Inspired by Matthew 21:1-11, 26:1-19
Welcome to Holy Week. As usual we begin with Palm Sunday with all its triumph and victory and praise, which of course always seem a bit juxtaposed with what we know is right around the corner, the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. However, over the past 25-30 years or so there has been a movement away from Palm Sunday and towards changing it to what they call Passion Sunday. The church started to realize that people weren’t showing up for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter.
And so, many thought that this day should focus more on Jesus death rather than his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hence the name Passion Sunday. However, these things are often cyclical, so in recent years there has been a realization that maybe it’s not all that healthy to cater to people’s lack of desire to attend Holy Week services, and also that something is lost when we forgo the events of Palm Sunday.
There is something to be said for the juxtaposition, the out of place nature of Palm Sunday. For those of us who have given up something up for Lent like alcohol or sweets or bread, especially for those of us foolish enough to give up all three, and who are in the home stretch and yearning for those things they gave up, and who may be miserable at this stage in the game, are not feeling very celebratory right now! We are not feeling very triumphal or victorious right now are we? In fact, we may be feeling like Lent is getting the better of us, and celebrating today is a bit of a slap in the face, like being kicked while we’re down! And Jesus chuckles and says, yeah, I know the feeling—welcome to Holy Week.
So, as a bit of liturgical purist, or liturgical nerd, I adhere to the traditional Palm Sunday theme for this day, keeping the events for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday for those days this week. Even though I know our lives are very busy and asking people to come to church four times in one week, most of which at night, is a lot to ask. But is it really? Out of 365 days of the year the church asks for literally a handful of days to go above and beyond the usual once a week routine.
What kind of a Lutheran pastor would I be if I didn’t throw in some good ol’ fashioned guilt every once in a while? But it’s even less of an imposition when you consider the holiness of these Three Days. It’s called Holy Week for a reason. The Three Days are the most holiest of the church year, with the Vigil of Easter being the pinnacle, the apex, the climax of the entire church year! I cannot encourage you enough to attend these three services, when we journey with Christ as he passes from death to life. If you don’t drive at night, it is worth asking for a ride. I have a hunch, there are people willing to pick you up.
And maybe, in part, that’s the point. Maybe this is an exercise in celebrating when there doesn’t seem to be anything to celebrate. Especially because, we know, where this story is headed. We know, of the impending darkness that is about to befall us on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. In the midst of our hungers, and for some of us that is quite literal, in the midst of our yearnings, cravings for grace, for light, for peace, for love, in the midst of the fatigue of Lent, Palm Sunday pushes us to celebrate.
Why? Because we are the blessed ones to be on this side of the cross and the empty tomb and therefore know who Jesus is. Before we processed in with our palm branches we read the triumphal entry from the Gospel of Matthew, and that ended with the crowd asking “Who is this guy?” I’m paraphrasing. And they answer, “It’s the prophet Jesus.” And while that’s not a false statement, they clearly do not get it, they clearly do not know who Jesus is.
After reading the accounts of Jesus’ final days on earth, many have been confused by the events of the triumphal entry and Jesus’ trial. Many have asked how could the crowd turn on him so quickly? How could the crowds go from singing his praises with “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Crucify him?” Well, this is why, because they didn’t know what Jesus truly was.
And neither did Judas. Oh poor Judas. History has not been kind to him. I’d argue that history, as well as the Gospel writers, have been too unkind to him. The decisions he made were because he still didn’t get it, he still didn’t understand who Jesus was. If he did, I think he would have made different decisions. I think things would have turned out better for him. I don’t think things would have turned out better for Jesus, but I don’t think Judas would have had to go through the hell that he did after that fateful decision to hand Jesus over to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver. And to be fair, I’m not sure how well any of the twelve disciples really got it, really knew who and what Jesus was.
But some did. The woman at the well figured it out. The man born blind knew. Lazarus knew. Martha knew. I believe Nicodemus eventually connected the dots, as we will hear on Good Friday. And I think this unnamed woman, who anoints Jesus’ head with expensive perfume, got it. In those days, it was common for a family to save an item such as expensive perfume, the way we would use a savings account for a rainy day.
When times were tough, the item could then be sold to help you see you through. There’s a good chance this was that kind of savings that this woman sacrificed in honor and devotion to Jesus. Yes, I think she understood who, and what Jesus is. In the words of Martha, “the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
Today, the crowds are still asking that same question, in one way or another. Who is this guy? Who is this Jesus that you all follow? Who is this Jesus that you all love so much? Who is this Jesus that you all sacrifice your Sunday mornings for? Who is this Jesus that you all sacrifice three evenings for in one week? Who is this Jesus that you sacrifice so much of your time for? Who is this Jesus that you sacrifice so much of your money for? Who is this Jesus that you sacrifice your skills and talents for? Who is this Jesus—the crowds still ask two thousand years later!
And if we are the body of Christ in the world, if we are the hands and feet and eyes and ears and lips of Christ in the world, then that question turns from “Who is this?” to “Who are you?” How will we answer? Is it enough to simply say those words of Martha, that Jesus is “the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world?” Or do we also need to show them who Christ is, who we are? Whether we do or not, thank God almighty that Jesus did. On the Three Days, Jesus showed the world who he is. Welcome to Holy Week.