Monday, March 25, 2013

His Blood Be Upon Us: A Sermon for Palm Sunday

I preached this Palm Sunday sermon more than a decade ago, but reading back through it, I think it still may have something to say to someone about the various places we find ourselves taking in the crowds who formed the chorus of Holy Week.

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When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in a turmoil asking, “Who is this?”

In the name of the FATHER and of the SON and of the HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

Today’s two gospels present a Sunday’s triumph and a Friday execution.

Some of those who on Sunday exclaimed “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” were the same ones who stood in front of Pilate’s judgment seat on Friday shouting, “Let him be crucified.... His blood be on us and on our children.”

But Jesus knew this was the way that it would be. Before entering the city in triumph, he has three times predicted what will happen in Jerusalem. Even as he is teaching in the temple before his arrest, he pointedly rebukes the scribes and Pharisees to the crowd saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! ... you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

In some places it is customary to feast the night before a fast begins. This is done not to tide the person over, but so that the pangs of hunger will be more intense. Jesus’ triumphal entry is like this -— to be gorged with adulation, knowing at the time that he will soon die as a criminal, almost entirely deserted even by those closest to him. 

Think of the bittersweet undercurrent of that last meal with his disciples who still believe that all is well. Think of the anguish as he prayed alone in the garden, the sounds of hosanna still fresh in his ears but waiting for the guards to come find him there.

In the same way, Palm Sunday or the Sunday of the Passion is a feast to heighten our fast.

Today, we stand at the gate of Holy Week. We have almost passed through our season of preparation and stand ready to recall the events we believe led to the salvation of the world. The readings of the crucifixion and triumphal entry forewarn us of the pain of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. 

In the Middle Ages, this designation was clearer. Palm Sunday was in various places known as “The Mass of Shaved Heads” because those who were being prepared for baptism at Easter had their heads shaved bare on this day. In some places it was called “The Mass of Traditional Symbols” because it was on this day that the baptismal candidates were taught the creed and thus learned the traditional formulation of faith in the value of Christ’s death and resurrection. Today warns us of the seriousness of what is to come.

There is also a longer arc in which we must participate, one that stretches beyond Holy Week and into the age to come. We must listen to today’s proceedings as if we were members of that fickle crowd. Even as we believe that we will be citizens of a new Jerusalem, we must see that we too can wave a palm branch then shout murder. In that same passage where Jesus is teaching in the temple he says of the scribes and Pharisees:

Woe to you ... for you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

I am sure that the disciples who were listening didn’t include themselves in that group in any way, even though they would soon desert Jesus and flee, even though Peter would deny him three times.

Today’s liturgy reminds us that we are the crowd in the story in need of salvation, that we are mercurial creatures who cannot save ourselves. In today’s readings, the crowd, at first, seems to have a bit part, but the whole drama is for them.

Today when we purify or bless something, we use incense or sprinkle holy water. In ancient times, the priest who wanted to expiate sin or impurity sprinkled the blood of a sacrifice. 

This is the drama of the crowd’s part in the trial of Jesus before Pilate. In calling for Jesus’ execution, they urge Pilate on saying “His blood be on us and on our children.” In later centuries, this verse was used to justify atrocities against Jews, but in this scene in Matthew, the crowd in front of Pilate stands in for all of humanity. Only the night before Jesus has said, “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” We are that crowd's metaphorical descendants who need the paschal lamb without blemish, and so in the liturgy we hear the words “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”

As part of the celebration of Passover, the residents of Jerusalem had smeared their doorposts with lamb’s blood as a sign for death to pass by their houses. After the crowd’s exclamation, Jesus has to bear his cross past these same blood soaked doors as he went Golgotha to become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The week to come is our Passover. We still refer to these days as the time of the paschal mystery and set the date of Easter by the first moon after the spring equinox. Many rites in ancient Judaism were reserved for the priests alone, but at the Passover, even the smallest child took part in the drama of salvation. 

Passover recalled deliverance from bondage and death in Egypt through the sacrifice of a perfect lamb, the retelling of the story of how the Jews had come to be delivered during a ritual meal where the lamb was eaten.

As then we recall a story, a meal, a sacrifice, and deliverance from death. As then, there is a place for all of us at the table. As then the story and the ritual recall both terror and triumph. On Thursday we enter the upper room and encounter that last meal that serves as the type for all that we do at the altar. On Friday we go with him to his sacrifice on Golgotha. On Sunday we celebrate his triumph over death and our deliverance.

The events of the week to come are not small things and through it all, we must remember our place in the story, the crowd that stood in for all generations to come and unknowingly called down salvation on the world. We must remember that these things were done not so much for the glory of God as they were so that we one day might be glorified. We remember that we are as in need of these events as we are hopeful that we will one day shout hosanna before the King who is to come.

His blood be upon us.