Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Holy Participation in Holy Mysteries

Palm Sunday is coming right up. Lent seemed to take forever to get here, but then, once here, it has sped by. Of course, it's been a little weird for me personally, what with getting made a bishop ten days into it. The transition has distracted me from the more normal rhythm of the season.

But here we are, nonetheless. The historic western liturgy for Palm Sunday is, by any stretch, slightly incoherent at first glance. This incoherence is encapsulated right in the title of the day in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer--The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Here's an interesting, if useless, bit of historical trivia: In the 1928 Prayer Book (and earlier editions), the Fifth Sunday in Lent was subtitled Passion Sunday, but none of the propers had anything to do with the Passion. The following Sunday was styled Palm Sunday, but there was no mention of the Triumphal Entry or anything to do with Palms, though there was the long reading of St Matthew's version of the Passion. So the incoherence is nothing new.

The current rite takes two distinct but cognate liturgies and puts them in a sequential temporal relationship with each other: first the Liturgy of the Palms and then the Liturgy of the Passion. This sequence makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, since, in the biblical narrative, the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem takes place before--five days before, to be precise--our Lord's Passion. 

But here's a place where our intuition can get us into trouble if we're not vigilant, because it's tempting to infer from this liturgical-sequence-mirroring-historical-sequence that the mysteries in which we participate through the liturgical sanctification of time ought to be, and indeed are, a reenactment of historical time. Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday which gives way to Easter, just as the Last Supper gave way to the Passion, which then gave way to the Resurrection. We too easily assume that the liturgies of Holy Week are of the same genre as the reenactment of a Civil War battle.

We assume wrongly, however. Liturgy is an eschatological and mystical participation in the Paschal Mystery. And the Paschal Mystery, while faceted--or, we might even say, segmented--is a unitary whole. It encompasses the incarnation, birth, life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Son of God, along with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the ongoing life of the Church, and the prefigurement of the whole thing in the Old Testament. Participation in part of it is participation in all of it. Reenactors of the Battle of Gettysburg can pretend that they don't know how it ends; in fact, the ability to so pretend is what makes the whole endeavor possible. 

But Christians cannot forget that Jesus is risen from the dead. 


And our liturgical life does not call us to set aside such knowledge, even on Good Friday. Christians are appropriately solemn and awestruck on Good Friday. But if we shed tears, they are tears of gratitude, or tears of remorse, never tears of grief. 

This may all seem like a fine distinction, but it is manifestly not a distinction without a difference. Only in the light of just such a distinction does what the church calls us to do this Sunday make any sense. If we see it simply as the reenactment of a historical sequence of events, then the reading of the synoptic Passion (from Matthew this year) seems out of place, an interloper, a chance to exploit a captive audience, many of which will not bother to show up the following Friday to hear John's account of the same events. 

But if we wear our mystical and eschatological glasses to church on Sunday--or even if we can just tap into the frame of mind in which we would read poetry--then it will not only not be jarring, it will make consummate sense. In the parish hall, our lips will shout "Hosanna in the highest!" In the church, maybe twenty minutes later, those same lips will shout "Crucify him!" It would be a remarkably insensitive soul that would not be brought up short by the starkness of that juxtaposition. And precisely in that moment of being brought up short, we know the power of liturgy to take us into territory our rational minds are appropriately wary of, but which is necessary for us to traverse if we would find wholeness.

I'll see you at the cross.


Kip Ashmore said...

Bishop Daniel - Thank you so much for your reflections on Holy Week/Easter. As we do our final tweaking of the liturgical output for these holy days, it's good to have a word from our Bishop to guide us and inspire us. Again, thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Fr. Kip Ashmore

franon said...

"Were you there," we sing. I was. All along the way...with Palm Branch praising a Jesus of my own liking and imagination. With a fist shouting "Crucify Him," as I rejected Truth Incarnate. But somehow, by God's grace and mercy, this Ragamuffin was -eventually- there saying, "Truly this man was the Son of God," and heard, from that Holy Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

'What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end? O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee.'

Walt Knowles said...

It's worth remembering--and it makes it all the more topsy-turvy--that the 4th-century Jerusalem palm liturgy happened in the afternoon, well after the Eucharist.

And I think it's all the more important to remember that for almost all of the early church, it was the week after Easter Sunday that was "Holy Week." The crucifixion is important historical recollection; the resurrection (as Augustine so powerfully said in one of his Vigil sermons) is what is present across time and space and is present now. "Were you there when the crucified my Lord?" has always to be truthfully answered "no", but "Were you there when he rose up from the tomb?" should be "Yes! in my baptism and in the baptism of my brothers and sisters in Christ."

Daniel Martins said...

Indeed, Walt, when I was in seminary, we celebrated the Liturgy of the Palms in the late afternoon.

Brandon Filbert said...

An excellent post, Bp. Daniel. It has seemed to me for a long time that the issue of the Paschal Mystery continues to be somewhat elusive to many parishes and their clergy; the Civil War re-enactor analogy is splendid. Being able to understand this as a unitive event is very difficult in part because of that medieval notion that it only by journeying through each stage and feeling compassion for Christ that we really respond properly for what what was done on our behalf. The 1979 BCP's awareness of the Early Church's grasp on these things is still not well-received in many quarters, I fear. Your post is a material assistance in this regard. For our Church to pursue its mission and evangelize effectively, we need to get back to this sort of work, rather than running after each new fad or trend. The great gift we have to share is right there in front of us... and we forget it again and again.

Blessings on your Holy Week.. see you at the Empty Tomb (and at the Ascension and Pentecost... all part of the unitive event, as well!).

Fr. Brandon Filbert
Rector of your old parish in Salem