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

March 25, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 50:4 – 9a Psalm 31:9 – 16 Philippians 2:5 – 11 Mark 14:1 – 15:47 or Mark 15:1 – 39, [40 – 47]

The Liturgy of the Passion

Discussion of the Texts: Turning to the Liturgy of the Passion (for those who will celebrate it today), I will not enter into a blow-by-blow account of the Gospel — it is a story we all know well, from our friends and families, from own studies, and from pop culture treatments (i.e. The Passion of the Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ).  Doubtless we are all moved when we hear or read any account of the Passion.  The first reading from Isaiah is even (to the Christian mind) a prefiguration of what is to come in the Gospels:  “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).  The Second Reading is even more so, as it speaks to us of the kenosis experienced by God through the man Jesus:  “[T]hough he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6 – 8; emphasis added).  In my own tradition of Catholicism, it is taught that this is the moment (at Golgotha) that the Church was born from “the rib of the New Adam,” out of Baptism and the Eucharist (cf. John 19:31 – 37). It is in this moment, we could say, that Life was again poured into the Cosmos.

Process Theology and the Texts: There are times when I find it difficult to consider how best I can relate process theology to the texts of the Lectionary.  I acknowledge this because I would confess that my own familiarity is still growing, and what process theological background I have comes from my Catholic tradition a la Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (rather than John B. Cobb or others of the Whiteheadian branch).  Still, today is for me not one of those days. While there are certainly multiple connections to be drawn, there is one which seems especially apropos: the Passion and death of Jesus.

Given this, I would highlight a particular passage from Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality:

For the kingdom [sic] of heaven is with us today.  The action of the fourth [creative] phase [wherein the universe accomplishes its actuality] is the love of God for the world.  It is the particular providence for particular occasions. What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world.  By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion — the fellow sufferer who understands. (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality [1929] 1957, 532; see pp. 350 – 1 of the Corrected Edition.  Emphasis added)

By the Passion, God through Jesus of Nazareth experienced the same pangs of pain and death as any creature experiences.  God was a fellow sufferer with Creation, even to the point of abandonment and anfechtung, an experience exhibited by Jesus crying out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mk. 15:34).

Preaching the Texts: While I was studying for my first graduate degree I served as the weekend Sacristan for the Cathedral Parish of St. Peter the Apostle, located in Erie, PA.  I relished assisting the priests and Bishop as they prepared to celebrate Mass. Today I recall one particular weekend, that of Palm/Passion Sunday, when a Lector (or Reader) had to call in sick.  This individual happened to be the one who would read the section for the “Narrator” of the Gospel; what is more, this was for the Mass of Bishop Donald W. Trautman (emeritus), so I volunteered without hesitation (it was not the first time there was a need for me to step-in).  As it also happened, the particular Gospel was the same as that for today, Mark 14:1 – 15:47.

When the time came for the Proclamation of the Gospel, I stepped out of the Sacristy and proceeded to the ambo (i.e. lectern or podium).  The Bishop was stationed at the altar (i.e. table), with the Cathedral rector and the assisting deacon at their respective microphones. Reading through the text, we eventually came to the moment when Peter denies Jesus three times.  As the narrator, I was tasked with proclaiming verse 72 of Mark 14: “At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.”  And, so, I wept.

A consideration from this personal story could be how we are impacted, despite hearing the same story every year:  we know the story, how it began and how it ends; we know the details like the backs-of-our-hands; yet, we remain moved every time we hear it, as if it was our first time.  It is not unlike a favorite film, one which we can watch again and again and again, and still we never grow tired of it.  Indeed, we may even discern some new element, another layer we had not been in a place to ascertain in years prior.

But the meaningfulness and the affective character of these reading (especially the Gospel) are not the sole sources for preaching the texts today.  While the Gospel may be the go-to text for preaching, there is much to be gained for looking to the other readings. Consider the passage from Isaiah:  “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me!’” (Is. 6:8). According to the Gospels and Epistles, Jesus was one such as Isaiah who answered the call of God with little hesitation, as indicated by Philippians 2:  “…being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7 – 8). While we may not expect to be called in such a drastic manner, today can serve to ask the question about our own calling(s). Do we allow “the same mind [to] be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5)?

But of the Passion and process theology, one could certainly preach on how God is not some abstract entity who knows nothing of what it is to relish in the joys and sorrows of life; rather, God suffers with us, as we read in the accounts of the Passion.  Indeed, that God feels and experiences the world is grounded within the tradition of Scripture, as we find in the Hebrew Bible.  Above all else, God desires the world, seeking to draw all things to Her- or Himself. As Teilhard said, “There is a centre [sic] which is the centre of all centres, and without which the entire edifice of thought would disintegrate into dust” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Pantheism and Christianity,” in Christianity and Evolution [1923, 1969] 1971, 61), and it is toward this “centre” that the whole of the Cosmos is being called:  “Christ is clothed in the earth… [So already], at this very moment, by everything we do, we all share in all, through and in him [sic] whom we might think distant from us, but in whom, quite literally, ‘vivimus, movenur et sumus’” (“Pantheism and Christianity,” 75; cf. Acts 17:28:  “We live and move and have our being”).

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.