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Readings: Palm Sunday

15 March 2013

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Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14-end of 23

Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards the human race sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross: grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

ON Palm Sunday, we hear the Passion narrative in its entirety. Luke's version bears some distinctive hallmarks, not least his interest in the place of women and of prayer. He alone tells us of the women of Jerusalem who weep for Jesus, just as Jesus wept for Jerusalem, and that Jesus prayed for Peter, and, when Peter denied Jesus, turned and looked at him. Whatever was in that gaze? He may have expected Peter's failure, but we cannot guess the pain of betrayal by his staunchest friend.

At the end of the wilderness temptations, Luke told us that the Devil departed until an opportune time. Now he was back with the same temptation, in a more acute guise, accompanied by the torture of crucifixion. "If you are the son of God . . ." became: "If he is the Messiah . . .", "If you are the King of the Jews . . .".

"If you are the King of the Jews . . .": Luke reports the words of the crucified criminals, and Jesus's astounding statement: "Today you will be with me in paradise." "Paradise", rarely used in the New Testament, comes from the Old Persian word for an enclosed space. It hints at the undoing of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the garden.

Astoundingly, Jesus expected to be in paradise with a criminal "today". Luke has built up the momentum by the use of "today": "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4.21); "I must stay at your house today" (Luke 19.5); "Today salvation has come to this house" (Luke 19.9). The time is right: this is God's time.

Amid the cruelly familiar story, Luke re-orders the rending of the veil of the Temple that separated the High Priest, representing sinful humans, from God's holy presence. Mark and Matthew place this after the death of Jesus, harking back to the Old Testament teaching that humans could not look on the face of God and live. With the death of Jesus, the requirement of the law was met, the veil of separation in the Temple was obsolete, and God shredded it.

That explanation will not work for Luke, who places the rending immediately before Jesus's death, as a sign of the heavens' being opened to clear the way. At Jesus's baptism, Jesus, fully identified with the human condition, was praying when the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended; now, when he was fully obedient to the point of death, the Temple veil was torn in two, revealing the glory of God in the Holy of Holies.

In a similar vein, Luke reports that just before the first Christian martyr Stephen died, the heavens opened, and Stephen saw the glory of God. For Luke, theologically, God's great love clears the way before humans tread it.

So, with the ripping of the Temple veil, the barrier that it represented was permanently breached by God, who opened the way for Jesus, fully human, and thus identified with human sinfulness, to enter his presence. No wonder Jesus could cry with confidence: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit," as he entrusted himself to the Father, who had affirmed at his baptism that this was his son.

His was no whimpering death: having twice in the Passion narrative called God "Father", he cried out loudly to his Father. For Luke, this intimate relationship persisted until the end. "If you are the Son of God . . .". Yes! is the resounding answer.

Luke's ordering of events makes sense, given his Gospel's emphasis on the Father's unbounded love, which removes all barriers between him and his son. Thus we can recall the father of the Prodigal, who, in his resolute love that withstood all the shame that his son brought on him, was looking out for his son, and took all the initiative in welcoming him home. That is a wonderful theological framework for our observance of another Holy Week.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
The Father, on his sapphire throne,
Expects his own anointed Son.

Henry Milman (1791-1868)

 

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
To thee we lift hosannas high;
For thou the immortal Father's Son
The crown hast gained:
thy work is done!

Michael Sadgrove (b.1950)

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