A reflection offered on Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Passion Gospel according to Matthew.
When I was in my mid-20s, at that time not having really been to church for 10 – 15 years, I attended a Palm Sunday service. It was one of the first church services I had ever been to when I was not with my parents, when no one was making me go or inviting me to join them as a member of the family. It was only some inner impulse that I did not understand. Indeed, the only thing I knew was that I did not fully appreciate why I was going. What a re-entry into the life of faith! Palm Sunday. With its sweeping, breath-taking narrative of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem only to be completed by a long, slow reading that ends in the crucifixion.
I remember now walking in, being handed a huge bundle of things: bulletin, a prayer book, a hymnal and a palm. I went to my seat, hands full, wondering where to put the palm – on the pew ledge? In the hymn book? In my hand?
Then the Passion Narrative was read with the congregation shouting out at key moments. It all had a timeless and dreamlike quality.
- It wasn’t just a long-ago city but was happening now. Both.
- They had been shouting “Hosanna” and I was shouting “Hosanna”.
- They and we shouted “Crucify!”
- And as I was in it, I was reminded of the many times as a child, when I had come to shout praise and condemnation. And those shouts along with those now and those long ago seemed to echo along the corridors of time.
There is a device used in story telling, especially in fantasy, fairy tales and science fiction. The hero or heroine will have certain adventures. Then they wake from sleep and realize it was a dream. But, as they do, they see near them, in the place of waking, an object that was also in the dream. And the haunting question comes, Which is the dream; which is reality? Dream and reality become interwoven….
I’ve come to think of the palm as that object – it functions as a time machine to dissolve away the gulfs which separate the illusions we call the past, the present and the future. The palm, the one you hold in your hand or tucked in your hymnal in front of you, makes all of them one, a single reality, an integrated vision.
That’s how religious symbols work. We are meant to make that leap of imagination. It’s the only way we can begin to apprehend the mystery of God’s action.
But the Passion Narrative is so big, so sweeping. The American poet Mary Oliver said that hearing the Passion Narrative was like hoping to get a cup of water from the foot of Niagara Falls. The force of it just knocks the cup from your hand.
Well, the Church has a couple of really good strategies.
- One is to slow the whole thing down, recognize its enormity and take it bit by bit.
- It helps to attend one or more Holy Week services.
- Each one seeks to take one part of the story and help us just sit with it, be in it, let it do its work on us.
- Another strategy (esp. for those who can only get to church on Sundays) is to focus on a character or phrase.
- Write down which ones struck you as you heard them this morning.
- Don’t try and figure out why. Just jot them down.
- Then take time to think about each one at some point this week. Something from God is there for you.
This week, I invite you to time travel. Go through the looking glass, over the rainbow, step into the wardrobe, leap through the wall to the train, hold up your palm. Let God’s story live in you and through you.