Palm Sunday (Liturgy of the Palms), 25 March 2018

March 25, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Psalm 118:1 – 2, 19 – 29 Mark 11:1 – 11 or John 12:12 – 16

The Liturgy of the Palms1

Discussion of the Texts: As I have mentioned in prior commentaries, I was raised Roman Catholic, even spending two years in discernment within an undergraduate seminary (not to mention the Jesuits trying to “rope me in” as a graduate student), so Palm (or Passion) Sunday marks the most solemn time of the liturgical year for me and my tradition, culminating in my favorite four days of the years:  the Holy Triduum and Easter Sunday.2  I was always partial to the Triduum:  the Mass of the Lord’s Supper; the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion (i.e. no Mass, but a Communion Service from the previous night) and the Tenebræ service; and especially the Easter Vigil Mass.  Still, none of this makes sense — nor can it even occur — without the Liturgy of the Palms, or the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Here at the beginning of Holy Week, the most solemn time of the liturgical year for the Church, it is appropriate that we begin with a Psalm like 118.  It is a Psalm of praise and thanksgiving to God for the loving mercy shown to Israel (J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Access Bible, Updated Edition:  New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocrypha [1999] 2011, 835):  “O give thanks to the LORD, for he [sic] is good; his [sic] steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1; cf. 29); and, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24).  The Psalmist concludes by saying, “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you” (118:28). There are parallels between this Psalm and the Gospel reading from Mark 11, specifically the declaration of Psalm 118:27 (“Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar”) and the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem at Mark 11:8 – 10.  A similar comparison may be draw to the passage from John 12:13. With greater detail prior to the entrance into Jerusalem for Mark, both this Gospel and that of John recount the events of Jesus entering into the city — the major difference being that the Marcan account informs us of Jesus entering the temple, while the Johannine account does not (though we did hear last week the Johannine account regarding the coming of Jesus’ hour, from John 12:20 – 33).

Process Theology and the Texts: While there are a number of interesting passages within the reading for the Liturgy of the Palms which are illuminated by a process-theological perspective, I would consider one for which we must consider Psalm 118:20:  “This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.” Clearly, for those of us coming from the Christian tradition, there is here an allusion to Jesus of Nazareth. We know from Luke 2:52 that Jesus grew “in wisdom and stature,” so we may suppose that he likewise grew in righteousness.  Thus, with the gates of Jerusalem and the temple being the gates of God, Jesus was one such of the righteous who has entered the house of God.

To be clear, Jesus of Nazareth was (from a Whiteheadian process perspective) fully human.  But, as John B. Conn, Jr. and David Ray Griffin indicate, this limits the attention we may pay to this itinerant preacher:  “We need to clarify how, as a fully human person, Jesus could nevertheless, speak and act in God’s behalf and address us, even today, with authority” (John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition 1976, 106).  The Divine was thus present — incarnate — within the human person of Jesus of Nazareth almost 2,000 years ago; and, “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2: 8 – 9).

Preaching the Texts: As a child I was gifted a children’s edition of the New International Version translation of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.  As I recall, it may even have been a Baptismal gift from family friends. Regardless, the text was remarkably abridged, hitting the highlights:  segments of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Chronicles, and the like—the dark segments were omitted. I can recall reading a selection of the Psalms, as well as Proverbs; the New Testament was a compilation of the four canonical Gospels, Acts, and a few of the Epistles, concluding with the end of Revelation.  I read it every night, beginning to end, for almost ten years, up until I left for college and entrance into Formation for the Roman Catholic priesthood.

I have since gifted this bible to my nephew.  I mention this particular bible because it was filled with beautiful illustrations, and there was one which is apropos of today’s readings:  in the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as entering Jerusalem upon a colt, while the people of the city fan with palms and lay their cloaks upon the ground — I was always struck by one man who, while many others had looks of reverence, wore a face which said, “What are they doing?”  It was not unlike how I imagine the faces of the bystanders of Mark 11:5. In the event of any brief sermon at this Liturgy, this personal narrative could be a point-of-departure. Can you imagine being the one person who does not know what is going-on? How often have we experienced such a state in our everyday lives, when others around us seem to know more than us?  This is not the only possibility.

Consider again the man I mentioned from my children’s bible:  appearing near the foreground of the illustration, he is holding the hem of a cloak which is laying upon the ground, and upon his face is the look of one bemused.  As he is here holding the cloak, the colt upon which Jesus rides is preparing to set foot upon the further hem. Perhaps he is thinking, “Why did I let them talk me into this?”; or, “And this was my best cloak!”  Either of these thoughts could be reasonable, given that a colt whose hoof is indubitably dirty is preparing to dig into the hem of the cloak he is holding (presumably this man’s cloak).  From a traditional perspective, we may think of this man as being betwixt Cain and Able: where the latter gave a portion from his produce, the latter gave the best of his herd to God (Genesis 4:3 – 5); and this man in Jerusalem is potentially offering his best cloak, though reservedly.  Do we do this in our own lives?

Another possibility is this:  perhaps the man is not bemused by the fact that he was dragged along by some friends or family; nor even that he is now awaiting the muddy imprint of a colt’s hoof upon his cloak.  He may not even be thinking about what it is that Jesus and his disciples are doing, entering Jerusalem like a victorious king and his entourage. No, the other possibility is this:  “Why am I here? What impelled me to come here?” We may have no doubt that Jesus knew, to one degree or another, what he was doing when he enter Jerusalem; but did those who were present in Mark 11 or John 12 know why they were there (as well as within Matthew 21:1 – 11 and Luke 19:28 – 40)?  This leads to the obvious question: why are we here?  What has drawn us to enter into the celebrations and lamentations of today?  What is more, what do we know of our direction in life? Jesus, we may suppose, knew his direction.

From a process perspective, we are reticent to say that he possessed any foreknowledge qua knowing the future precisely, but the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was a manifestation of “creative-responsive love, [i.e. God], the basic reality in the universe and hence that with which we want to align ourselves” (Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology, 110), that he was in-tune with the Divine Reality in ways to which we are also called, should lead us to ask if we are in fact achieving this aim.  Jesus, being so in-tune with God, “knew” of his impending death — the attacks from the Pharisees likely left it as a foregone conclusion — yet he walked the path set before him.  Though our own paths may not lead to such martyrdom, we are nonetheless called. How have we answered: like Jonah; or, like Jesus?

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1  Interestingly, the Catholic liturgy for Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (i.e. the Roman Missal proscribes a single Liturgy involving two parts, viz. the Commemoration of the Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem and the Mass of the Lord’s Passion]) involves one of three options for its opening:  1) the Procession of the Palms; 2) a Solemn Entrance; or, 3) a Simple Entrance. My experience has been that of the Solemn Entrance, involving the recitation of the Gospel (sans a Psalm) from the rear of the church, or its vestibule.

2  As I have also noted in previous commentaries, other traditions are comparable to the Catholic Church vis-à-vis rites, rituals, and ceremonies, as well as the general acknowledgement of specific periods during the year.  I can only properly speak to my own tradition.

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.