Sunday, March 24, 2024
Palm Sunday


The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

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This is Palm Sunday and while we do a dramatic reading of the Passion Story from Mark I do not wish to spend much time on that. What I do want to do is save that for Good Friday and invite you come and join me in a guided meditation of this powerful story on the day where it is the focus.

Instead, I want you to go back to the start of this service, outside with the entry into Jerusalem for that is what the focus today should be about. Then there is the invitation to walk with me through Holy Week. It is an invitation to experience the original intention of Holy Week, all the services.

The Episcopal Church and many Protestant denominations had long ignored Holy Week, the services we have in our prayer book today were all added in the 1979 book. The 1928 book just has a collect and the readings for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and nothing about an Easter Vigil. By the way that is may absolute favorite service and I really want to encourage you to come to that. It is totally different from our Sunday services. The readings are different since we will hear Mark’s story of Easter morning that evening. Sunday morning you will hear the resurrection story from the Gospel of John which is radically different than Mark. We start outside with the lighting of the Paschal Candle from a fire kindled outside and the process into the church and hear the ancient Exultet Chant sung that retells the story.

The services all come from the records of a 4th century pilgrim named Egeria. She was a nun who traveled to the Holy Land. When the 1928 Prayer Book was written her diary had not yet been found and we knew almost nothing about how the ancient church celebrated Holy Week. Well up until the time of Constantine there really wasn’t much in terms of an organized Holy Week. That all changed in the mid 300s.

The services and Holy Week were designed by Constantine’s mother as a teaching tool for all the new converts to Christianity after her son declared it a legal and recognized religion. Prior to that Easter was the only day on the calendar, even Christmas was barely acknowledged. So the purpose was for people coming to Jerusalem to learn by experiencing the story. Slowly as pilgrims returned to other parts of the world the services spread. Think of it as Vacation Bible School for adults. So while these are some of the newest services in the 1979 BCP they are in fact the oldest services in the book. So once again, I urge you to celebrate the entire week.

Now back to the real business of the day which is Palm Sunday. What a remarkable day that must have been. Possibly on the very same day, Herod would have arrived from his winter palace (Masada)for the festival of the Passover. His entrance would have been on his war horse or maybe even riding in a chariot at the lead of his entourage. While in Jerusalem several years ago the teacher from St. George’s College said that he would have come in a gate on the opposite side of the city from the gate that Jesus would use.

Contrast that with the arrival of Jesus. He is seated on a donkey. That is significant. A person approaching a city on a donkey was a symbol of their coming in peace.. There was no military threat here.

The crowd is interesting. I was thinking and meditating on this the other day and the image of a flash mob came into my head. You remember flash mobs from several years ago. Our youngest children probably will not.  I wonder if that is what really happened. Word traveled that Jesus the great healer and teacher from Galilee had arrived in Jerusalem for the first time since he was there as a youth at least according to Luke. In Mark this is the first time he has entered the city.

This is a movement from a very rural quiet area to the seat of power of the Jewish faith, the great temple on the temple mount in Jerusalem. A most imposing and impressive building to those who came from the sticks.  Yet I’m sure there were many in Jerusalem who couldn’t wait to hear Jesus. So maybe they all gathered in Bethany where Jesus was staying not very far from the city. Bethany is now barely outside the gates of the old city’s newer defensive walls. It was certainly no more than a 30 minute walk.

So this flash mob treats Jesus as if he was royalty. That’s where the cloaks and branches being strewn on the road come in. You see the Roman Roads were meant for large wagons carrying supplies for the army. The army didn’t walk along them that often, but usually along the side of the road. But when someone important was coming into a city they would put cloaks and branches over the rough stones to provide a smoother ride.

The cries were from the Hebrew Scriptures and welcomed a king, a Messiah. Now a long time ago I meditated on this arrival and found myself not in the position of someone who knew Jesus, but just one of the members of the crowd watching all this from the side of the road. Hearing the shouting I was all excited, but then when Jesus arrived, he was just a peasant sitting on a donkey. Where was the great Messiah we had been told to expect. I was surprised at the feeling of disappointment when I saw him.

One thing I have learned to pay attention to when I am meditating on scripture is when I find myself surprised by something that comes up during that meditation.  My surprise at being disappointed made me truly wonder what the crowds actually thought as this peasant from Galilee entered the city on a donkey. It makes me wonder if maybe the opening line of the hymn, “Come thou long expected Jesus” should be changed to “Come thou unexpected Jesus. “For unexpected he would have been for many in this imperial city.

So maybe just maybe this week that should be your theme as you join me for the walk through Holy Week of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday with services, the Stations of the Cross and the Great Vigil of Easter. Come with the expectation that there may be a twist to this year’s Holy Week. Look for the unexpected Jesus. I hope you can come to this wonderful week of services with fresh eyes and open hearts.

So join me. Join Jesus this Holy Week. Come often and experience the story again, but with new eyes. Maybe you to will encounter an unexpected Jesus.