Palm Sunday & Holy Week Address to the St Martin’s Community in Providence, RI

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He had come to celebrate the Passover. Having traveled from Bethany, Jesus entered Jerusalem through one of its eastern gates to wild acclaim from the crowds that greeted him by stripping the fronds from the palm trees lining the road.

The waving of palms was a gesture that tells us something of popular expectations for Jesus. Some 160 years before the triumphant Judas Maccabeus led his victorious partisans into the Temple, bearing palm branches with which they cleansed and rededicated it after the defilement by the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanies. The waving of palm branches reveals something of the expectations of Jesus as another liberator, who in the mold of Judas Maccabeus had come to free them from the hated Roman occupation.

At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another triumphal entry procession wound its way into the city from the West. The Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head of his Roman Legion had also come up to Jerusalem for the Passover.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem. He chose to avoid the city’s ancient warrens seething with civil and religious discontent. Pilate and his Roman administration preferred the sea breezes and Mar A Largo conveniences of Herod the Great’s former capital at Caesarea Maritima, now the administrative center of the Roman occupation of Judea.

Pilate hated and feared the crowds of Jerusalem most especially during the Passover celebrations. But he had to come up to the city on his once a year visit with a show of preemptive force in order to forestall the potential for insurrection during the flashpoint of the Passover. A wise move, for the crowds that hailed Jesus, were in insurrection mood.

Holy Week commemorates the events beginning on Palm Sunday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. Three narratives or storylines intersect and clash with alarming result as Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus all become caught up in an escalation of events none could control. The storyline of worldly oppression and political violence intersects with a storyline of populist resistance and nationalist longing for liberation at whatever cost. Both confront the third storyline which concerns the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world.

Events take an unexpected turn and rapidly spiral seemingly out of control, culminating on the eve of the Passover with Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples, followed by arrest, mock trial, and crucifixion the following day.

On Maundy Thursday we will gather to celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper during which he washed his disciple’s feet, mandated (maundy) them to love one another, before instituting the Eucharist by establishing a lasting association between the Passover bread and wine and his body and blood soon to be broken and shed on the cross.

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on the way of his passion. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion surfaces in identification with that of Jesus. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal. We journey with Jesus as part of a community that journeys to the cross bearing within us not only our individual maladies and sufferings, but the maladies and sufferings of the world around us.

Liturgy is a form of dramatic reenactment through which as a community, we are transported into sacred time. In ordinary time and space, we remember. In sacred time we become participants in the timeless events that engulf Jesus.

By timeless, I mean that liturgy is more than ordinary remembering, it is remaking again the past in the present. Liturgy ushers us into a dimension called sacred time where the temporal divisions of past, present, and future blend together in the eternal now. In sacred time we become participants with Jesus – as if we too are part of his band of disciples during that eventful last week:

  • Like them at his Last Supper, we experience the uncomfortable intimacy symbolized in his washing our feet.
  • With them, we share in the breaking and sharing of Jesus’ Passover bread and drink from his Passover cup.
  • With the disciples, we accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane and with them witness his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
  • Over the following 15 hours of Thursday evening and into the Friday we call Good, we follow as part of the band of his disciples viewing with dismay and from a safe distance, the unfolding of frightening events.

On Good Friday, in addition to the two liturgies of Stations of the Cross at noon and the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday at 7 pm, we also keep another tradition; one of action and solidarity in memory of Jesus with the current state of our world. In the Good Friday Walk, we join other Christians’ en-route to the State House for a public marking of this day. The Good Friday Walk is not an action taking place in sacred time but in the here and now. It is an action of solidarity that looks in two directions; towards solidarity with Jesus, and at the same time solidarity for the alleviation of hunger among God’s sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers. I hope that many of you will find time for both forms of participation on the Friday we call Good.

At the end of the Solemn Liturgy on the evening of Good Friday, we sing a hymn based on Jesus final words from the cross – it is finished. With the death of Jesus on the cross, the old order dies as Jesus begins his journey into hell where he vanquishes the ancient hold of evil over world. We mark Jesus’ descent into the realm of the dead on Saturday. On Saturday evening we gather in the waning twilight to celebrate the ancient liturgy of the Easter Vigil. Here in dramatic and timeless actions:

  • we kindle the new fire and welcome the new Light of Christ into the world.
  • we listen to highlights from the long epic story of our communal relationship with God
  • we renew our baptismal covenant and welcome the newly baptized into the Church
  • we celebrate with joyful noise the resurrection followed by an Easter party with champagne and chocolate.

On Easter Day we continue, joined by many from our wider community and beyond who are drawn to celebrate with us the resurrection – the new chapter in the epic narrative of God’s promise of new life.

Our memory fails us if we think of Jesus’ resurrection only in terms of “then” and not also in terms of “now.” We are not re-enacting Jesus’ resurrection; we are reappropriating Jesus’ resurrection power.-Br. Curtis Almquist SSJE

Visit our full Holy Week and Easter schedule here.

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