After the crowds

Holy Week Palm SundayA sermon for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, March 25, 2018.  The scripture readings are Mark 11:1-11Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16Philippians 2:5-11, and Mark 15:1-39

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Unless you’ve been hibernating or so busy as to miss the news, you know that yesterday around the country, young people led “March for Our Lives” demonstrations.  Especially coming out of anger, frustration, and fear after the Valentine’s Day shootings in Parkland, Florida, young people have led the way to advocate for stricter gun control while calling out our politicians who seem paralyzed.

Like with other rallies and demonstrations, there were huge crowds.  Yesterday, people with energy, signs, purpose, and resolve.  Today:  many of those same public spaces that held yesterday’s demonstrations will be filled with joggers and sunbathers, strollers and shoppers.

Crowds move through today’s Gospel and through the events we recount in Holy Week—the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and eventual resurrection. And like in our world, the crowds come and go.

The very first part of the Gospel we heard this morning, the “Palm Gospel,” tells us about the crowds that surrounded Jesus as he rode a donkey into Jerusalem.  While the donkey can seem comical, to those who knew the prophecies, they understood the political and religious significance:  the messiah would do such a thing. For the people to yell, “Hosanna in the highest…Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” was for the people to engage in political action. And among the disciples, there seem to be several who were part of the radical Zealot party, those who advocated an overthrow of the Roman occupation. But all too soon, the crowd seems to disperse.

They gather again outside the temple court for the mock trial of Jesus, and now, it seems the crowd is just as easily swayed to another point of view. When giving the choice, they ask that Barabbas be freed.

As Jesus is led along the way of the cross, the crowd looks on, but gradually gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it seems like Jesus is mostly along on the cross.  Mark’s Gospel is the loneliest, in many ways.

Huge questions arise from today’s scriptures and hover over Holy Week.  If we are to follow Jesus, do we act for justice first, and pray later if there’s time?  Or, do we go deep in the temple, say our prayers and wait for God to move us into action?  Or, do we struggle to find a balance?

This Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion.  Monday and Tuesday remind us of other events that happen to Jesus in his final days.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, all have major themes to explore.  But there’s a little pause in the week, on Wednesday night, that can serve as a reminder, a reflection, almost, of our lives and the life of God in our midst.

On Wednesday, we offer a little service with a funny Latin name, called “Tenebrae.”  Some churches offer it on other nights, and the serve can differ.  It’s a sort of combined service of the readings from Morning and Evening Prayer, along with some other readings and a bit of drama, thrown in.

“Tenebrae” comes from the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness.”  Through the prayers, candles are gradually extinguished. The light decreases until the space is in total darkness. Then, by tradition, there’s a loud noise. The “strepitus,” or great noise, is a clang, a bash, a rumble that represents several things related to the crucifixion—the disciples running out of the Garden of Gethsemane, the tearing of the Temple curtain in Jerusalem, and the earthquake reported by Matthew.

After noise, there in the dark, there is only silence. The crowd has all gone home.  The silence can sound like failure. Desertion. Loneliness.

But after a time, a small light appears—usually a single, flickering flame of a candle. Sometimes it’s the last candle of those extinguished earlier and instead of being put out, it has simple been hidden behind the altar. This single, small light represents the light of Christ—the light that is dimmed, that is hidden, that seems to completely disappear on Good Friday.

I think about the silence and darkness of Tenebrae when I read Mark’s Passion, St. Mark’s version of the Crucifixion that we just heard.

You may recall that each of the Gospels offers a particular point of view—of Jesus, and certainly of the Crucifixion. In Luke’s Gospel there’s a lot more attention given to the political and theological aspects. Matthew presents the crucifixion and resurrection as one event, leaving no doubt that Jesus is the King of Kings. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is a champion, totally in control, the “true light who shines in the darkness.” But in Mark’s Gospel, the version we heard today, it sounds like darkness has indeed overcome the light. Jesus is the victim.

The great preacher & commentator Fred Craddock points out that the verbs themselves show that all the action is “done to” Jesus. Jesus is betrayed and let down by his friends, the disciples. Jesus is arrested and taken away. His friends and disciples desert him. Jesus is taken to the high priest. He is interrogated, spit upon, and beaten. Jesus is bound and led away further. When Pilate tries to cut a deal with the religious leaders and release a prisoner, Jesus is passed over for Barabbas, the murderer. Jesus is handed over to others, and he is beaten again. He is made to carry his cross. He is brought to Golgotha. He is crucified. Darkness came over the whole land. Darkness seemed to overtake the whole world and it feels like no one is around—not even God.

Mark’s version of the Crucifixion is not an easy one to hear, but it’s real. It’s true. And some of us know a bit of what that darkness is like.

The shootings at schools seem to continue, and when suburban kids are the targets, there are rallies and demonstrations.  Every day and night, our cities and neighborhoods hear gunfire, and young people die quietly, out of the news, and far from the crowds of cameras and politicians.  In our own lives and among our families and friends, there is sickness, illness, death, and uncertainty.  For some, it is a dear friend and neighbor who was a young mother and wife. For another, a husband and friend who had persevered through transplants and therapies. Another mother, wife, and friend. Church leaders. A brother, a sister, a child…

Darkness is real. The shadows touch our lives with sickness and disease, with addiction, and mental illness. Where is God when we can’t see him or feel him or in any way apprehend him?

Again, I go back to that liturgy of Tenebrae for a reminder. One essential part of Tenebrae is the reading we heard today from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, often sung as the antiphon, “Christus factus est.” The words are prayed even in the darkness. The words are prayed especially in the darkness because they emerge from the shadows:

Christ became obedient for us unto death,
even to the death, death on the cross.
Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name
which is above all names.

There is something in that mystery, something in that movement of humility, self-offering, of suffering-with, that gives pierces the darkness, as though a knife were put through a black shroud, flooding the place with light. God doesn’t let the light go out even though we might not see it, just like at night the sun is still shining—it’s just on the other side of the world.

One of my favorite versions of the Tenebrae service follows the normal pattern of readings, music, and decreasing light. The candles are extinguished one by one. And as the lights go out, there’s a sadness that falls over the space. It is unspecific and large. It seems to include all of our pain, all of our heartache, all of our questioning. But then, as one become uncomfortable in this deep darkness, and one tries to adjust one’s eyes, there’s the faintest hint of light. One wonders if it’s in the imagination. But then it seems to be moving and approaching from behind. Gradually, slowly, silently… from way in the very back of the church, a little child comes, carrying a single candle. As the child moves through the space shadows dance all over the place, no longer threatening but animated with hope, with joy, with expectation.

The light shines in the darkness.  The light that shines, never went out. It just changed. It just seemed to go away. But here it is, faint but full; small but strong; vulnerable, yet eternal.

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to seek the light. We are invited to slow down, to set aside the calendar, and our “to do” list. For a few days, we might even put on hold our endless list of “shoulds.” Whether we spend time in this church, another church, or somewhere else, Holy Week invites us to notice the dark places in our lives, the shades and shadows and allow God to be there with us.

Even if we can’t feel the warmth of the light, even if we can’t get a glimpse of it yet, the faith of the Church assures us that “What has come into being in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-5)

Whether we’re against the crowd, with the crowd, or feel like the crowd has forgotten us or left us behind, God is with us. Christ leads us in the way of prayer and action, as we follow his love—through the cross, into the tomb, and into the eternal love of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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