By the Rev. Darren Miner
As I’ve said many times before, the liturgical season of Lent is a jarring time. Well, Holy Week is even more so! Today, Holy Week begins, and by a quirk of liturgical history, we get the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem juxtaposed with Matthew’s account of the Passion. For this reason, this Sunday is given two names in the prayer book: Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion.
A variety of pious customs have become associated with this Sunday, all of which focus on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In Russia, pussy willows are carried in procession. In South India, flower petals are strewn on the floor of the sanctuary during the reading of the Gospel of the Palms. (The sexton must just love that!) And in the United States, we solemnly bless palms and carry them in procession as we sing Jesus’ praise. A favorite pastime of both children and adults is to make crosses out of the palm fronds and then keep the crosses on display in the home until Shrove Tuesday. On that day, the palm crosses may be returned to church, burned, and made into the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
The dual nature of Palm Sunday bothers some folks. They rightly point out that it is redundant to read one Passion account on Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday. Consequently, a few Episcopal churches have abandoned the practice of reading the Passion on Palm Sunday. But this early reading of the Passion does serve a purpose. It lets us all know in no uncertain terms what we can expect in the coming week—namely, a protracted experience of Jesus’ last days.
At the Tuesday morning Eucharist, we will hear Jesus resolutely accept that he must be lifted up on the Cross in order to glorify his Father in Heaven. On Thursday evening, downstairs in the parish hall, we will gather to commemorate the Last Supper, to share a simple meal, and to prepare the church for the most difficult day of the Christian year, Good Friday. On that most solemn day of fasting and abstinence, we will gather at 3 in the afternoon, at the very hour of Jesus’ death, to hear St. John’s account of the Passion of the Christ.
It’s a very busy week! Even so, I would encourage you to participate as fully as you can in preparation for the celebration of Easter, which you can celebrate twice this year: on the evening of Holy Saturday at St. Cyprian’s and again on Sunday morning here at Incarnation. But I digress!
Today, let us enter into the story of Jesus’ torture and death by considering one of the so-called Seven Last Sayings from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words are deeply troubling, for they tell us that the Son of God experienced the abandonment of his heavenly Father. For a moment, the unimaginable took place: the Second Person of the Holy Trinity experienced a sense of disconnection from the First Person of the Holy Trinity. In other words, God experienced what it feels like to be abandoned by God!
Our crucified Lord experienced what so many of us experience at some point in our lives, the feeling that God has ceased to care. That feeling can come when we’ve prayed and prayed and still our loved one dies. It can come when we ourselves are seriously ill and begging for a bit more time on this earth. For sometimes the answer to our most fervent prayer is a stark No. Each of us, I think, will eventually confront a sense of God’s absence. Each of us, in our own little way, will someday undergo our own Passion.
In that moment, what are we supposed to do? To whom should we turn? Well, the answer is to follow our Lord and Master Jesus Christ and to do what he did in his darkest hour. He turned to God, shared his anguish with his heavenly Father, and expressed his continuing faith. Yes, even in those words of seeming despair—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—we find an implied declaration of continuing faith. At that moment, when Jesus could have said anything at all to express his sense of abandonment, he quotes the start of Psalm 22, a psalm that begins in anguish and despair but ends in faith and hope. Even in his agony, Jesus maintains his trust in God. And as you know, his trust was not misplaced.
I pray that each of us, in our darkest hour, will find the inner strength to proclaim the faith of Psalm 22: “To the Lord alone, all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship. All who go down to the dust fall before him. My soul shall live for him!”
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.