Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40
Something is different this year. Something is new.
Actually, it is really, really old, but for our purposes, it is new. There are palms. Palms, on Palm Sunday. It reminds me of that wedding saying, the one that lists the traditional requirements for a bride’s ensemble: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. There is a fifth requirement of “a silver sixth pence in her shoe,” but that messes up my point, so I am ignoring it.
Here we have all of those qualities, bound together into one leafy example. Something old, meaning the ancient symbol of the palm, a time honored liturgy shared by Christians all over the world. It was not always easy to procure palms depending upon your climate. Enterprising Christians substituted different types of plants, like olive or willow. In some countries this is known as Yew Sunday, in others Branch Sunday. Enterprising New Englanders, by the way, go to the florist.
This is also new, meaning new to us. In my years here, we have never had palms on Palm Sunday. Like many old New England churches, we are ruthlessly independent in our particulars. But still, I was surprised as we are fairly unique among similar churches for not having palms. Perhaps it is the ceremonial aspects, the blessing offered over the palms. Traditionally it is done with an aspergillum, a type of silver wand with a ball on the end. The ball has holes in it so when it is dipped in holy water, it can be used to cast out the water in a spray. I did not pick up an aspergillum, so please do not go running for your umbrellas.
The practice of using palms is also borrowed. Its original meaning was a form of celebration. Branches from nearby trees were taken up by crowds rejoicing at the coronation of kings or some military victory. The palm is a symbol of the Roman goddess Victoria, the goddess of victory. Victory in battle was a prime virtue of Roman society. And so palm waving is borrowed from the celebrations of Rome.
Well that covers old, new, and borrowed. How do the palms represent something blue? The color blue was meant to be a ward against the Evil Eye, to protect a bride from evil influences. The something blue was often the garter that a woman wore on her wedding day. If you have ever been to a wedding in which the so-called “garter ceremony” was performed, you would have a sense of what is “blue” in the more risqué sense of the term.
In the case of palms, the blueness, at least to me, arises from another secondary meaning of the word: “blue” meaning sadness. The palms mark an initial celebration, which is one part of the shifting drama of Holy Week. Jesus enters Jerusalem surrounded by joyous crowds, the city thronging with people in anticipation of the Passover celebration. As the week progresses, the atmosphere changes. On Maundy Thursday we remember the Last Supper, preceding the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus. The height of Palm Sunday falls into the dark valley of Good Friday, the shadow of death itself.
That will change as well, the darkness falling away, the shadow dispelled, the victory returning now over death. But the darkness was there, it was and is always there. The darkness cannot be skipped over to get to the good part, like reading ahead in a book. We sometimes do that, I realize, fast-forwarding our attention from weekend to weekend. The joy of Palm Sunday leading straight onto Easter morning. And yet it is hard to appreciate the meaning of these events without following the rise and fall of the week.
Now if you were particularly attentive during the reading of the scriptures this morning, you may have noticed something.
Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.
Cloaks, not palms. The cloaks were placed upon the colt so Jesus could ride. They were placed upon the road as a sign of honor, as again done for a new king entered into a city on his coronation day. Luke described the use of cloaks, John mentioned palms.
Reading the Bible is often a matter of understanding what is not being said as much as what is being said. Palm Sunday is an example of two different versions of the same event. Were there palms or were their cloaks? Both are symbols of celebration of victory, so the details change but not the underlying meaning. This should not be understood as an inconsistency. Luke probably wrote his gospel 50 years after Jesus died, John over a century after the crucifixion.
Why did it take so long? It is unlikely that many of the disciples could read or write. Few people could, which is why the Gospel refers to scribes so often. Scribes took notes and wrote out important matters for kings and priests. Merchants worried about numbers and lists, so they could perhaps read a little and keep accounts, but that is far different from writing a book. The first Gospel was written by Mark and the level of Greek used in that account was notably weaker than later versions. Paul was an educated man, but even he did not write down a version of Jesus’ life.
We value the written word, but that is a relatively recent development. Literacy is almost universal in the United States, even if people engage in reading with varying interest. Yet in 1870, twenty percent of the U.S. population could not read at all – this meant utter illiteracy, not just a minimum level of competency. In that same year, eighty percent of blacks and other non-white groups could not read, again read anything at all. We take reading for granted, but historically even most kings were illiterate.
Throughout most of the history of Christianity, the vast majority of Christians probably could not read. Why? Because the vast majority of people regardless of religion could not read. During the medieval period in Europe, reading was such a rare skill that it was used as a test to determine if you were a member of the clergy.
