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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

Palm (or Passion) Sunday is the first day in what is known as ‘Holy Week’, the most important week of the annual Christian calendar. Through an intricately woven series of rituals and services, Holy Week recalls the final week of Jesus’ life from his entry into Jerusalem through his arrest, torture, crucifixion and burial. Holy Week is the introduction and theological precursor of ‘Pascha’, or the season of Easter. Taken together, they proclaim that the risen Lord of the cosmos is also the Crucified One who shares in the experience of injustice and evil of all who are genuinely poor, marginalised or forgotten.

The liturgy of Palm Sunday unfolds in two movements, the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. The Liturgy of the Palms tells the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey, and the adulation of the people as they welcomed him as a messiah, the ‘Son of David’. The ritual gets its title from the account of St. Luke, who recalls that when Jesus arrived in the city the people spread palm leaves and also their garments before him as a sign of their respect and worship. The Liturgy of the Passion introduces the major themes of the week to come: the betrayal of the messiah through a kiss; his abandonment by friends and supporters; his agony as even God, his Father, appears to turn his face away; his torture, crucifixion and burial as some kind of sacrifice of atonement for those who do evil to both God and their neighbours. This story is told through a series of readings and songs, often accompanied by the extinguishing of candles arranged on a large cross placed in the very centre of the place of worship.

The combination of these two liturgical movements invites worshippers into a contemplation of the ways in which every one of us seeks to kill the good in ourselves and one another, burying the invitation to justice and peace under the stultifying soil of our inhumanity, even as we praise and honour such principles with our lips. Read in that way, Palm Sunday represents an invitation to all people, whether they are Christian or not, to self-examination. Are we really a people of justice and peace, or do we actually pursue lifestyles that undermine the coming of these realities into our world? Do we support the good, the noble, the beautiful and the true with both our lips and our lives, or do we actually put such aspirations aside when the way becomes difficult, dark or unpopular? Palm Sunday is also an opportunity to reflect on the forgiveness and grace at the centre of all things, a power which is able to put aside even the very worst that human beings can do to one another and create the possibility of a new world, a world where justice and peace can find a permanent home.

It is not surprising therefore that there is a well-established tradition of public marches and rallies for peace and justice on Palm Sunday. Here we hope and pray for a deep congruence between our participation in the liturgical life of the church and a ‘taking to the streets’ to advocate for justice and compassion towards all who are poor or marginalised.

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