Each year we come to this service and I am puzzled. I know Easter is coming, but reading the entire Passion seems premature, as if we have skipped five days and have entered Good Friday without any notice. We wave our palms as we process but then we condemn Christ to the crucifixion. We come triumphantly into Jerusalem but then we end outside the gates, upon that horrid place of calvary. All of Lent we have been slowly progressing, taking each week at a time, and now so much dramatic action happens in one service that it seems overwhelming.
I must remind myself that the liturgy is not historical re-enactment. Our liturgy, of course, is based upon actions that happened in history, but we do not re-present those actions like a movie would or history textbook. Rather, the liturgy re-presents in order for us to participate mystically in the particular event that happened at a particular moment in history. Just as we participate in the one sacrifice of Christ every time we celebrate Holy Communion, we participate in the other events in Christ’s life through the Church’s liturgical calendar. We are not above history or beyond history: we are in history.
Because our concern is not precise historical reenactment, certain events are brought together in order to heighten our understanding and participation. At every Mass we hear in the Canon how we combine the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. “ALL glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.” Likewise, today on Palm Sunday, our liturgy connects the Triumphant Entry immediately to the Crucifixion. This is not bad history, as if the Church forgot the historical timeline (these readings have been the same for over 1600 years). Rather, it signifies how the Cross stands at the center of all history, and this signification prepares us for Holy Week and Easter.
Last week we saw how Psalm 43 was interpreted at several different levels — first as David’s own plea to God as he sought to return from exile back to Jerusalem. Second as our own plea towards God when beset with our own sins, wounds, and finite humanity. Third as Christ’s plea to the Father upon the Cross as his own people abandoned him and he sought to bring exiled humanity back to the heavenly Jerusalem. Today we will attempt a similar reading, but of the liturgy itself. So, while we will examine the historical event, let us open our eyes in a new way as we walk with Jesus in this most Holy Week.
As we have seen before, Jerusalem signifies the place where God dwells with his people, for that is the site of the Temple, the place of sacrifice at which man entered into the presence of God. These exact hills where the city stood had been used for sacrifice by Abel, Noah, Abraham, David, and Solomon. When these men offered sacrifices, they did not view their actions as a gloomy or destructive activity, but rather gave an offering in joyful homage to their God. Sacrifice is “an offering of a creature to God in recognition of Him as its Creator, in order that it shall be accepted by Him and transformed by His acceptance” (Mascall, 89). It is the action by which man tries to bring himself to God through an offering. As the Son, the second person of the Trinity, eternally offers himself to His Father in a filial response, so man finds his fulfillment and beatitude in offering himself in a life of joyful and loving filial obedience to his God. But the consciousness of sin or our wounded, finite nature ruptures that ability of obedience and man realizes that he must offer something else in order to be transformed. And so death enters into sacrifice as man offers another creature on his behalf. But even here, the stress is not laid on the death, for the gift of the animal is not destroyed but transformed and returned to man in order that man might eat God’s own blessing, his own life, at God’s table.
The prime example of this, the prototype, the example which became the key narrative for the Jewish people, was the Passover. God had heard the cries of His people as they suffered in slavery. In the act of redemption, God condemned the land to the Angel of Death, and the Hebrews escaped both their captors and the curse of death through the blood of the lamb. God commanded the people to choose a lamb five days before the night of Passover, and so the people went out to their herds, and brought the lamb into their own household in order to prepare the sacrifice. The blood of the lamb was spread on the doorposts of the house and after the people ate the Lamb, they were saved by the life (the blood) of the lamb.
As a result, the Hebrew people escaped the curse of death and moved from slavery into freedom. And that freedom was marked not just by a release from their captors, but by the promise of inhabiting a new land. The freedom was given to them so that they might live a holy life dedicated to their God in a land overflowing with milk and honey.