This was important because priests could not be put on trial for crimes except by the church. If a man was arrested, he could complain of his priestly status to the arresting constable. A passage from scripture would be produced and the accused would be asked to read it. Now, frequently, only one passage was repeatedly used, so an enterprising criminal would memorize that passage. No one explained to me what happened when they handed the sly criminal off to the church. Why ruin a good story with pesky facts.
I mention all this because Protestantism is famously a religion of the written word, a matter of great pride to Protestants. The Bible is central to Reformation inspired traditions. The Bible, rather than tradition. That was a point of significant divergence from the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Both used versions of the Bible in uncommon languages, Latin and Ancient Greek respectively. Jewish scriptures were in Ancient Hebrew, a language essentially unknown to the common people of Jesus’ time except ceremonially.
In a priestly tradition, the priest stands as an intermediary between the people and God, as a keeper of traditions, a translator of scripture, and a teller of stories. As people began to read the Bible on their own, there were many new eyes and, not surprisingly, many new opinions. One of the purposes of the Reformation was to scrub away all of the church traditions that developed over the centuries because they were seen as obscuring the true meaning of the Bible.
For that reason, for example, there are generally only two sacraments in most Protestant churches, baptism and communion. A sacrament meaning a sign of a sacred thing, a visible form of an invisible grace. Marriage is not a sacrament. Confirmation, not a sacrament. Ordination, not a sacrament. These are rituals of the church, of course, but they are not explicitly Biblical depending upon one’s understanding of the Bible. And even these familiar rituals have been questioned through the centuries.
Over my years here at the church, I have at various times made small changes to the liturgy, meaning services of the church. I recall placing the pascal candle on the altar table during Advent. I have made changes to the communion service. You may have noticed that the color of my stole varies at times. The choice of color coincides with the season of the year – green for regular time, purple for Advent and Lent. On Christmas and Easter I wear a rainbow colored stole, which I must confess is a strictly Unitarian thing.
Often when I made these changes, I did so without having any idea that I was “changing” anything. There are no notations in the prayer book on how to do anything other than our regular morning worship. There are essentially numerous blanks that I have to fill in on special days, like Christmas and Easter. There are ceremonies that I generate all on my own, like weddings, memorial services, and baptisms. Even the familiar traditions often taken for granted at a wedding are not Biblical. Nothing old, nothing new, nothing borrowed, nothing blue in there. So I have to do some of this on my own and, quite frankly, it is hard even to remember how I did it last year.
Occasionally, a change will be noted. Someone will tell me, “Oh, that was not how we did it before.” Or something more non-committal “Isn’t that interesting,” or “That was different.” Once in a while, I will hear “That was a little high church, Mark” or even “Mark, that was a bit too Catholic.” I have heard that one a few times. A bit too Catholic.
So when I decided this Sunday to have palms, it did cross my mind, was this too Catholic? Was it too unusual, too out there?
You see, I am in the process of writing a paper about liturgy. Just another high point in the whirlwind of excitement that is my life. I am reading a series of books by the new progressive Christians. They are progressive because they focus on the mission of the church, the “being outside feeding the hungry, caring for the sick” part of going to church.
One of these progressives had a conversion experience from being an atheist Marxist leading to starting a food pantry at an Episcopal church. Another was a fundamentalist Christian who became a heavily tattooed alcoholic, and then a sober Lutheran minister. Talk about a Holy Week roller coaster.
These progressive Christians, all women by the way, have moved through different ways of thinking. The fundamentalist loses faith and then finds it again. The atheist never had any faith but stumbles upon it entirely by accident. What do you think did that? What brought these people into church, again or for the very first time? Was it a well-wrought sermon, lifting up points of humorous interest? Was it stirring organ music or color coordinated stoles? No, it was not.
These women felt lost. They felt broken. They were at the end of their respective ropes and debating how to use them. No Mary Oliver poem was not going to get them out of that tailspin. No scholarly perusal of the New York Times would fit the bill.
They turned to churches with long traditions and ancient liturgy. They took communion, they were plunged under water. They looked at these concrete ceremonies, and also processions and foot washing and all the rest. Physical symbols, signs of something sacred, visible form of an invisible grace.
Think of Holy Week. Think of the highs and the lows and then the highs once again. The shape of the week following the shape of their lives, punctuated at the end by the possibility of grace, the light somehow unbelievably overcoming the darkness. Darkness not read from a book but a darkness that was their daily bread.
Suffering understands suffering.
