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Palm Sunday

31 March 2022

Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19.28-40

Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16*; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 22.14-23.56 or Luke 23.1-49


PHILIPPIANS 2.5-11 carries a gigantic weight of scholarship. It is almost one hundred years since the prevailing view — that the text was about the historical Jesus, giving an ethical blueprint for Christian living — gave way to an insight that has since been refined, but never overturned. As a result, modern Bibles set out the passage in verse form, as a hymn exploring the universal, mythic meaning of Christ. At the same time, the case was made that it is a pre-Pauline fragment: part of the teaching that Paul received about Christ before he began his missionary work of teaching others.

It is significant, then, that the picture moves straight from humiliation (from the Latin humus, “ground”, so very close to our word “lowliness”) to glorification. “Resurrection” and “ascension” are not even named. Instead, they are swept up into the movement of God’s “high exaltation” of his Messiah. At the name “Jesus”, everyone must kneel. This underlines his divinity, which is attached not to any of his titles (Son of Man, Christ, Logos) but to the personal name that belongs to his incarnate self. The exalted meaning of the incarnation for human beings is thus revealed. In the following verse, the scope of the worship that he merits is expanded a little, to include both his personal name and the title for him which came to predominate over all the others: “Christ”.

A sharp challenge, though, comes right at the start of this passage; for Paul introduces the hymn with a command: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” But he is not urging us to turn ourselves into mini-Messiahs. The Greek is something closer to “Have this attitude among yourselves.” Willingness to accept humiliation rather than assert status will resurface time and again, both in the New Testament stories of Christian beginnings and in the subsequent history of the Church. It is a key criterion by which others will judge how genuine our faith and discipleship really are. After reading Philippians this Palm Sunday, we should be in no doubt which of the two ways of living is divinely affirmed.

Luke’s account of the Passion stands apart from the other Gospels in several respects. One of the most noticeable is 22.24-7: a contest about which disciple was the greatest apparently intrudes into the narrative of the Last Supper. No one can be sure whether Luke was telling the story as he had received it, or whether he chose to insert the contest story as a commentary on the Passion theme of lowliness leading to exaltation. One thing that nudges us toward the less sceptical reading is how close Luke’s account of the contest is to the message that we find in John’s account of the foot-washing (13.2-11).

If we enter into the Last Supper through meditation, it is instantly apparent that none of the Gospel accounts of it is complete in every detail. They all sketch their own key moments in a few sentences. Yet Jesus and the Twelve had all evening to eat this Passover meal, and share the cup, bread, and cup again (another detail specific to Luke: 22.17, 19-20). It is not difficult to believe that much happened that night which has not been recorded — or which only one source preserved, to be used later by one Evangelist, but not the others.

In Isaiah, the theme of humiliation emerges first, in a form that came to be seen as prefiguring Christ. But that gives way to an assertiveness that we do not find in Jesus’s Passion. Isaiah is forthright in asserting his innocence, and his certainty of God’s vindication. This contrasts with Jesus’s enigmatic answers to Pilate when questioned about his kingship (Luke 23.2-3).

Resorting to the old theological stratagem of assigning marks of “strength” to the divinity and “weakness” to the humanity of Jesus is not enough to forge an exact parallel between the prophet and the Saviour whom he anticipates. But this does not matter to Isaiah, who knows that he is called to be both learner and teacher (v.4: like Paul, who learned his hymn and taught it in turn). Isaiah passes on to Jesus, and Paul, and us, words that still resonate with anyone who clings to faith in dark and dangerous times: “It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

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