Saturday, March 27, 2010

03-28-2010: Palm (Passion) Sunday

Palm (Passion) Sunday
Luke 19:28-40 / Isaiah 50:4-7 / Psalm 22 / Philippians 2:6-11 / Luke 22:14-23:56
Holy Week begins: the dread of every church sexton and not a few pastors. Holy Week can’t help but be overdone - too many symbols, too little time. While priests and participants blindly wade through a river of rituals feverishly anticipating an Amen that will signal they’ve reached the other shore, liturgists are in their glory explaining the ancient sources of these once-a-year practices and exhorting everyone about what is permitted or prohibited (How do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? the old joke goes. You can negotiate with the terrorist).

One thing to be said for the Holy Week liturgies, though: they evoke the gamut of emotion. From delight at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, through the fear and dread as he’s arrested on Holy Thursday, to the gothic gore and suffering of the scourging and crucifixion on Good Friday, to the glorious surprise and joy at seeing the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday – Christians of all temperaments can find a place to feel at home. Some more maudlin Christians over-emphasize Good Friday and Christ’s suffering with almost orgiastic delight, mortifying themselves both figuratively and literally -- they’re the ones who find Easter blandly anti-climactic. Others fast forward to Easter Sunday and, like frenzied Pentecostals, sway to the Pollyanna chirps of an alleluia people – all year long. The less religiously-inclined buy a new hat and walk up Fifth Avenue.

Perhaps I betray my own temperament by admitting my prejudice for the theologian von Balthasar who aligned himself neither with the suffering of Good Friday nor the ecstasy of Easter but with the in-between – Holy Saturday: the day devotion is absent, the sacraments forbidden, churches empty of the Real Presence – God gone. And the curse, usually shouted as metaphor, becomes literally true: Jesus go(es) to hell!

Holy Saturday, the descent into hell, represents Jesus’ complete identification with us in our sinfulness – dead, helpless, cut off from God – Jesus, in the words of St. Paul himself, is made sin. Holy Saturday reminds us of those feelings of abandonment, our god-forsakenness. Such a theology suggests each of us will know this experience no matter how sinful or holy we may be. Just ask the alcoholic who’s hit bottom, or someone diagnosed with a terminal disease, or the parent who’s lost a child. Religion, as human invention or, in Freud’s evaluation, as illusion, usually seeks to protect us from the darkness of such feelings; but, at its core, deep in the throes of holy week, Holy Saturday beckons us to face the reality of a hell not filled with burning flame or numbing ice, but with… emptiness.

Holy Week may be filled with prayers and piety, rites and rubrics, but Holy Saturday turns things topsy-turvy. It happens at least once each year on Holy Saturday: the church is left open so volunteers can decorate for the Easter Vigil and Altar Servers can practice when, inevitably, someone will come in to “make a visit.” He’ll walk straight up to the empty tabernacle, still standing at the altar of reposition, genuflect, cross himself, and kneel in a most reverent manner. The nascent liturgist in me wants to go over and point out the fact that the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, is not there; it’s been removed, as the rubric demands. But I catch myself, remembering it’s Holy Saturday - when absence is what it’s all about. Maybe the one kneeling so reverently and praying so fervently in front of the empty tabernacle is on to something whether he realizes it or not. Maybe God’s apparent absence is a presence of sorts, reminding us that when all else fails, when religion’s most sublime symbols of faith removed, when we find ourselves in the darkest of places – precisely then – there comes something deeper than emotion, an intuition perhaps, hovering on a whiff of leftover incense or heard as a haunting lyric from the practicing choir; a mysterious assurance that, despite apparent absence, we are not alone – ever.


  1. 弱者困於環境,智者利用環境~~加油!........................................

  2. Father Brosnan,

    I have really enjoyed reading your Lenten reflections--all the way from Hamilton, NY. I hope you had a happy Easter in Bayside!

    Kathleen Cooney