Palm Sunday: Christ’s Obedience & Ours

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-26-_-_Entry_into_Jerusalem2A sermon offered at Vespers on Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020. The church is closed for public worship during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and the service (and sermon) take place in that context. The scriptures are Matthew 21:1-11 and Philippians 2:5-11.

Watch the sermon HERE.

We just heard the Epistle appointed for the main service on Palm Sunday, from chapter 5 of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  Several verses of that chapter are often put together in a musical piece that, like a lot of liturgical music, often is known from its Latin name:  Christus factus est.

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.

In the traditional worship service for Maundy Thursday, these words were sung just before the reading of the Gospel. Later, the music was moved to be used on Palm Sunday, to be sung just before the Passion, the telling of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion.  In monastic practice, this little hymn, Christus factus est, would be repeated on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, moving towards Holy Saturday.

I’ve been in churches where this hymn would find its way through the various liturgies of Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday, but continuing until Holy Saturday.  It would be like a mantra, like a musical prayer that would almost condense the entirely of Holy Week in its simple phrasing

Christ became obedient unto do, even death on the Cross,
But God exalted him, and named him above all names.

The movement of what goes low in order to be made high is a kind of physics of spirituality, I think.

The Virgin Mary knew then, when she sang her Magnificat, and we’ll sing her words several nights later this week:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

God’s work of holy reversals is often forgotten by the busy, secular, nonreligious world, but especially at times like these, look who’s being lifted up.  Look at who we see (clearly) as our heroes:  nurses, health aides, drivers, delivery persons; doctors, scientists, epidemiologists… Those who spend their lives making themselves big and showy—politicians and the usual movers and shakers—look comical, sad, and largely irrelevant.

This afternoon, I passed by my favorite diner, Midnight Express.  It’s closed, except for takeout, of course.  But just as I walked by, I was excited to see a familiar water opening the door.  He held a bag, and looked out expectantly, “California omelet?”  And a young woman said, “Yes, that’s me.  Thank you,” she said.  And then she kept going, “Thank you SO much.  I really appreciate it. Please thank the people in the kitchen and whoever else is in there. We’re all so grateful that you’re working and I hope you stay safe. Thank you.”

She meant every word of that.  She wasn’t just being nice. You could see the gratitude in her, and the waiter, I think, really appreciated it.

In the midst of the chaos, and sadness, the sickness and death of our world in these days, there is nonetheless a bit of holy reversal going on. Now, it’s our task to keep this from being sentimental and to fight with and stand for all those who currently are so invaluable, so they get adequate pay, healthcare, and all the things they need.  God wants us to help with the word of reversal and resurrection.

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.

The French philosopher and social critic Simone Weil imagined the cross of Christ as a balance, a kind of lever.  “Heaven coming down to earth raises earth to heaven.”  We lower what we want to lift, she points out.  And so, to lower oneself, raises not only the other person, but can raise the whole other side of the equation.  (Gravity and Grace, London: Ark Paperbacks, 1987 (1952), p. 84.)

Holy Week invites us to walk closely with Christ.  Obedience, we remember has to do with listening to God and following.  Ob (toward) -audire (listening).  We can practice obedience and service—by staying at home and being careful.  By checking on others just to say hi and hear their voice.  Some are serving, being obedient, by making masks, and sharing them. And let’s not underestimate the service, the obedience, the faithfulness of praying for one another. Praying for those we know, and for those we don’t know. Praying for the sick and suffering, praying for the healthy and thriving.  Pray. Pray. Pray.

Even as we move through the emotions and stories of Holy Week, we should never forget that the Resurrection has happened. Easter is a fact, and we live strengthened by the Resurrection, even as we allow the Resurrected Christ to pull us through the difficult days, into days of new light and life.

May God help us to be obedient to the way of love, so that we too may live into that name above all names, Jesus Christ our Savior.

 

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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