Saturday, April 12, 2014


Early this Saturday morning, the day before Palm Sunday, I was sitting in church meditating on Matthew's account of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. I put myself in the noisy crowd joyfully welcoming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David. The people around me were rejoicing in the hope that this prophet from Galilee was indeed the promised One who would finally deliver Israel from the power of its pagan overseers, the Romans. I got into the spirit with them, shouting my praises of Jesus. I was welcoming the Lord into my life, into my heart, counting on his great power to deliver me....

All of a sudden it was time for Vigils. So I closed my bible and walked up to sit in my choir stall, bringing the throng of exultant Jews with me. Vigils began with the usual Saturday morning "invitatory," Psalm 24, a song that welcomes the entry of the Lord into the holy city, Jerusalem. This happy coincidence kept my meditation going beautifully. "O gates, lift high your heads! Let him enter, the King of glory!" In fact, this is the psalm that's assigned for use during the Palm Sunday procession, when we sing the refrain "The children of the Hebrews, carrying olive branches, went out to meet the Lord, singing 'Hosanna to the Son of David.'"  Once again I was welcoming the Lord into my heart and into my life.

Then we sat down and began praying the recited psalms of Vigils. But these psalms were much more personal, about my own attitudes and motivations and so on. Now the crowd was gone and it was just me praying the psalms with my brothers.

Toward the end of Vigils we listened to a reading from a sermon by John Henry Newman. I was struck by a warning of his that went something like this: "When you're dealing with the Lord you are not encountering a system or an institution or a set of rules but rather a PERSON."      

This is when things started to get unsettling for me. Who was I welcoming into the "holy city" of my heart by waving my palm branch? The Jews in the crowd with me had no idea of what they were getting into. They thought that they were welcoming the Messiah who would fulfil their nationalistic dreams of independence from foreign occupation. But what they actually got was Someone who taught that the way to life is through humility, self-giving love, suffering, defeat and even death. None of them had the vaguest idea that they were signing up for that! 

And now here's Cardinal Newman warning me, me with my palm branch waving over my head, "When you're dealing with the Lord you are not encountering a system or an institution or a set of rules but rather a PERSON." So what am I signing up for here? Do I know what I'm getting into? It's not just a comfortable liturgical drama, it's not just being part of a Church organization whose rules and doctrines I assent to and can navigate pretty easily after all these years.

No, what I'm signing up for is a relationship with a person. That all by itself is a warning, since real personal relationships make difficult demands at times, are upredictable and are by their nature very unsettling -- in other words, just the opposite of comfortable and reassuring. In addition, the relationship isn't with just any person, it's with Jesus, the One who kicks over the money changers' tables in the temple and who calls out the Pharisees for trying to look good on the outside while being self-centered and arrogant on the inside.

When I start waving that yellow strip of palm in tomorrow's procession I'd better be prepared to meet the Person who is at the center of all the emotion. I'd better realize that he fully intends to kick over a few favorite tables of mine and point right at me and charge me with not being who I think I am.

But I'm still going to show up at the procession. Because, remember, Palm Sunday is just the start of Holy Week. Jesus is not just the Accuser or the Upsetter of Tables, but is also the Savior who will die on the cross for my sins on Good Friday.

And best of all, he will rise from the tomb next Sunday morning to completely conquer every sin and even death itself.

I figure that by walking in the Palm Sunday procession I'm signing up for the whole package.


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