Usually, my larger morning post focuses on politics or at least the estuary where politics and religion mingle. But, this is no usual week. This is Holy Week. And, so, I shall begin the next few days with religious reflections and make what I would consider more broadly cultural points, rather than strictly political ones.
Palm Sunday is a bifurcated liturgy that does not always work emotionally for the worshipper. The first part of the service, the Palm Sunday section, with the blessing of the palms, the commemoration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that stems from the liturgy of the early Church in Jerusalem. The reading of the Passion, and the choice of red as the vestment colors, these derive from the liturgy of the early Church in Rome, which only gathered for worship on Sunday and realized that before they could properly celebrate Easter, they needed to recall the Lord’s Passion. Throwing the two together, however, in such a short span of time, requires a delicate liturgical hand. The music must change from the triumphant to the despairing. The homilist must address both parts of this twin-headed liturgy and bring them together. Still, the tension exists: Is it Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday?
There is no doctrinal tension between the two, indeed, if I were to have mounted the pulpit yesterday, I would have made the point that it is both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday because the two realities are inescapably linked. Jesus went up to Jerusalem, to the Temple, the focal point of Jewish worship, then and now and for all the years in between. At the end of the Passover seder, for century after century while Jews were scattered in the Diaspora, still they would pray, “Next year, in Jerusalem.” They still say that prayer even though, obviously, today Jews can get on a plane and fly to Jerusalem for the Passover. But, Jerusalem is an eschatological, not just a geographic, city, so the prayer must still be said.
Jesus went up to Jerusalem but, for us Christians, Jesus is Jerusalem, the fulfillment of those eschatological hopes. In a recent, lovely essay at America, Rabbi Daniel Polish wrote about the religious significance of Israel for Jews: “It is the embodiment of the Jews’ collective past, situating us in our history and evoking its meaning. You might almost say that Israel functions for Jews in the same way that Communion functions for a Catholic.” Rabbi Polish could have dropped the adverb “almost.” Pope Benedict XVI, in his first book about Jesus of Nazareth, remarks upon his conversations with Rabbi Jacob Neusner that it is precisely on this point that Jews and Christians must separate. For the Christian, Jesus subsumes and, in a sense, takes the place of Eternal Israel. Jesus is Himself decisive, not his teachings.
Pope Benedict, in a beautiful passage discussing his conversations with Neusner and other Jews, writes: “It is our Jewish interlocutors who, quite rightly, ask again and again: So what has your ‘Messiah’ Jesus actually brought? He has not brought world peace, and he has not conquered the world’s misery. So he can hardly be the true Messiah, who, after all, is supposed to do just that. Yes, what has Jesus brought?”
What has Jesus brought? It is the question that we must ask this Holy Week as we walk with the Lord. Already, we can discern how difficult it is to ask and answer this question. In the reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew yesterday, we know that the disciples, who had been following Jesus for three years were still unable to grasp what was happening: “And they all fled,” the Gospel account tells us. (Jesus’ subsequent disciples did little better. For centuries, the passage in Matthew in which the Jews say, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children” served as the ur-text of anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that we need that blood upon us and upon our children, that His blood is the source of our salvation!) We heard Peter, who had confessed Jesus as the Christ, now deny him three times. Unsurprisingly, only the women stuck around to attend to Jesus!
So, yesterday’s liturgy, both parts, the Palm Sunday part and the Passion Sunday part, leave us with the inescapable fact that can serve as a useful meditation for this Holy Week: This person, Jesus, is decisive. And, we can meditate too on the question Pope Benedict has put before us: What does this Messiah of ours bring?