Palm Sunday is a very strange day. We start out in a joyful mood. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, and everyone is singing and dancing and happy that the Messiah has come. Surely now everything will change.
The oppressors will be thrown out of the country, true religion will be the law of the land, and God will be in charge. We are amazed to be alive when this fabulous thing happens. But wait! In a very short time, our Messiah has been captured by the oppressors, tortured and killed. On Palm Sunday, we enact this whole scene of events in a matter of minutes, not even hours. It is enough to make our heads spin, and we know what happens on Easter Sunday! They didn’t! Why do we do this? Well, a little bit of history. There used to be two services that we have mashed together, the service of the palms, and the service of the passion. Holy Week started out with the palms, and the whole week was essentially re-enacted. It started with people saying their confessions and walking the stations of the cross. By Thursday, there was the last supper with the disciples, where one of the really critical things was when Jesus washed their feet, then the agony of waiting in the garden, the capture and trial of Jesus, his speedy execution on Friday, and there were all-night vigils at the tomb from Friday to Saturday. Then Saturday evening the Great Vigil started with the retelling of salvation history, starting with Genesis, going through the prophets, and ending up with proclaiming Jesus as the culmination of that history. Around the readings there are prayers and hymns – it takes a long time! And, it is all done in the dark. The reader has a candle or two to read by, but it is dark. The other candle that is lit is the Pascal Candle, our big candle that gets lit at the beginning of the Easter service, and then is lit for all baptisms and funerals – did you know that a funeral service in the Episcopal Church is considered to be an Easter service? So traditionally, the Easter service starts Saturday evening and goes into the early morning. At the end of the readings, there is the great shout – Christ is risen! And the congregation shouts back – the Lord is risen indeed! At that point, all of the lights come on, all of the bells are rung, people would traditionally bring little bells to ring, now they usually use their keys, and then the ancient hymn called the Gloria is sung. After that, there is the baptismal service. In the ancient church, people went through three years of preparation to become Christians, and the only time for baptism was at this Easter service. So of course there would be baptisms. Now, we renew our baptismal vows on Easter, whether we have a baptism or not. So things have changed a lot since then! In some Episcopal churches, they still do most of this. Of course, you have to have more people, and more clergy to do it! And you will find all of this in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, with their wonderful music. The Trisagion (Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one, have mercy on us) that we have been singing this Lent is from the Russian Orthodox church tradition. Things change! And they don’t change. We have shortened the time, we don’t require 3 years of preparation for baptism, and we have baptisms at other times, we invite people to come to services during Holy Week, we don’t command them – and at the same time, it is helpful to our souls when we take some extra time and consider what is going on here! One of the interesting things I noted in the newspaper articles about some of the after-effects of the tsunami was that a lot of folks decided that it was time to get married. There was apparently a huge upsurge in the number of weddings over the year following the disaster. The conclusion, which I agree with, was that young people who had been putting off taking time for a relationship suddenly realized that there might not be time, and they didn’t want to miss this important thing. So I invite you to recognize that there are times and seasons for everything, and right now is the time to pay attention to the center of our faith. These services, from now through Easter, are what are at the center of Christianity. People think about Christmas being important to Christianity, but it really isn’t. It was not even celebrated as an event for a very long time. Easter, and the days leading up to it, especially Maundy Thursday evening and Good Friday, have always been at the center. I hope you will take advantage of entering into Holy Week, while we still have time.