The Juxtapositions of Easter

stabat materI have had a busy Holy Week. It’s overwhelming how so many very different things happen at once. That’s true of our spiritual life in general: work, and friends, and medical issues, and liturgy, and all the rest, all at the same messy time. It’s true, too, of the liturgies of Holy Week.

Holy Week begins with a strange juxtaposition. More than one person asked me about it this week: what’s going on with Palm Sunday? Even the name is confusing: “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” Which one is it?

On the one hand, the Mass begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We sing Hosanna. (Hosanna, it turns out, is a Greek twist on a couple Hebrew words: it appears in the Bible only here, as the acclamation when Jesus enters Jerusalem.) We wave our palms. We acclaim the king.

And then, by the time the ordinary Mass begins, our Hosannas are forgotten. In the first reading, his beard is being plucked. In the second, he is emptying himself, taking the form a slave. The Psalm cries “why have you abandoned me.” And in the Gospel, we read the Passion in its entirety – already, right at the beginning of Holy Week.

Our palms remain awkwardly in our hands, while we are given the voice of a different crowd, crying not Hosanna but Crucify.

But that awkwardness, that strange juxtaposition, is just the point. We who wave the palms are the ones who betray him. And he who is crucified is also the king. This is the triumphal entry that he has eagerly expected. It’s all about that juxtaposition – the palms hanging limply in our hands.


This year we have another, but paradigmatic, juxtaposition. March 25 is ordinarily the Annunciation, the moment of great joy, when Christ comes into the world. This year it also happened to be Good Friday, dated according to the changing moon. Our celebration of the Annunciation is deferred till after Easter Week – but the juxtapostion is normal.

For March 25 is not just nine months before Christmas. We know Christmas is at the solstice, in the bleak midwinter. And it seems just an accident that the Annunciation awkwardly falls so close to Holy Week. But it is not awkward. It is the plan.

In fact, the Church settled on March 25 before it settled on December 25. Though we celebrate Easter following the old, lunar calculations for Passover, the traditional date of the Crucifixion was March 25. It is also the traditional date for the creation of Adam, the fall of Lucifer, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the crossing of the Red Sea.

These things go together. They are all one. Just as Christ is both king and crucified, and we are the crowd that both acclaims him and betrays him, so this is the time of when Adam is re-created, Satan is defeated, the first-born is sacrified, and the seas of death are conquered.

These are not just awkward, accidental juxtapositions. It all goes together. That’s the point.


Many years ago, some half-Christian family bought us a strange cross. Though it is the shape of the instrument of torture, on it are happy scenes from the life of Christ. Another awkward juxtaposition. Is he the Lord of happiness or the Lord of the Cross?

Here, the liturgical calendar has to de-juxtapose. On one level, the liturgical year simply comes down to the problem of reading the long Bible. It would be nice to read the whole Bible everyday. It all goes together. And it’s all important – we are not a religion of the 3×5 notecard, where everything can be said in a few words. The Bible is long, because there is a lot to say.

On some level, Holy Week is simply the time when we read this central passage. In fact, we read it a few ways. On Palm Sunday we read from the Synoptic Gospels, whichever Gospel we are reading that year. On Good Friday, we read from St. John. And we need those two accounts; they are different; they are richer in juxtaposition. John is like a commentary on the other Gospels – they tell us of the Eucharist, he tells us of the feet washing, etc.

Liturgically, we can’t read it all every day, so we break it up. But that crucifix we were given has sort of the right idea: the one who dies on Good Friday – yes and the one who rises again early on the morning of the third day – is the one, too, who healed the lepers, taught with parables, came to Cana in Galilee; the one who oversaw Noah and Abraham, David and Solomon, Ezra, the Maccabees, and the prophets of the exile.

In the thickness of the Bible, and the complexities of the liturgical year, we see the rich juxtaposition that makes up the whole of the Christian faith.

What parts of the faith do you find most hard to reconcile with one another? Can you learn anything by thinking about that juxtaposition?

Palm Sunday: The Perfection of Preaching

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

MK 11:1-10; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MK 14:1-15:47

Our second reading this Palm Sunday, from the Christ hymn in Philippians, says, “he humbled himself, becoming obedient.”  The Letter to the Hebrews says it more boldly: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8).  He, the all-knowing, learned obedience . . . .

What exactly does Christ accomplish in Holy Week?  He is already God – what more can the work of the Cross add to that?


Our first reading tells us first about the development of Isaiah the prophet himself – but also about what happens to Christ.

First he says, “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”  The prophet must know – must learn – how to speak to those who need his message.

Next he emphasizes the learning: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear.”  The prophet has to listen – and even that listening is itself a gift from God.  Lord, teach me how to speak to the weary!

But then we hear what method he learned: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”  This method was suffering.  To speak to the suffering, the weary, the beleaguered, the prophet had to become like them, to enter into their darkness.  Perhaps, even, he had to let those who were beaten beat him – then they could hear him.