In one of these books, the author, a pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber, describes a Good Friday procession from her new Lutheran tradition. This is the Stations of the Cross, the pathway Jesus endured. A group of people walk around a church, stopping in various places as someone reads the description of Jesus’ arrest and trial, suffering and crucifixion.
Someone carries a large cross, another a bible. In this particular session, each person was also given a purple tulip to carry. After the circuit was completed, the tulips were placed by the foot of the cross in the sanctuary. But the journey did not end there. Some of the group gathered up the tulips. They went outside. They journeyed to a particular place in a not so great neighborhood of Denver. They placed the tulips on a spot on the pavement. On that spot, a woman had died, a victim of domestic violence. They placed the flowers on that spot, circled around it and prayed in silence. They left the flowers and went home.
Suffering understands suffering.
As I have researched this paper, I have come to realize that churches are not becoming less liturgical, but more and more so. Communion is being served more frequently, days like Ash Wednesday are observed after centuries of having been ignored. Why would this be?
Liturgy and ritual can break us out of our normal lives — call it our rut. That is not a guaranty, mind you, but it is at least a possibility. The Christian church year has a shape to it, a rising and falling. The anticipation of Advent, the reflection of Lent, the peaks and valleys of Holy Week. Each has a way of helping us somehow to get over ourselves for a moment. To get out of our frazzled heads and into our yearning hearts once or twice a year.
Why then do we have empty seats in church if this is such a great idea? Why do people not flock to Good Friday or come out in droves on Easter Eve? Lots of reasons. Busy lives, complicated calendars. High pressure jobs and low expectations. What do I mean by low expectations?
There is no expectation that you go to church, no sense of urgency or importance. There is also no expectation that people do those things which are taught at church, shown to be important in the scriptures. And with the shift away from expectations of church and about church, it is all the more startling to be reminded of what matters. Younger folks, the so-called millennials, have grown tired of church as another form of entertainment. They may not be overly interested in coming to church every Sunday, but they are particularly not interested in church that spends far more time talking than doing. That does not mean just becoming a food pantry. The mission of the church arises from the lessons of the church, but the lessons of the church must then find their way outside of the church through the mission. Mission without any message is directionless, and message without any mission is pointless.
As for liturgy, it changes. Look around this church. Over time the symbolism of this institution has changed dramatically. Originally, there was not a single stained glass window here. It was all clear glass with a central pulpit. Clear glass, because stained glass was too Catholic. A central pulpit because the Bible and preaching were central.
Notice the windows behind me and behind you are more abstract, stylized flowers, lanterns and anchors, each a symbol requiring explanation like a trip to the museum. Then came angels on my left, then saints on my right. The physical building slowly shifted from one religious tradition to another, old style Unitarian to modern Episcopalian. What are we now and what will we be in the years to come? God only knows.
Back to the palms. Traditionally, palms would be blessed with water, aspergillum or not, and this would happen outside the church, perhaps over on the lawn in our case. We would then process into the church with singing, followed by the morning service. When I was a child, we would pick up our palms as we entered, which gave us something to fidget with or to poke a handy sibling.
The palms would then be taken home and placed somewhere in plain sight. I remember always seeing a strand of palm behind the bureau mirror in my parents’ room. The palms can also be woven into different shapes, often crosses or squares surrounding a cross.
We are new at this, I realize. So this is what I propose, how I interpret palms in this setting and in this congregation. I will offer a blessing, a prayer over those gathered and a reminder of this momentous week to come. I will then conclude the sermon and we will sing the closing hymn. As you exit to the parish hall, or before you go out the back, please come forward and take one of the palms.
Please take it, keep it. Have it as a reminder of the glory recalled this day and the hope and promise of Easter morning. Be forewarned that palm will dries out. It shrinks. It will change, much like our own lives change.
How do you renew that life? You remember the cycle of the year, the seasons coming and going, the ups and downs, the downs and the ups. Change is the only certainty. So we will know joy and we will know suffering and then joy once more. Again and again. And in time, we will know more. We will know the hope and promise of new life. Think of that. Think of all of that when you look at the palm.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we gather in celebration this day of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We celebrate even as we anticipate his suffering, even as we know of his terrible fate. We remember his hands wounded and his body broken. We remember his suffering in our own moments of pain, in our struggles and in our troubles. And we know those too shall pass, the shadows broken, the darkness dispelled, the tomb empty. As with the light of morning, these nights will end.
Bless these people gathered. Bless these hearts with caring, these souls with joy. And let these palms be a sign of your caring, your joy, and your promise of new life, that light that carries us through the final darkness. We ask this in your holy name.