Today, the Sunday that begins Holy Week, is a day with two names.
When I was growing up, it used to be called just Palm Sunday, with a focus on processions and palms - a Sunday for celebration and cheering – the one occasion in Jesus’ ministry when the crowds seemed to get it right, and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was like a foretaste of the glory that is fully revealed after Jesus’ death and resurrection a week later. Palm Sunday back then was the day for Christians who loved sunshine and tickertape, and all the light-headed excitement of a parade. It was even possible to stay in the mood all week, to skip lightly between Palm Sunday and Easter Day a week later, from cheering Jesus as Messiah to standing in hushed awe in front of an empty tomb on Easter morning. The solemn moment of Good Friday, lying in between the celebrations like a religious version of Anzac Day, was for hurrying over.
Palm Sunday was a day for Christians on the move, a good day for getting out of our churches and being seen. And then, along the way, something wonderful happened. Palm Sunday became a day of symbolism even for people who weren’t Christians, but who joined with Christians in events like the annual Palm Sunday Rally and March for Peace. This day, on which as Christians we celebrate the one who follows the costly way of love all the way to Jerusalem, to the centre of our religious and political power – this day has become a day for Christians and non-Christians alike to reflect on how we see mirrored in the ancient story of Jesus’ passion and death, something of our own story and the story of the world we live in.
Then, even more recently, Palm Sunday acquired this double-barrelled name, both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday – starting off with the goose bumps and the slightly embarrassing fun of doing churchy stuff out in public - the dramatic celebration of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus’ five minutes of fame – and then all at once the sunshine gets switched off and the cheering fans go home – the mood turns dark, the crowd gets ugly and Jesus is arrested and beaten, forced to endure the humiliation of a show trial and tortured to death on a Roman cross. Cynics might suggest the Church needed to piggy-back the Passion readings onto the end of the Palm Sunday fun because not enough Christians were prepared to follow the journey all the way through the dark days and nights of Holy Week. Not enough Christians understood that the only way to experience the power of the resurrection is to identify both emotionally and physically with the agony of Gethsemene and the torture of the cross.
Historically, Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution would have happened quickly, almost as quickly as our lightening Passion Sunday rehearsal of it. The main preoccupation of the city was preparation for the Passover celebration, the excitement of a religious observance that was also a national festival and an excuse for a rip-roaring good time. The city was getting on with the real business of fleecing the tens of thousands of country bumpkins in town for the show – think of the Claremont Showgrounds at Royal Show time and you get the picture. The hurried arrest and execution of a minor Galilean troublemaker was hardly a blip on the radar.
Yet for the followers of Jesus, for the peasant women and men whose lives had been redefined by following this strange charismatic preacher, who had begun to see themselves as a new sort of community based on the rule of love – the shock of a world interrupted must have been paralysing. Straight after the tender yet disturbing intimacy of the Passover meal, the panic and fear of sudden arrest as armed soldiers scattered the disciples - who simply ran in fear. Peter denies even knowing Jesus, right as in the back of his mind he recalls his hot-headed promises of allegiance. Fear and anxiety would have spread outwards like ripples in a pond. It’s the same sort of reaction for people today whose lives have been ripped apart by terrorism, or for whole populations living in the shadow of military occupation. In our world just as much as the world of Jesus’ day, people with great power know that the way to control a chaotic situation is to act quickly, to provoke shock, to destabilise and intimidate anyone who might dare to ask questions. That’s how it is for the demoralised disciples.
And it’s also the power of the story of Jesus’ midnight interrogation that echoes down through the centuries – the power that reminds us – maybe against our will – of other midnight interrogations, arrests and beatings and disappearances that define our own political and moral world. We think of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid leaders of
The story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion is the ground zero of our Christian faith, the shocking reality of humiliation and destruction from which as Christians we dare not shrink away, we dare not avoid, because it is in watching with Jesus through the days and nights ahead of us that we also experience the reality of God with us in the heart of our own worst experiences. It is in the story of Jesus’ suffering and humiliation that we are confronted with our own humanity, our own suffering as well as our failure to respond with courage and mercy to the suffering of others. Because it’s not just Jesus’ suffering that gives this two thousand year old story the power to move and confront us, but the stunning and inexplicable act of love that we recognise at its centre – a love that not only makes the suffering possible but that has the power to reach into its very heart and transform it.
From the earliest centuries, Christians have recognised the need to relive the last journey of Christ, to look into the mirror of Jesus’ suffering and death and to see reflected there the stories of their own communities. On Good Friday, in the evening, we’re going to join millions of Christians throughout the world in the centuries-old Franciscan practice of reflecting on the Stations of the Cross - identifying ourselves in the drama as onlookers or participants, as those too preoccupied or too indifferent, too busy to care or simply unaware of what Jesus is doing that has any relevance to us. Maybe we’ll see the innocent suffering of Jesus reflected in the innocent suffering of victims of sexual abuse in our own wealthy country, children suffering in war-torn countries, the innocent victims of the AIDS holocaust in
The road to Golgotha that we are going to travel this week is littered with the torn bodies of human suffering, and our liturgy today and the liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are designed as ways for us to open ourselves to the reality of this story in our own lives, ways to get us asking ourselves some hard and yet life-giving questions -
What happens to us when we visualise all human suffering as the suffering of Christ? What difference might it make to Christians living in
Where in this story do you hear an echo of your own life? Where do you hear the echoes of betrayal, or fear and confusion and loss, that trigger that deeply-etched memory of your own world turned upside down, the grief that can’t be overcome or the guilt that can’t be avoided? How might the story of Jesus’ passion and death help you to think and pray about the inescapable realities of your own life?
As the palm fronds get swept up today, we enter the strangeness and the silence of Holy Week, the story of God’s extravagant love for every human being. Today, we set foot together the road to