Useful discomfort

Sunday of the Passion/ Palm Sunday: Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49

Today is the Sunday of emotional and spiritual whiplash. We begin our service waiving palms and singing Hosanna, and then the church gives us the trailer for coming attractions, so we end with Jesus dead. Jesus enters Jerusalem cheered by throngs on the roadside, and leaves it on his way to be crucified. It’s a lot. Some churches stay with the Palms and hosannas, leaving the Passion for later in the week. But I’m always glad they come together

The conjunction of palms and the Passion means we can’t be too comfortable. The readings are grounded in faith, with Isaiah’s proclamation that “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty. The Psalmist is a little more anxious: “I have heard the whispering of the crowd . . . they plot to take my life”; but still, “But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord”, so “Make your face to shine upon your servant/ and in your loving-kindness save me.” Threat and faith are both there.

The Passion narrative is oten read as a play, with a narrator and speaking parts, with most of the congregation as a chorus. When I have participated in such readings, the hardest part is when all of us, as the crowd, have to call for Jesus’ death: we’re all part of the story. A few times I have served as the narrator, and the best part was that I didn’t have to join in. What we learn, again and again, is that we all fail sometimes.

In the longer version of the Passion narrative (Luke 22:14-23-56), we are reminded that even Jesus’ closest followers failed repeatedly. He chooses a few to join him in prayer at Gethsemane, and they fall asleep. Peter, on whom Jesus promises to build his church, denies his relation to Jesus. And these people were his close companions, who had been with him on a daily basis.

Jesus is joined on the cross by two thieves, one of whom taunts Jesus by asking him to save them all. The other, often seen as the good thief, acknowledges his guilt and asks Jesus to remember him. The poet and theologian John Shea reminds us: “I am both thieves/ scrounging for the kingdom/ and cursing the cross.”1 We all are.

We spend Holy Week going back and forth. We’re never allowed to settle in one place. The movement back and forth provides a reminder of our frailty; it makes me a little less sure of my virtue. If we don’t rush to Easter, we can use the time to become more honest with ourselves.

1John Shea, “Prayer to Jesus”, in The Hour of the Unexpected (1977), p. 12

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