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Duration:10 mins 14 secs

Meditation for Palm/Passion Sunday

 Matthew 27:11-54

                Today wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were supposed to gather in the parking lot and make a joyful procession into the church with our palms, singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” Then later in the service, we were going to have a dramatic reading of Matthew’s Passion narrative, with individual members taking the different roles in the story and the entire congregation taking the role of the crowd in Jerusalem. But COVID-19 has interposed itself into our plans for congregational gatherings, so Palm Sunday 2020 is not meeting our expectations. 

            In a way, though, Palm Sunday never does. This is a liturgical day that is full of discordant notes, a day of contradictions that seems designed to leave us feeling unsettled. In fact, Palm/Passion Sunday is kind of an odd duck in the liturgical year, the result of a splicing together of two different liturgical traditions. “The procession with palms comes from the church in Jerusalem, which has reenacted Jesus’s entry into the city since at least the fourth century.”[i] The reading of the entire passion narrative comes from the church in Rome. The two traditions merged sometime between the fourth and eighth centuries.

            So we begin the service in a joyful and triumphal mood, and we end it in sorrow, as Jesus breathes his last on the cross. This mood swing of a liturgy is framed by two processions, with Jesus as the central figure. In the first, he is the hero of the crowds, like Steve Strasburg when the Nats returned to Washington after winning the World Series last fall. In the second, he is the object of their taunts and insults as he stumbles from Pilate’s headquarters toward his execution on Calvary Hill.

            There is nothing more outrageous to our sense of the way things ought to be than the spectacle of an innocent person wrongly accused, persecuted, and punished. The suffering of innocents is an outrage to everything that is good, decent, and orderly.

            Yet it happens all the time. Human history is full of innocent sufferers. There are millions of them, too many to be counted: not only the wrongfully accused and condemned, but also the victims of war, invasions, terrorism,  political upheaval, racially-motivated violence, religiously-motivated violence. Innocent people have also suffered by the millions from natural disasters:  earthquakes and tornadoes, floods and fires, and pestilence of all kinds.

            So what makes Jesus’s suffering so unique? Why do we take a week every year to contemplate this particular suffering, as if human beings aren’t wrongly condemned to unjust, painful deaths every day?

            The Mel Gibson movie that was popular years ago, “The Passion of the Christ,” focused on Jesus’s physical suffering in excruciating detail. To borrow a phrase from novelist Hilary Mantel, the film was a “fiesta of pain.” I don’t know if this is the message Gibson wanted to convey, but it seemed as though he was saying that the worse the pain Jesus experienced, the greater, and more efficacious, was his sacrifice for us. The intensity and horrific quality of Jesus’s physical suffering had to be unique in all of human history for it to have been effective for our salvation. To me, this would be a misconstrual of the doctrine of atonement, which I will not try to unpack here, but will say a bit more about on Maundy Thursday.

            The truth is that millions of human beings have suffered as agonizingly as Jesus. They have been violated, beaten, pierced, hacked, burned, starved to death, worked to death, and deprived of the comfort of fellow human beings who could have made their suffering bearable. In their final hour, they have felt forsaken by God just as Jesus did. Jesus, in fact, died rather quickly for a crucifixion victim – most suffered longer than he did.

            So what is so special about the suffering of Jesus?

            It is special because of who he is and what he does. The pain of the world is gathered up in the crucified Christ. Jesus Christ stands for the millions who have cried out in the pain of their particular situation in their particular time and place. It is not that Jesus has suffered more than us or instead of us. It is that he is the sufferer who stands for all of us. We see the crucified Christ in other suffering bodies and souls: those who endure physical torment, rejection, abandonment, isolation.  As Fleming Rutledge has said, the sorrow of Jesus “encompass[es] the entire human tragedy,” the human predicament of sin and suffering.[ii]

            The quantity and quality of the suffering is not the point – the point is that Jesus, as the representative human being, our divine Brother, Son of God and Son of Man, gives meaning to all human suffering. In his own ordeal, Jesus labored with the pain and loss of the whole world and was not defeated by it. He labored with it so that he could transform it.

            I have been wondering, where is Christ in our present moment? I think we would have to say he is with those who are dying alone, in ICUs and makeshift isolation units. COVID-19, the blindly cruel new coronavirus, inflicts loneliness, as well as physical suffering, on its victims. The virus even looks a bit like a crown of thorns – the word corona, in fact, means crown, an image as cruelly ironic as the piercing crown Jesus was forced to wear.

            In Jesus Christ God has entered the depths of the human condition to deliver us from ultimate abandonment. Pain and suffering do not have the last word. Only God has the last word, and that word is that no evil or hardship, whether it is injustice, persecution, pain, or sickness, nothing in all creation, not even death itself, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  God will meet all our expectations.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

April 5, 2020

           

 

[i] “Ben Stewart’s lectionary column for Palm Sunday,” at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-02/march-24-2013.

[ii] Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 8.

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