Finally, he tells how he can do this: “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint.”  Isaiah “learns” to “speak” more than words.  He learns how to suffer for the people, because he learns – and so can teach – that God is all-sufficient.


What does Jesus “learn” through suffering?  He has nothing to learn, he knows all.  But he learns how to preach, how to bring his Gospel to the people.  He learns, even, how to call them in, to let them share with him.  He enters into their suffering to be near them.  He brings his nearness to God into their darkness to enlighten them and raise them up.


Jesus, then, says the hymn in Philippians, “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.”  He who knew all joy learned to say in the Garden, “my soul is sorrowful even to death.”  He whose very existence was joyful obedience to the Father learned to say, “Take this cup away from me – but not what I will but what you will.”

He who was revelation itself learned to speak the words of the Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  What Christ our light “gained” through the Cross was union with us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

“Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”  Already he was Son, God from God, light from light: above every name.

But now he achieves a new name: Jesus.  Right there at the beginning of the Gospel, the angel told Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” and “they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Mt. 1:21 and :23).  He gained nothing – but closeness to us.

On the Cross, he who as God had everything “adds” to that possession the name “God with us.”  He who is fulness itself “adds” the title “he will save his people from their sins,” the name of that “name above all names,” Jesus.


How can we comment on the endless fullness of the Gospel of the Passion?  He learned how to preach – and there is no commentary we can add to match the nearness of that preaching through suffering.

In the spikenard and the ransom to Judas we see the inversion of our relation to money.  We see the inversion of Judas’ greed and the gentle generosity of Jesus giving bread.  We see Jesus turn politics upside down as he lets Pilate condemn him to being named King.

In the stories of Peter we see Jesus “learn” what it means to be abandoned.  But most marvelously, we see that Peter too learns – learns that Jesus knows abandonment, and so learns Jesus’s nearness to him in his sin.  What Jesus “learns” is the perfection of preaching, by emptying himself and taking the form a slave.  And so we, with Peter, learn to enter into his divinity by entering into his humility.

Where do we need to empty ourselves to let Jesus draw near?

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: Your King Comes

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

MT 21:1-11; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MT 26:14-27:66

The readings for this Sunday are long. We’ll just pick out some key themes.

This Sunday is called “Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion.” Mass opens, of course, with the procession of the palms, and the Gospel that describes it (this year, from Matthew 21). The Liturgy of the Word culminates with the reading of the Passion (this year, Matthew 26-27). We thus get the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, tied together with the culmination, the Passion, though in the story, as in the week, there are several chapters in between.

At the heart of Jesus’s triumphal entrance are the words from the prophet Zechariah. “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Oddly, there are distinctly two animals. Sometimes the Fathers of the Church like to notice the strangeness, the mystery of these readings.)

The story revolves around this welcoming of the king. Jesus sends his disciples into the village to find the animals, telling them to say, “the Lord has need of them.” (The translation this Sunday will say “master,” but the Greek word is Kyrios, Lord.) Just as in the reading of the Passion, they are told to say, “The teacher says, ‘My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.’” Jesus is Lord and King over his disciples, and Lord and king over the unknown people who are providing for him.

And the people spread out their garments, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They too welcome him as king.

But in both situations, what kind of a king? Meek, and riding on a beast of burden. A different kind of king.


The reading from the prophet Isaiah underlines the difference of this kingship. The prophet asks for “a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word of comfort,” and “ears that I may hear.”

The reading culminates in him saying, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” It is here, in fact, that we get our deepest scriptural warrant for imagining that Jesus wore a beard: he is the one whose beard is plucked.

To be a follower of this king will not bring power and prestige. He demands a new kind of obedience. An obedience that leads us to speak comfort to the weary. The King of Love demands tribute not of gold, but of mercy, of being poor among the poor, of loving those who have nothing to give in return (including the nasty people we might have to work with). To follow the king who rides on a beast of burden means that we, like him, must be willing to suffer.

But it is not suffering that we seek, but those who suffer. Jesus comes to be with those who are wounded, and calls us to do the same. Our beards will be plucked because the world can’t stand what it cannot own; the world is troubled by a different way of being, a different scale of values. In this world, to love is to suffer.


But it is also to be cared for. “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” If the suffering Lord calls us to suffer, it is because he also joins us in our suffering. “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” If he is for us, who can be against us?

The very dramatic Psalm 22 begins “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But God himself takes up this cry; Jesus joins us in our weakness. And so even the Psalmist continues to praise God. He experiences the apparent abandonment of suffering, but he knows he is never abandoned. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.


And then in the great Christ hymn of Philippians, we hear that Jesus himself emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The hymn emphasizes his obedience, “obedience to the point of death.”

“Every knee should bend . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father,” because he is the kind of king who joins us in our weakness. The kind of king who deserves true obedience and love.

This is the attitude we are to take to the long reading of the Passion, and the events of this holy week.


How could you know Jesus better as the meek king, the shepherd who suffers for his flock?