St. David’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC
Friends, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering what in the world just happened. Palm Sunday does this to us every year. Perhaps we should begin to print warning labels on the bulletins. The day begins with the most magnificent celebrations as we parade around the church – palms raised, sun shining, trees blossoming – declaring that all glory, laud and honor belongs to Jesus, our Redeemer King, who enters Jerusalem with the crowd cheering him on. Then before we know it, we find ourselves stunned and silent as this same Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and breaths his last breath. In a matter of moments we move from blessing with our hosannas to condemning with the cry, “Crucify him.” What are we to make of this holy whiplash?
What we find in our gathering together today is the buy-one-get-one deal on liturgies. We begin with the liturgy of the palms and then shift to the liturgy we would expect to find on a Sunday at St. David’s with passion reading smack in the middle. Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday are fused together. Before we go declaring this pairing absurd and too much for one congregation to bare, let me suggest that those who compiled this liturgy did so with good reason.
It would be quite convenient for us to be able to pass from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday – to move from triumph to triumph. That way we could tone down the depressing parts of the story and stick with the stuff that leaves us feeling uplifted – the pieces that are good PR for the church. But in placing the passion reading right next to the liturgy of the palms, we are forced to recognize that the path of Jesus is not triumph to triumph. The passion narrative throws us into the shock and betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the horror of Good Friday, and the silence of Holy Saturday. The story does not move light to light, high to high, celebration to celebration. No, the majority of Holy Week as told in the passion story is spent in the dark.
As disorienting as this day might be – moving from celebration to disaster – it recognizes that we are not people who live triumph to triumph, light to light (or at least I know I’m not). We are a people well acquainted with the dark. A quick survey of the news headlines reminds us of this – violence in Sudan, starving children in Yemen and hungry children in our own backyard, places of worship burnt to the ground because of the color of the worshipper’s skin. We know the world is often a dark place where war, disease, violence and hunger threaten far too many. And if we are honest with ourselves we also recognize that we too have not escaped the reach of the dark. Too many of us know the darkness of fractured relationships, abuse, death, disease and heartbreak. We know what it is like to sit in hospital waiting rooms, in the silence of dreams that will never be fulfilled, in the dark.
Friends, if our faith allows us to simply pass light to light and high to high without saying anything to the dark, I do not think it would be a faith worth clinging to.
This week, this Holy Week, as the world goes on beating its breast, we stop to watch. We along with Christians around the world pause to attend to, wrestle with and enter into that which is the very guts of Christianity. And there, poised between Psalm Sunday and Easter, we find the dark.
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
It is a darkness so deep that not a single part of the land goes untouched. It is a dark that came well before nightfall as an unexpected guest who entered in the most traumatic of manners.
And yet we would be wise to remember that in the Jewish worldview (which is the context we’re talking about here), that the changing of day did not begin with the passing of the clock from 11:59PM to 12:00AM. The changing of day begins with nightfall. The sign of a new day is darkness.
For those left at the foot of the cross the dark is still present. There is no sign of a coming light. No one knows why this unnatural darkness came or when it loosen its grip on the land. It clouds any sense of time and makes it difficult to know which way to step.
And still, somehow, in this darkest of days is the sign that a new day is present. As perfect love breathes its last breath, it is perfect love that remains. And it is here in death and violence that a new order is birthed – a world order where death and violence do not have the final say. And yet this new thing is always marked by, always holds the memory of its birth in the dark. The wounds remain in death and resurrection. As theologian Shelly Rambo writes, “Death is the beginning. The Christian faith is about living in the mystery of this strange beginning.”
On this holy whiplash Sunday, we feel that strange beginning. We welcome the Messiah, King Jesus, and we follow him into the dark. Friends, as we enter this Holy Week together let us resist the urge to simply move from triumph to triumph and remember that the new day first begins in the dark. Instead of being like those onlookers who could not stand to be in the darkness any longer, may be we like the acquaintances of Christ who did not run away but rather remained in the darkness. It was in witnessing the horrors of the dark that they witnessed the beginning of a new day. And if you, like Christ and Christ’s friends, find yourself in the darkest of nights, know that the wounded Christ remains there with you.