When I did my AmeriCorps year of service at a food bank in North Carolina, the warehouse manager was from Liberia. Eugene and I talked about a lot of things, but one favorite topic was the church. When Holy Week rolled around, I remember Eugene telling me about Good Friday in Liberia. On the way to church on Good Friday in Liberia, the children lead a procession. The children carry an effigy of Jesus, and all the children take turns flogging the effigy of Jesus all the way to the church. I remember being mortified when I learned about this tradition, wondering who in their right mind would invite children to participate in worship in such a gruesome, grotesque way.
The weird thing is, this mortifying tradition is not all that dissimilar to the physicality of our own worship today. Today, we invite everyone to vigorously wave palms hailing Jesus Christ the king; then we have voices from our parishioners narrate the text, sometimes taking roles of people like Judas, Pilate, or denying Peter; and if that were not bad enough, then we put the words, “Crucify him!” in bold in our bulletins, reminding everyone to shout the words together. The practice is so visceral that I often notice many people resist participating. I cannot tell you how many photos I had to scroll through to find a good Hickory Neck Palm Sunday processional photo this year. In what is supposed to be replica of joyously welcoming the Messiah, Hickory Neck-ers rarely take more than one palm, we hold them upright so as not to seem too zealous, and forget about a smile or look of excited victory. I do not know if we feel silly or if we know all too well what comes next so we resist, but we struggle to engage in even the joyful part of today’s liturgy.
And I have rarely found an Episcopal Church anywhere who wholeheartedly joins in the chant, “Crucify him!” We are so uncomfortable with that part of the liturgy. More often people do not say the words at all, or they embarrassingly mumble the words. Sometimes I see people tense up if those beside them enthusiastically participate too much.
Our resistance is futile though. As if we hesitantly wave palms, or if we stay silent while the crowd demands we crucify Christ, we somehow avoid complicity with this humiliating atrocity. But we are complicit with sin every day, in the most heinous ways. We are complicit as our neighbors decide between housing, health care, and child care costs. We are complicit as racism creates separate, unequal experiences for our citizens. We are complicit as our God invites into a new way and we say “no.”
That is why the church offers us this very tactile, primal service today. We wave the palms with fervor today because we remember the ways in which we see in part – the ways in which we manage to follow Christ, even if we do not understand what Christ is doing, even if we do not catch how Jesus inverts his triumphal entry on the back of a young donkey. We fully participate in the words of today’s passion in order to remind us to “stop abusing the image of God revealed in the dignity of every human being.”[i] And then we let those final words soak in today, as we stand with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, silently at the tomb, seeing where Christ’s body is laid.
What we do in worship today is actually the perfect entry into this most Holy Week in Church. Now some priests will tell you that we combine the liturgy of the palms with the passion narrative today because the designers of the Prayer Book knew that many of you would come on Palm Sunday, skip the days of worship during Holy Week, and then show up on Easter Sunday without having walked from this triumphal entry into Jerusalem through the cross and tomb. And maybe they were right (though I know most of you rearranged your schedules this week for Holy Week services). But more importantly, even if you walk through this journey with Christ this week, the reason we pair the Palms with the Passion is that we could never go from the Palms to the Resurrection without the connection to the cross. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem makes no sense without the cross; the irony of that festive procession only makes sense when you are standing silently and bleakly at the tomb.
I know today is uncomfortable. I know today is confusing, and oddly visceral, and may even be a bit overwhelming. But today, and perhaps all this week if you are able to join us, allow the senses to take over. Allow the sights, and smells, and touches, and sounds, and tastes to overwhelm you this week. Allow the ache of standing with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses to sink deep into the same body that has waved palms and shouted awful things today. Because only when our senses are that overwhelmed are we able to see that the cross is not about suffering and death, but rather is about a relationship that holds. Only then will we find a “love stronger than death, that can withstand whatever the forces of evil do against [love], and that can hold suffering even as [love] struggles to alleviate [suffering].”[ii] What feels like an empty, guilty ache today instead becomes a sign of how God overcomes terror, enfolds us in Life, and dwells with us forever.[iii] But until then, stand with the Marys and with one another at the tomb in silence.
[i] Michael Battle, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 182.
[ii] Margaret A. Farley, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 182.
[iii] Farley, 184.