Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Then the whole multitude began to praise God joyfully, saying,
Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Then they brought Jesus to the place the place of a skull.
And they crucified him.
I was a young adult when I first came to church. And I remember looking around at the liturgy and feeling equal parts fascinated and intimidated and inspired and mystified. Being in an Episcopal church for the first time was a bit like being at a square dance where everyone else knows the moves really well: I suspected that I had fallen a Do-si-do or a Promenade an Allemande Left behind the rest of the congregation. And a lot of the time I wasn’t all that sure why we were Do-si-do-ing at all. Why do we stand up for the third Bible reading but not the first two? Why do some people keep on crossing themselves? What do the costumes that the people up front are wearing mean? In the confession, why do we say that we have one “heart” but then declare that we have multiple “selves” – shouldn’t they both be plural or both be singular?
As I got more familiar with the tradition, I learned the answers to some of these questions, I found out that some of them are more or less unanswerable, and I accumulated still more questions. One of the big new questions that I had was about this day: Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, or Palm and Passion Sunday.
It was that third category with its and that particularly perplexed me. I could understand Palm Sunday with its triumphal entry into Jerusalem, all of us waving our palms and throwing our coats on the ground and cheering and singing as Jesus rides through the gates. Palm Sunday was like a parade for Jesus. And I could understand Passion Sunday, in which we stand in the crowd and then at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies. But I couldn’t understand the two put together. It felt a bit like getting an invitation from a friend in which he explains that, in order to save money on the reception, he was combining his wedding with his uncle’s funeral.
Is this a day of mourning or a day of celebration?
It turns out that there was actually good reason for my confusion. Today we are keeping two separate feasts that are layered on top of one another. Up until about halfway through the twentieth century, it was pretty common in liturgical churches for Passion Sunday to fall a week ago, to take place on the Fifth Sunday of Lent and, thereby, to usher in a 2-week mini-season called Passiontide. When Passiontide was retired in 1959, the reading of the passion story moved a week forward to today.
Now, I don’t know how the folks who crafted our liturgy decided that Palm and Passion could coexist, what conversations and arguments they had before merging these feasts and the stories that go with them. But the more years that I encounter Palm and Passion Sunday, the more that I appreciate their decision to do so. Not because I find the intersection of these feasts less confusing than I once did but actually quite the opposite – because I increasingly believe that the confusion, the dissonance, the paradox of triumphal entry and crucifixion together has something important to say both about the Gospel story and about the human condition.
It is the novelist Jeanette Winterson who gives us the extraordinary turn of phrase, “the nearness of the wound to the gift.” Winterson argues that literature and mythology offer us one character after another whose hurt or limitation is, somehow, the very thing which frees her or him to act in a powerful and a transformative way. Likely the most famous contemporary example is Harry Potter, whose early-life injury and abiding loneliness set him apart and anoint or ordain or commission him to later defeat his nemesis, Voldemort. I bet if we were to crowd-source other examples, we could pretty quickly think of a fifty or a hundred more: Achilles, Oedipus, Luke Skywalker, Lisbeth Salander, Katniss Everdeen, Little Orphan Annie – who else? All of these characters carry their wounds and their gifts close together.
In my own non-fictional and largely non-magical life, I have sure known wounds. I am pretty confident that everyone in this room can say the same. To live is to get hurt. When I was a child, as I wrote recently in The Chimes, I was a pretty regular target for the bullies. When I was a young man I moved to a new city in the hopes of making a living in the performing arts, and there I experienced a protracted period of loneliness and underemployment; I think that there was one month when I had a total of two days of work and a similarly bare social calendar. When I got a little older, I sat with friends in their unexpected and untimely dying.
I’ve heard it said that we can’t remember pain, but I tell you what: when I think back on those days it’s hard for me not to flinch or to wince.
But here’s the thing. When I look back on those days I also recognise that they brought with them incomparable gifts. If I know anything about empathy, it is because of the cruelties of the schoolyard. If I know anything about what scripture calls the wilderness, it is because of my time of underemployment and isolation. If I know anything about grief and about healing, it is because my friends died too young.
Now, I want to be careful here, because in no way do I intend to imply that there were “some good things” about being bullied or being underemployed or witnessing death. There were not. And nor do I intend to imply that there are “some good things” about your wounds: there are not some good things about having cancer; there are not some good things about being mentally ill; there are not some good things about burying a parent or a spouse or a lover or a sibling or a friend or a child. No there are not. I insist that there are not. We are not talking about a facile theology in which every cloud has a silver lining, in which everything happens for a reason.
What we are talking about is paradox. The paradox via which, even as these experiences of hurt remain unequivocally awful, they are also our teachers; they offer us lessons that we can find in no book and in no classroom. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that the time that they spent in a hospital bed after a serious injury or illness was also a time of profound spiritual insight. I have lost track of the number of alcoholics who have told me that their sobriety had its beginnings in the darkest crisis. I have lost track of the number of people who have told that me that sitting beside a bed in a hospice was a an incomparable blessing.
This is the nearness of the wound to the gift.
The paradox of wound and gift close together – of Palm and Passion close together – is one that can be pretty hard for us to understand in our culture. We live in a culture of mandatory optimism. It is a culture that celebrates material success as getting progressively better jobs, making progressively more money, driving progressively nicer cars, having progressively fancier phones. And spiritual success is much the same, right? Over the course of our lives, we intellectually assent to the ideas that God wants us to intellectually assent to, we follow the rules that God wants us to follow. And if we do that well enough and long enough, God rewards us, first in this life and then later on in heaven. We are always moving from success to success, always moving upward.
Except that the Gospel tells us that the path to God doesn’t look that way at all. The Gospel tells us that, to borrow the words of Richard Rohr, the path to God is one of descent: it inescapably passes through suffering, through loss, through rejection, through unfairness, through the cross. Jesus’ triumph is indivisible from his death. It is no different for you or for me.
Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. Holy Week during which we will name Jesus’ last days and the love and loss and pain and betrayal and friendship and joy that runs through them. On Thursday we will remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ service as he kneels before his friends and washes their feet. On Friday we will remember Jesus before Pilate and then on the cross. On Saturday will stand outside of the tomb and look upon the grief and the possibility that it holds. In Holy Week we will name the nearness of the wound to the gift.
Today we begin.
I wonder. I wonder if Palm and Passion Sunday, in all of its confusion, in all of its dissonance, in all of its paradox, might be the perfect way to begin this week. As Jesus walks through the gates to cheers of the crowd, he knows that the place of the skull is not far away.
Is this a day of mourning or a day of celebration?