycle of liturgies is designed so that we keep hearing the story of the Passion. Historically, on Tuesday in Holy Week, mass is to be with the Passion of Mark, and on Wednesday it is with the Passion of Luke, culminating on Friday with the Passion of John as we mark the hour of the death on the Cross. It must be like this for we are the people of the Resurrection, even in Holy Week. We are the people who know the whole story, and we can not unlearn what we have learnt.

As happens with lots of stories, as it does with the Harry Potter books, once we know the whole story, there is no other way to read the Scriptures. Knowing what it all means from the beginning, whether it is seeing the connection to Isaiah and the Suffering Servant when we hear God calling Christ his “beloved son” at baptism, or the Resurrection when Christ transfigured on the mountain, or foreshadowing the Cross when Jesus is anointed by the unnamed woman with the costly nard, we know how each of these moments points to the Victory of the Cross, to the paradoxical wonder that is the Christian Passover.

We were not there with Jesus as these events unfolded. We did not encounter him in his ministry or witness his miracles. We did not see the empty tomb or encounter him on the way to Emmaus. We did not have the gift of seeing or touching his risen body. What we have, however, is the vantage of seeing how all these events, how Jesus life, death, and resurrection changed the world and inaugurated the Kingdom of God. We know the whole story and it is that knowledge that inspires and nourishes our faith.

Andrew Charles Blume ✠
Aboard BA0115 over the Mid-Atlantic
Thomas Ken, 21 March 2024

© 2024 Andrew Charles Blume