Rector’s Holy Week Reflection
For the past five weeks, we have been preparing for this holiest of weeks. On Sunday we celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (and into the church) where the culmination of our journey takes place. Special observances of Palm Sunday go back at least as far as the pilgrim Egeria, who kept a diary of her travels to the Holy Land in the 380s CE. She describes a number activities and observances which, although modified greatly over time, continue to be observed by Christians today including: procession with Palms, Maundy Thursday foot washing, and Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. The Palm Sunday procession has taken many forms over time and in various parts of the world. It is often a stational liturgy, with the faithful gathering at some distant location and then processing to sequential stations where portions of scripture are read or reenacted often chanting refrains or portions of Psalm 118 as they go; at other times the congregation gathers outside the church and processes in joyfully to the strains of the ninth century hymn “All glory, laud, and honor.” On Sunday, we continue in this ancient tradition and gather outside the church (or in the Guild Room and hallway if the weather is inclement), where we hear the story of Palm Sunday and then we march triumphantly into the church singing that same ninth century hymn. Please gather outside, and as you process in, please find your way to your seat.
The triumphalism of this entry quickly gives way to the reality of the rest of the week with its focus on the Passion narratives. Of all the worship services in the Christian year, the services of Holy Week—Palm Sunday and Good Friday in particular—pose some of the most difficult and painful problems for us in our relationship with our Jewish siblings. The Passion narratives that we hear on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday make various references to those assigned blame by the early followers of Jesus: “the chief priests,” “the elders,” “the crowds,” and “the Jews.” Over centuries these passages have been used to vilify and abuse entire groups of people—people who are the neighbors we are called to love—and have led to many pogroms and eventually the Holocaust, even today bomb-threats against Jewish Community Centers and Synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and anti-Semitic graffiti continue to occur at alarming rates. As Christians, we must be responsible and attentive in both the hearing and proclaiming of our scriptures, mindful of the difficulties they pose. In 2015, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University wrote an important piece on how to avoid Anti-Semitism during our annual celebration of the Passion, entitled ‘Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: Avoiding Anti-Judaism at Easter.” I commend it to your reading and copies are available on the table in the back of the nave. In it, she outlines six possible ways of reading these texts and the problems associated with each of them. She concludes: “Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when “we were slaves in Egypt,” should hate Egyptians.”
As we enter this holy time for Christians and Jews (Passover begins Tuesday 4/11), it is vital to remember that Jesus and his followers were Jewish, as were many of those to whom the four canonical gospels were written. The first century was a tumultuous time for Judaism, and so much of the language used in these scriptures is the language of an intra-family dispute—siblings arguing and assigning blame to secure and establish a distinct communal identity for itself. It is dangerous and wrong to take the terms from this time and use them as a guide to our own.
I hope that you will engage fully in all the liturgies of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, the Triduum, and Easter Day, and I pray that from these liturgies of Holy Week you will draw both comfort and challenge to grow more fully into the love of God.
“Lord, your love is broken open among cheering crowds and traitor’s coins, deserting friends and hands washed clean, the mockery of power and the baying mob: as we follow your way of passion, give us the faith to bring our weak and divided hearts to the foot of the cross and the door of the guarded tomb that they might be opened, astonished and healed: through Jesus Christ, who carries the weight of the world. Amen.
Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Collect for Palm Sunday.