Today is a day of paradox – a day of tension.
And the tension of this day comes from the fact that the church calendar lets us choose between two different themes or liturgies for today.
Is it to be the Liturgy of the Passion? Do we focus on the suffering of Jesus?
Or, is it to be the Liturgy of the Palms? Do we focus on the triumphal entry?
If you look at the purple insert that we read together at the beginning of worship today you see at the top it says Palm – slash- Passion Sunday. So we have to ask: Which is it to be? What do we mark today? To what part of Jesus’ story do we turn our gaze?
Passion or Palm?
I’d like to look at this tension a little more closely this morning, first of all by thinking about the Passion side of the equation. As most of you will know, the lectionary sets out scripture readings for each Sunday of the year. And on this particular Sunday you have a choice of readings. If you celebrate today as Passion Sunday the reading is a long one from the Gospel of Mark. It’s a long reading that includes the Last Supper
it includes Jesus’ passionate prayer in the garden of Gethsemane
it includes the betrayal by Judas
This long reading also includes the arrest of Jesus
it includes Peter’s denial of Jesus
it includes the mocking of Jesus by soldiers
it includes the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
If today is Passion Sunday, then today is a day to think about Jesus’ suffering – to think of those last days of his life when he is abused and dies. If today is Passion Sunday, then the tone of worship will fit with that part of Jesus’ story – our worship it will be somber, it will be heavy, it will be dark. Our worship will mirror the suffering of Jesus.
To give a sense of the mood of the Passion side of the equation, I’d like to do something a little different this morning and read a passage from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. A passage that might help us see passion with fresh eyes.
In this particular scene, Aslan the lion is killed – Aslan is in a sense crucified, on the stone table. Aslan, of course, represents Jesus himself. Lucy and Susan, the children, look on as he is killed..
In the story we read:
When once Aslan had been tied on the flat stone Table, a hush fell on the crowd. Four Hags, holding four torches, stood at the corners of the Table. The Witch bared her arms…Then she began to whet her knife. It looked to the children, when the gleam of the torchlight fell on it, as if the knife were made of stone, not of steel, and it was of a strange and evil shape.
At last she drew near. She stood by Aslan’s head. Her face was worked up and twitching with passion, but his looked up at the sky, still quiet, neither angry nor afraid, but a little sad. Then, just before she gave the blow she stooped down and said in a quivering voice,
‘And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him…And when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.
The children did not see the actual moment of the killing. They couldn’t bear to look and had covered their eyes.
The liturgy of the passion focuses on the suffering and death of Christ on behalf of the human – on behalf of the human that betrayed the goodness and love of God. If we today celebrate the liturgy of the passion, then we approach this day with deep sadness and with a deep sense of everything Jesus went through on our behalf. We too almost feel the need to cover our eyes.
But again, today we must make a choice. For if we are not going to celebrate the liturgy of the Passion, then it will have to be the liturgy of the Palms. So we think for a moment about the liturgy of the Palms in contrast to the liturgy of the Passion.
Coming back to the lectionary which sets out scripture passages for each Sunday, we notice that if you choose to follow the liturgy of the Palms, there is a very different scripture reading. This year it is from Mark chapter 11. And of course it is the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is the narrative of joyful pilgrimage up to the temple. It is the narrative of ‘Hosanna’. Hosanna – a cry of salvation, a cry of praise. “Hosanna. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
If the liturgy of the Passion is heavy and mournful and dark, then the liturgy of the Palms is light and joyful and bright. The word ‘celebrate’ fits in well with the liturgy of the Palms. It is a celebration that God has come to us, that God is with, that God is saving us. Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna.
We read from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in order to give a sense of the liturgy of the Passion. And we can equally read from that story to give a contrasting sense of the liturgy of the Palms. Susan and Lucy have seen the brutal slaying of the lion Aslan, but there later comes a wonderful scene in which they encounter Aslan, newly alive. Again, of course, Aslan is representative of Jesus.
I read again from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, at the reappearance of Aslan:
‘Oh children,’ said the Lion, ‘I feel my strength coming back to me. Oh, children, catch me if you can!’ He stood for a second, his eyes very bright, his limbs quivering, lashing himself with his tail. Then he made a leap high over their heads and landed on the other side of the Table. Laughing, though she didn’t know why, Lucy scrambled over to reach him. Aslan leaped again. A mad chase began. Round and round the hill-top he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs. It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind. And the funny thing was that when all three finally lay together panting in the sun the girls no longer felt in the least tired or hungry or thirsty.
