For March 24, 2013: Palm Sunday, Year C

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel            Luke 19:28-40

Proceeding into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey is a little bit like riding to one’s presidential inaugural on a mountain bike. What kind of king is this, anyway?

The Psalm            Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word

The Reading            Isaiah 50:4-9a

Chapters 40 to 56 of the book of Isaiah, written during the exile of God’s people in Babylon, contain four poems called “songs of the suffering servant”. The third of these is today’s reading. The identity of the speaker is unclear, though the fortitude and obedience expressed here cannot help but remind us of Jesus on Good Friday.

The Response            Psalm 31:9-16

The Epistle            Philippians 2:5-11

The reading from Isaiah anticipates today’s Gospel with its rendering of Jesus’ suffering and death at hands like ours. Today’s Epistle reading places the Passion in context: this luminous passage, one of the earliest hymns of the Church, tells of the very Son of God shucking off power and glory to take on human flesh, to serve, to die for all, and to rise to unimaginable greatness.

The Gospel            Luke 22:14-23:56

What kind of king, indeed? Listen and look, and weep.

 

Further thoughts

The Palm Sunday readings are almost identical from one year to the next in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Outside in the courtyard or the prayer garden, blessing the palms that will be burned for next Ash Wednesday, we recite Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29. Once in church, the Old Testament lesson is always Isaiah 50:4-9a, with its mix of resignation and determination; the psalm is always Psalm 31:9-16, with terror followed by hope; the epistle is always the incandescent Philippians 2:5-11. Only the pairs of gospels change, cycling through the longer or briefer stories of Jesus’ humble yet triumphant entry into Jerusalem of Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16, or this year’s Luke 19:28-4 with the palms and the variously heartrending Passion accounts of Matthew 26:14- 27:66, Mark 14:1-15:47, and this year’s Luke 22:14-23:56 at the Eucharist.

This near-identity stands in marked contrast to the situation on most Sundays—when all the psalms and readings vary, Year A to Year B to Year C—and that on the handful of days on which the readings are exactly the same no matter which liturgical year it is. Good Friday, one of that handful of days, features the Passion account of John 18:1-19:42.

These are big enough similarities to be intentional. Each of the sets of gospel accounts, while grounded firmly in the history of our inclusion in God’s people and in the glorious outcome, takes a different perspective on this week of hopes horribly dashed only to be fulfilled beyond expectation. The version in the book of Luke keeps Judas off-camera while relating a positive interaction between Jesus and one of the two thieves, and in giving no voices in Pilate’s ears to counter those of the priests and the crowd, it shows us an administrator whose resistance to condemning Jesus is perhaps a bit more his own. These shifts in emphasis are consistent with Luke’s focus on forgiveness and outreach to gentiles. Embedding Luke’s gospel in the Palm Sunday matrix may serve, among other things, to honor even the most stumbling path to Calvary and beyond—whether it’s another’s or our own.

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