Observances and celebrations of Holy Week and Easter will be very different this year. We could continue to mourn the loss of our church traditions for the next two weeks, or we might use this time to reflect on the deeper meaning of our liturgies with all those wonderful signs and symbols and sacraments. (This post was originally going to be about all of Holy Week and Easter, but it is already pretty long with just Palm Sunday. Look for more postings later in the week.)
As you recall, in the first century, the followers of Jesus met in their homes; these were the “churches” of the time. While we cannot meet in groups in our homes, we know that where two or more are gathered, God is in our midst. For those of us who live alone, we have devices that allow us to be present with others in the knowledge that God is with us.
We need to expand our definition of sacrament. A sacrament is a sign or symbol that tells us who God is, and through which we receive God’s grace. The Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments, but are there not so many other signs and symbols in which we recognize God and receive God’s blessing or grace? When I look out my window each morning at the sunrise, isn’t God blessing me with another day in a safe and secure home?
Many of us have been celebrating the Mass on television or online. Instead of feeling short-changed because we cannot partake of consecrated bread and wine, might we not instead focus on sharing the Word of God and the table fellowship of those who live with us? Could we not share a meal together in gratitude for all our blessings? Is it the same as the Sacrament of Eucharist? No. Is it sacrament? Yes. I would like to suggest a few ways in which we can focus on the deeper meaning of our liturgies, and adapt the signs and symbols (sacraments) of Holy Week.
The Passion According to Matthew
The central mark of Palm Sunday is the reading of the Passion, this year in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 26:14-27:66). If you are participating in a televised Mass, you will hear the Passion proclaimed followed by a homily. Or, you could gather your family, read the Scripture together, then share your own reflections, as well as those of the many spiritual writers whom you follow online or in their publications.
The other feature, of course, are the palms. What is the significance of palms? They were plants and trees found along the way that people spontaneously waved to acclaim Jesus. Here in Florida, it’s easy enough to find palm trees, but really, any branches along your way will do. (If you are like me, you probably still have palms from last year.) We might put the palms or branches on a prayer table, with a Bible open to Matthew’s Gospel, as a reminder of the times when we, like the people of Jesus’ time, have been fickle in our commitment to others. We might show up for times when our friends are celebrated and famous, but be long gone in times of their distress and loss.
We all have our favorite hymns and songs for Palm Sunday. Our home liturgies can include those as well. Most of the hymns can be found by googling the title and name of the composer. The traditional folk song, “The King of Glory”, is a perennial favorite. I would also suggest “Hosanna to the Son of David” by Dan Schutte, 1995, based on Matthew 21:9.
I want to recommend a couple books that you might want to read early in the week.
Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews, edited by Jon M. Sweeney (Orbis Books, 2020)
The Passion narratives contain painful anti-Semitic tropes—particularly the Gospel of John, which is read world-wide every Good Friday. These readings have been used over the centuries to brand the Jewish people as “Christ-killers” and to justify discrimination and violence. Here, religious scholars and writers address the historical, theological, and exegetical considerations to be addressed by every Christian in order to move beyond this toxic history.
Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks by Walter Brueggemann (Eerdsman, 2014)
In this book, Walter Brueggemann incisively probes our society-in-crisis from the ground up. Pointing out striking correlations between the catastrophe of 9/11 and the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, Brueggemann shows how the prophetic biblical response to that crisis was truth-telling in the face of ideology, grief in the face of denial, and hope in the face of despair. He argues that the same prophetic responses are urgently required from us now if we are to escape the deathliness of denial and despair. Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope boldly confronts the dominant forces of our time, taking on principalities and powers that vie for our souls, and calls the church to courageous action. It is easy enough to draw parallels with the current coronavirus crisis.
May God bless us in our celebrations this week.