As we well know, however, that fulness of freedom was not achieved even though they were given a Law to follow and a Tabernacle in which they could continue sacrifices to God. The people failed to follow the Law and devote themselves to it. The Law itself was not the problem: the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is clear that the people had failed to turn their hearts towards God’s promises. As a result, God handed them over to their enemies. It happens time and time again as Israel hardens her heart against her God.
Here we turn to our Introit, Psalm 22, which was also chanted as our Tract. MY God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me? * and art so far from my health, and from the words of my complaint? O my God, I cry in the day-time, but thou hearest not; * and in the night season also I take no rest. This is the voice of David, the voice of the King of Israel whose kingdom was ruined because of his sin.
It is also our prayer as we cry to God in our own despair. We are beset by our own sins and the wounds of the fall and our finite humanity.
Psalm 22 is also taken as the voice of Jesus upon the Cross. [The Gospels record Jesus saying at least the first verse, but it said that Christ recited this Psalm all the way through Psalm 31:6, at which point he gave up his ghost.]
By reading this Psalm as the words of Jesus upon the Cross, we now see how Jesus has taken upon himself the sins of the whole world. He has taken upon himself all that separates humanity from God. And yet, this is God Himself! And He is redeemed humanity! This is man without sin, man healed from the wounds, man who is united to infinite divinity! This is the man in which all humanity is led to God because it is in Him that humanity and divinity are joined. He is man who may offer a perfect sacrifice.
And so in this narrative it makes sense how the One leading humanity back to God does so again through the Passover. He accomplishes this as the Lamb of sacrifice. He brings humanity back to Jerusalem as the Passover Lamb.
Just as Israel was brought into the Promised Land (which is Jerusalem) through the passover — now Christ leads humanity to the promised land of the heavenly Jerusalem through His own Passover at the earthly Jerusalem. Therefore, just like the Hebrews in Egypt, the Lamb is selected five days before the Passover. That is today as Jesus enters into Jerusalem to offer His life for the life of the world.
In his actions, Jesus begins an Exodus of humanity itself. As the hebrews were freed from their Egyptian captors and from the angel of death, so Jesus leads humanity on an Exodus from our captors (the world, the flesh, the devil) and from the curse of death. Through his blood we are freed from the tyranny of death and have the power not to sin. Through his blood we are healed by the wounds of the Fall. Through His blood we are joined to His life–his divine life. Christ’s true and perfect sacrifice leads us back into the presence of God.
And now, as the Hebrews were freed in order to obtain the Promise Land, we are freed in order to enter into our promised land–to enter back into the very presence of God.
The triumphant entry leads directly to the Cross because it is the start of the Passover ritual. Jesus entered Jerusalem many times during his life. He was also pursued by the leading group of Jews in Jerusalem many times in order to kill him. Each time they did, Jesus slipped away from them. But now, this time is different. Jesus comes to Jerusalem as King and as the Lamb, leading himself as the sacrifice in full knowledge of what is to come.
The doorposts of the Hebrews, marked with the blood of the Lamb, became their gateway of freedom. Now, Jesus enters Jerusalem and offers His blood on the Cross which becomes our gateway of Freedom. The Cross stands as a turning point of history, the means by which we arrive at fulness of humanity in the presence of God.
We started Lent looking at the veiled Icon of All Saints and now we come full circle. Jesus is revealed as the crucified and risen savior sitting on his throne, ruling the cosmos, but what is so striking is that his reign is symbolized by the cross, which is held by angels on a cushion above Him. All creation must come to terms with the Cross. As John Henry Newman puts it: “His Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.”
Our Lenten journey is now coming to an end at the foot of the Cross. All of our devotion, fasting, and preparation will help us now as we come to Holy Week. If you have failed your Lenten intentions, or never even set aside this time in special intentions, do not despair. Start today and enter Holy Week with care. Let us all pray that this week we may join our Redeemer in His Passover as we ponder the mysteries of his passion and resurrection who forgives our sins, heals our wounds, and binds us together with all the Saints in heavenly joy.