I’ve been chewing on this sermon—as most preachers do—this whole week, trying to make at least a dozen ideas hold together, and not only hold together, but fit into a seven-minute time slot.
And then came the psalm at yesterday’s Morning Prayer: (137: 1,2,4, Coverdale):
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up upon the trees that are therein.
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
A Palm Sunday,
• with no music,
• with no church building,
• with no altar,
• with no palm blessing on the labyrinth,
• with no procession around Roy Street and Queen Anne,
• and with no entry into our Jerusalem at 15 Roy Street.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a very strange land?”
A “how” question. My engineering-type brain loves “how” questions. Our Hebrew forebears didn’t ask “can we sing the Lord’s song?” nor “is it right to sing the Lord’s song?” but “How?” And all of us, gathered around our computers in our virtual worship space, must somehow believe that the Lord’s song is possible.
I turned to Andrew of Crete, an eighth-century byzantine bishop—and more importantly hymn writer and composer—for an answer. He lived in a bit of a backwater, away from the centers of pilgrimage, and in a place where this newfangled “procession with palms thing” hadn’t caught hold yet.
Andrew preached on Palm Sunday, sometime around 700: (Oration 9 In ramos palmarum)
In his humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and he is glad that he became so humble for our sake, glad that he came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to himself.
If this Palm Sunday does nothing more than cause us to once again become aware—by celebrating this Holy Week in our homes—that there is no part of our lives, that there is no part of our little corners of space and time, that has not already been claimed by the God who has become one of us, it will have been enough. Gregory of Nazianzus reminds us “that which Christ has not assumed has not been redeemed,” and in Christ’s life and death, and in the way we celebrate this Palm Sunday, Christ has assumed everything even the dust bunnies under our beds.
The poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
There is nothing in our lives that God does not touch, and he turns our isolation into a thing of beauty.
So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. ... Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children's holy song: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.”
It is not that symbols and sacramentals are not important,
it is not that they don’t convey grace,
or that they are not holy and effectual signs.
We mourn their loss, and we enter into this time of holy famine, precisely because they are important. Those blessed palms, and the bread and wine of the Body and Blood of Christ, last year (and hopefully next year) conveyed grace, they are holy and they will be effectual.
Today we face the choice of our two Gospels. We can welcome Christ into our whole lives, or shut him out to die on Calvary. Either Christ is Lord of all, or the powers of this world, COVID included, are our true Lord. We can claim our baptismal priesthood to offer cedar branches and colored pieces of paper to God, or we will put God into a little box where He can only bless palms.
Let us claim that baptismal priesthood to offer our selves, our homes, our world for God and let us see in the famine of our Lord’s passion the flashes of his resurrection. Easter may seem like it will come very late this year, but Easter has already arrived.
… Though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, ( at the brown brink eastward, ) springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.