The liturgy of the Palms – joy, celebration, new life, abundant living, dancing and playing – a romp. The liturgy of the Palms fits in so naturally with the reality of resurrection doesn’t it.
So, then which do we choose for today – the liturgy of the passion or the liturgy of the palms.
Now, this may seem odd, but I don’t actually want to focus this morning on the liturgy of the passion verse the liturgy of the palms. What I really want to focus on this morning is the Lord’s Supper.
And what I would like us to see is that when it comes to this meal, this sharing in bread and wine, we also have a choice to make. Will communion be a liturgy of the Passion or a liturgy of the Palms? And what I would also suggest this morning is that we Presbyterians have made a choice on this question in the past – and our choice has been to celebrate the Communion as a liturgy of the Passion. The Lord’s Supper has therefore been a sombre or sober occasion:
the music has generally been serious,
the words have tended toward the heavy,
the silence is personal and reflective,
the tone has accentuated repentance from sin.
In the Lord’s Supper, in communion, we have chosen the liturgy of the Passion.
Now in some ways this is appropriate. The Apostle Paul, in describing our sharing in bread and wine associates it with the last meal of Jesus with his disciples – The Apostle Paul associates the Lord’s Supper (communion) with the Last Supper, with the Passion. And in his letter to the Corinthians he focuses on the seriousness of that supper.
He tells us to examine ourselves to see if there is any sin in us.
We are warned to take the supper in a worthy manner.
He focuses on Christ’s suffering and death.
But what we should realize is that when the Apostle Paul interprets the Lord’s Supper in this way, he is actually responding to abuses of the supper among the Christians living in the city of Corinth. When they got together for the meal, some were eating before others, with some going hungry. Some were drinking so much wine that they were getting drunk. And into this situation the Apostle Paul comes to insert an important theological note of seriousness.
But there is no reason for that note of seriousness to dominate. There is clear evidence in the New Testament that before the Apostle Paul introduced his account of the Lord’s Supper, there was an older tradition of eating together in the church. And that more primitive meal, that more primitive sharing together in bread and in wine, didn’t involve remembrance of the Last Supper before Jesus died. Rather, that more primitive meal was a remembrance of the meals that the disciples shared with the risen Jesus.
We have a hint of this in our reading this morning from the book of Acts. We read of the early church: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” You may say, well that sounds like an ordinary meal, not the Lord’s Supper – and yes that’s exactly the case. But you see when first celebrated, the Lord’s Supper was simply part of a communal meal – a meal in which Christians gathered to celebrate new life in Jesus Christ, to celebrate his risen presence.
Think of the two sad disciples on the road to Emmaus – they walked in the presence of the risen Jesus – and as they did so their hearts burned within them. And when the risen Jesus joined them for a meal, he broke bread, and their eyes were open. They saw him.
The Lord’s Supper, in its earliest form, was a meal that pointed to and celebrated the presence of the risen Jesus with his people. It was not a somber and sad memorial of his death – it was not a remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with the disciples. It did not focus on the cross and on repentance. We might say, the Lord’s Supper was not in the first instance a liturgy of the Passion – rather it was a liturgy of the palms. A liturgy of celebration and joy.
Yet we Presbyterian seem to have made a choice – we have chosen to celebrate communion as a memorial meal, as a liturgy of the Passion. Serious, heavy, reflective, even mournful.
Now let it be clear, I’m not going to say that we can never have a serious moment in the Lord’s Supper. I’m not going to say that the Lord’s Supper must always have a celebratory and festive atmosphere. What I’m saying is that we must have variety. The Lord’s Supper should not always be a sombre serious affair. It must sometimes be a joyful affair. We walk in step with a risen Lord. He joins us at this table.
Death is defeated.
Guilt is gone.
Fear is finished.
Sin is sidelined.
The risen one is in our midst. Let’s share in this meal with joy –
with music that is light,
with words that are festive
with hearts that are lifted up,
with Palm branches waving…
Indeed, that is the great gift of this particular day. For we have in fact chosen to mark this day as the liturgy of the Palms. This worship service is a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving. The children have waved palm branches. We have sung songs of joy. And in that same joy we come to the table – sharing with the risen Lord.
Let us come to this table today, then, not in sombre silence, but with delight in our hearts – with delight in our voices, with celebration in our step.