We sat in the front pew, the children and the teachers, waiting and watching. The purple-draped altar, the purple-draped candlesticks, the purple-draped medieval crucifix all stood solid and royal and richly beautiful.
We have been waiting throughout Lent, waiting for this momentous week, considering our hearts and our lives and our habits of love or un-love. Yet Palm Sunday is the day we end our waiting and begin our acting. As Christ entered the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, so we enter Jerusalem too, as we take part in the stupendous drama of the Son of God’s last week before his crucifixion, the week that Christians, all over the world, call Holy Week.
Holy Week marks the days leading to Easter. The last three days, the Tridium, begin with Maundy (commandment) Thursday when we remember the Last Supper and Christ’s commandment to “love one another” as he gave himself to us in the Holy Eucharist. That same evening we strip the altar and turn out the lights, reflecting Christ’s arrest and abandonment in the Garden of Gethsemane. We even create a garden of flaming candles to honor the reserved Sacrament that has been removed, and some of us will “keep the watch” all Thursday night, undoing that desertion in Gethsemane.
On Good Friday, remembering God’s good death that saves us from ourselves, we watch as eternity intersects time and the earth quakes. The Son of God is crucified; the tree of Eden becomes the tree of Calvary, reversing Eden.
Some of us keep the Holy Saturday vigil, entering a darkened church and lighting it with flaming candles as the new day of Easter approaches. Some of us, like Mary Magdalene, will rise on Easter morning to find the tomb empty and to celebrate the risen Christ – and our own resurrections – with colorful flowers on a white cross and lots of happy singing.
But today, Palm Sunday, we waited and we watched in our pew, for soon, soon, we knew we would be given our blessed palms. As the Gospel was read, describing what we were soon going to act out, I entered into the liturgy, this moment of meaning created by time and tradition and creedal belief over two thousand years. I entered the story and walked alongside that colt carrying Our Lord through the gates of Jerusalem.
So this morning, the children and the teachers stepped to the altar rail and received their palms, then stepped back to their pew. Soon all those in the rows behind us received theirs too. “We’ll follow the cross,” I whispered to the children, and we waited for the clergy and acolytes to step into the nave and begin the procession. The choir sang joyfully the resonant hymn, “All Glory Laud and Honor…” and we followed the cross, leading the congregation, waving our palms and singing too.
Ritual is an art-form, and art is mankind’s way of expressing the great truths of his existence. Liturgy uses many art-forms: poetry and prose, music and drama, songs and prayers, symbols and settings richly textured with meaning. Ritual is a deeply satisfying way to express who we are, why we are here, where we have been and where we are going. It expresses what God, in his immense love for his creation, has done for us, and continues to do for us.
The dramas of Holy Week and Easter are part of the greater drama of the entire Church Year found in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox traditions, and to a lesser degree in other Christian bodies. But Easter is the culmination of that year. Since Advent and our waiting for Christmas, we have been preparing for Easter’s Resurrection. Christmas means nothing without Easter, for it is the Resurrection that marks Christ as the Son of God. It is Easter that makes us sit up and take notice and ask, “If he did rise from the dead, then who did he claim to be, and what did he command? What does he command today? Who exactly is he? Does he really love us that much to die for us?”
As someone once said, Christianity is all about the Resurrection. If you believe in the resurrection of Christ from the dead – and there is ample historical evidence to support such belief – then the rest follows easily. And the rest is, oh my, a glorious journey, full of color, meaning, certainty, and the love of God singing to you at night.
But I am ahead of the story and the week opening before us – we are still at the gates of Jerusalem. The children and the teachers followed the cross around the church, and the congregation followed us. Today being a fine sunny morning, we followed the cross outside into the neighborhood and around the front and back to the narthex doors. Our priest pounded on these gates: Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem! The doors opened and we entered the heart of the ark of the church, stepping up the red carpet toward our front pew.
And so now we step into Holy Week, prayerfully, awe-fully, watching, waiting, and acting out this grand drama of the love of God, as once again, eternity intersects time.