Of Palm Branches and Crosses

On Palm Sunday (2017), Christians in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria joined their brothers and sisters across the globe to raise palm branches in honor of Jesus the King.  And just as it did two thousand years ago, the proclamation of Jesus’ reign produced a violent reaction. Bombers killed dozens and injured scores more. In a way, the story of holy week replayed itself in gruesome detail. The praise of the faithful precipitated a murderous rage among those who would not or could not accept Jesus as their king.

Never believe that worshiping Jesus is always a safe, harmless way to spend a morning. There was a direct connection between the palms of praise and the cross of crucifixion. This was true for Jesus, and it is true for us as well.

Proclaiming Jesus as king can lead to death for his loyal subjects, just as it did for king Jesus himself two thousand years ago. And if that seems like a remote possibility in your corner of the world, remember that many of your brothers and sisters in Christ are reliving the terrors of Christ’s passion in their daily lives.

The suffering church, the martyr church, is not “them”; it is “us”. The whole church is wounded when any part of the church is attacked. There is only one church of Jesus Christ, to which all Christians belong. Every Christian should feel the sting of the shrapnel that tore the flesh of our brothers and sisters in Egypt.

Jesus the Blasphemer

But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Mat 26:63-66)

[Jesus said,] “I and the Father are one.” Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

This week a mob in Pakistan attacked three college students accused of blasphemy, killing one and injuring two. According to Al Jazeera, vigilantes have killed 69 accused blasphemers since 1990, while the government has killed 52. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (PDF) reported that there were 40 Pakistanis on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy. Some of them, like Asia Bibi are Christians. Most are not.

Until recently, modern Americans could close their eyes to the violent passions that religious speech and identity can trigger. Progressive Christians tend to see the violent opposition to Jesus in economic, social or political terms. The empire did it. Indeed, it did. That, however, is not the primary lens through which the Gospel authors viewed the crucifixion. In the eyes of many of his coreligionists, Jesus was a blasphemer. He claimed to be one with the Father, at whose right hand he would soon be sitting. Jesus’ opponents considered this to be blasphemy, and for that he deserved to die.

Seven Words from the Cross

The  church of my childhood always conducted a worship service built around Jesus’ seven last words from the cross. I still think that’s a good way to go.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Luke 23:34

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Luke 23:43

Woman, behold your son …  Behold your mother.
John 19:26–27

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34

I thirst. 
John 19:28

It is finished.
John 19:30

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
Luke 23:46

Looking for the Easter Vigil

The United Methodist Book of Worship contains an order for the Easter Vigil, a beautiful and moving liturgy that dates back to Christian antiquity. The service, which takes 2 – 3 hours to complete, begins outside with the kindling of a fire, from which the Pascal Candle is lit. The congregation processes inside by candlelight for the opening liturgy and the reading of the Old Testament story of creation and redemption. The readings are interspersed with prayers and psalms (or hymns). Permit me to recommend highly the responsorial chanting of the psalms. Be a monk for a few hours. The chants echoing in the darkness are a taste of heaven. It feels as if one is actually a participant in the great divine drama. The liturgy of the word concludes with readings from the New Testament and a sermon. The service then moves to the sacrament Holy Baptism and a renewal of baptismal vows by the entire congregation. The service concludes with a celebration of Holy Communion and the normal closing elements of worship.

Continue reading “Looking for the Easter Vigil”