We hear the Passion story anew amidst these unprecedented circumstances that have us celebrating Holy Week in our homes. The death we face – in this story and in our world – is real, but the God who loves us accompanies us into the suffering.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Sunday of the Passion, year A
Texts: Psalm 31:9-16; Matthew 26:14-27:66
Palm Sunday looks a little bit different this year. Even your palm leaves might look a little bit different this year. These are dark and scary times to be moving into the celebration Holy Week, a beloved and special time in our church year. It feels strange to be hearing the story of Jesus’ passion from our own homes, instead of in the sanctuary together.
But as is so often the case, the scriptures meet us right where we are. The realities of this moment seemed unimaginable just a few weeks ago, and yet these ancient texts from thousands of years ago can reach across time and space and speak God’s word to us today.
Perhaps the Psalmist’s words could be your own: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress. My strength fails me.” (Psalm 31:9-10, ESV) This Psalm is a lament: it cries out in need to God. But laments don’t end with grievance; they also includes expression of praise and trust in God. In the midst of pain and fear, you can declare, as the Psalmist does: “My times are in your hand, God.” (Psalm 31:15)
“My times are in your hand.” Jesus actually says something very similar at the opening of the Passion reading we heard today. As he arrives in Jerusalem, he says to his disciples: “My time is near.” (Matthew 26:18) Jesus accepts each day as it comes, continuing to trust that his time is in God’s hands. Jerusalem has been pulling him like a magnet, even though he knows what trouble awaits him there.
And we know what trouble awaits him there, too. The Passion story is so familiar that you might have to intentionally invite yourself to hear it in a new way. Perhaps the unprecedented circumstances we’re in might help you do that. The seemingly mundane aspects of this story might resonate with those of you who are sheltering at home for days on end right now.
The story opens with Jesus and his friends celebrating a holiday, not in a temple or synagogue, but in a home. There are no elaborate rituals, only a shared meal made with everyday food and drink, made with what they had on hand. Bread and wine. These ordinary things become extraordinary in the hands of Christ, who transforms them into vessels of God’s grace. Bread is body, broken open that it might feed all. Wine is blood, the sign of a covenant with God, a promise sealed and kept forever. It is only Matthew’s Jesus who specifically mentions “forgiveness” being poured from the cup. A well of mercy that will never run dry. At the end of the celebratory meal, Jesus and the disciples sing hymns and pray together. (Matthew 26:30)
This Holy Week, as you gather around your tables to share a holiday at home, remember those parts of the story. Remember Jesus’ body and blood; remember Jesus’ promise and love. Notice the sacramental coming alive in your own hands. Sing the hymns you love, and pray the prayers you know. Trust that Christ is present right where you are, even in a Holy Week that looks unlike any other.
Of course, despite its ordinary moments, the Passion is an extraordinary story. It is full of the unexpected and inexplicable. It is full of sacred mystery.
In this Passion story we proclaim that Emmanuel, God who has come to be with humanity, will die for humanity. No failure, no sin, will change that. And this story is full of human failure: betrayal, abandonment, denial, torture, execution. None of these can undo God’s love in Christ. That love is poured out for all people, in all places, at all times. That cup of forgiveness always overflows.
In this Passion story we proclaim that we do not worship a God who conquers or punishes but a God whose victory is in sacrifice and mercy. This is a God in solidarity with those who suffer, because this is a God who suffers. In this story we see that God knows what it is to be human, like me, like you. God knows your pain, your sickness, your grief, your death. God goes with you into the dark.
So Holy Week might look different, but the truth of this precious story that we tell every year, that truth does not change. Your God does not change. Your God still comes to you, right where you are, and still speaks to you, right where you are. And the Word God speaks is one of love, even in the face of death.
That death isn’t theoretical. It’s real. This week, we encounter that death directly – in the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. And in our own world, right now. Holy Week, even this Holy Week, has space to hold our grief in that. Even the Light of the World, dies. That’s where the Gospels story ends for today.
Except for one last detail. After Jesus’ death, his body is taken down from the cross and put in a rock-hewn tomb. Perhaps the officials who had ordered Jesus’ execution felt like justice had been served, a threat had been neutralized, the law had been upheld. Perhaps they felt like this marked the end of the story of Jesus, the supposed Messiah.
But something kept nagging at them. The Gospel writer tells us that they just couldn’t stop thinking about something Jesus had said when he was still alive: something about rebuilding a destroyed temple; something about the dead being raised to life; something that had sounded crazy at the time.
A heavy stone is rolled in front of the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, and soldiers are sent to seal it shut, just in case. A guard is put on 24-hour watch outside. But still, it just doesn’t feel secure enough. They’re just not sure death can hold Jesus.
And everyone is left to wonder: What if there’s a crack that’s just enough to let the light in? Or maybe to let the light out? What if Jesus was telling the truth all along? What if death is not the final word? What if, somehow, the story doesn’t end here? Friends, this Holy Week, may you live into these mysteries even in the midst of the mundane.