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.