Today I woke up thinking, “Who really knows how to do Palm Sunday?” After my mind ran through various possibilities, I ended up worshiping with the Episcopalians. When I arrived, an usher standing at the door of the sanctuary handed me a thick pile of paper and directed me to the courtyard. People smiled politely but no one went out of their way to greet me, which is okay because I wasn’t looking to be known, I was looking to hear the story of Palm Sunday and the Passion, to waive a palm branch, and to sing the word “Hosanna!”
I was not disappointed. We gathered under an enormous oak tree. The rector greeted us and gave instructions for this day of special procession. A cantor from the choir taught us the refrain we would be singing, and then we were off and running. Well, not running, but walking and singing and waving palm leaves. We walked out of the courtyard and onto the sidewalk adjacent to the church, our singing drowned out every now and then by a passing car. It made me realize how much Christian worship happens inside a sanctuary and not out in public. I was aware of the gazes of motorists likely wondering who this intergenerational group of people was, singing with foliage just beyond the curb.
When we entered the sanctuary, which someone call the “chapel,” we made our way to the pews. I moved into a pew with one other person in it. No one sat down next to me until a few mintues later. I was grateful because the woman who eventually did had a beautiful singing voice. And there was a lot of singing in this service.
As I mentioned, we sang as we processed. We also sang in response to readings of the Gospel. We sang Amens in response to prayers. We sang hymns, obviously, but less obvious (to me, anyway) we sang an entire portion of Psalm 31. The musical notation for all of these sung portions were included in the bulletin and supported by well-prepared choir members interspersed throughout the congregation.
Unlike last Sunday, the sermon wasn’t sung, but it was effective in its own way. The rector delivered the sermon in a fairly staid manner, but it wasn’t boring. It was preached mainly extemporaneously, though he occasionally referred to notes. What struck me is that he didn’t say uh or um. Each word and phrase was carefully chosen. He wasn’t rushed. And he looked at the congregation the whole time.
In the opening of the sermon, the preacher reflected on “Glory,” commenting that it isn’t a word we often use in our everyday life. He went on to contrast the meanings of “glory” as employed by Ukrainian and Russian leaders in the course of the current war. If I remember correctly, he said, “The glory of the conqueror and the glory of the liberator are different.”
He then drew on the Epistle passage, the ancient hymn found in Philippians 2: 5 – 11, which includes these words: “though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” With these words resonating, he conjured images of suffering in Ukraine, stating that for the dead there would be no justice on Earth. But there is another justice, eternal justice of the one who became human not only on appearance but all the way down to the depths of humanity, humbling himself “and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
For me, this was the emotional turning point of the service and the sermon, the acknowledgment of suffering beyond our capacity to fathom, and yet the assurance that God in Christ did not avoid or refuse that suffering, but entered it and experienced it in order to transform it here on Earth in the fullness of time, and already now in heaven. It is arguably the most powerful statement of the Christian faith, foolishness to those who see no reality beyond material existence, but the very essence of hope to those who hold out for a spiritual existence in which God will one day “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).