Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, opens Holy Week. Psalms used on the occasion correspond to festivity in the Jerusalem Temple, especially at the time of the pilgrimage festival called Sukkoth in Hebrew (often rendered “Tabernacles” in English; Leviticus 23:33-43; Numbers 29:12; Deuteronomy 16:13-15). Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem prior to his death. It makes that entry itself, rather than the feast involved, the focus of interest.

Mark 11:1-11 and John 12:12—16 both represent the shift of interest to Jesus. The final statement in Mark’s Gospel of the day, with its assertion that Jesus “glared” at arrangements in the Temple, signals the tension between Jesus and the priestly authorities of his time. The Thanksgiving Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 comes from a collection of psalms particularly associated with celebration in the Temple and maintains an interest in worship there. Throughout the readings of Holy Week, the church explores the resonance between the ancient worship of Israel as mandated in the Torah and the experience of Jesus in his last days.

The name Passion Sunday comes from the leading theme of Holy Week. The entire narrative of Jesus’ suffering and death is appropriate for the day. The word “Pascha,” the Aramaic term for Passover, is preserved in the Greek Gospels and came to be used to describe the season of Easter, which is called the Paschal celebration to this day. Our translation honors that ancient usage. The corresponding readings from Isaiah, the Psalms, and Paul all highlight the support God offers to those in peril, especially as a result of their loyalty to God. Isaiah speaks in terms of prophetic vocation, and Psalm 31 refers to periods of distress as a time to trust in God. Philippians 2:5-11 is Paul’s mature statement of how Jesus’ suffering servanthood is key to his glory. The account of the Passion in Mark’s Gospel is the earliest written version in the New Testament. It stresses Jesus’ isolation, even from his closest followers, as he faced crucifixion. Peter—meaning “Rock,” a nickname that Jesus gave to a disciple called Simon—becomes representative of the problem of loyalty in the midst of suffering.

The Liturgy of the Palms

Mark 11:1-11
Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem

This passage from the Gospel according to Mark, the earliest of the four Gospel accounts to be written, presents Jesus riding on a colt. Jesus intentionally directs the action, so that he appears like the future King of Israel predicted in Zechariah 9:9, who also enters Jerusalem in all humility riding on a colt.

And when they approached to Jerusalem, to Bethpage and Bethany, toward the Mount of Olives, he dispatched two of his committed students, and said to them, “Depart into the village right in front of you; at once proceed into it. You will find a colt bound, on which no one of men has yet sat. Untie and bring it. And if anyone says to you, What is this you are doing? say: Its owner has need, and at once he is going to dispatch it again here.” And they went away and found a colt bound by the gate outside on the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there were saying to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They spoke to them exactly as Jesus had said, and they permitted them. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their own garments on it, and he sat upon it. And many spread their own garments in the way, but others cut rushes from the fields, and those leading ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosannah! Blessed – the one who comes in the Lord’s name; Blessed – the coming kingdom of our father, David. Hosannah in the highest!” And they entered into Jerusalem, into the Sacred Space, and he glared around at everything; it being already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

or John 12:12–16
Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem

This reading from the Gospel according to John reflects on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem prior to his death at the time of Sukkoth or “Tabernacles.” While echoing the resonance between the ancient worship of Israel and the experience of Jesus, the reading displays a shift of interest from the feast to the entry itself.

On the next day, the large crowd that had come to the feast after hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches from palm trees and then went out to meet with him and were shouting out, “Hosannah! Blessed – the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel.” So, Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it has been written in the Scriptures of Israel, “Do not fear, daughter of Zion. Behold! Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” His committed followers did not at first understand these things, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about him and were done to him.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Thanksgiving for God’s Goodness

Psalm 118 in its entirety presents a song of thanksgiving specifically for victory in battle. The selection chosen for the Lectionary excludes the psalm’s middle verses. This turns the reading into a powerful and more general statement of God’s steadfast love for and vindication of all the righteous. The Temple imagery and reflection on “the day the Lord has made” are particularly evocative as we reflect on Jesus’ experiences in his last days.

  • 1. Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good:
    God’s steadfast love is eternal!
  • 2. Speak out, Israel!
    God’s steadfast love is eternal!
  • 19. Open for me the gates of righteousness;
    I shall enter them giving thanks to the Lord.
  • 20. This is the Lord’s gate;
    the righteous shall enter it.
  • 21. I shall thank you, for you have answered me;
    you have become my rescue.
  • 22. The rock the builders rejected has become the cornerstone!
  • 23. This is from the Lord;
    it is extraordinary in our eyes.
  • 24. This is the day the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and celebrate on it.
  • 25. Please, Lord, rescue us!
    Please, Lord, cause us to prosper!
  • 26. May all who enter be blessed in the name of the Lord!
    We bless you all from the house of the Lord.
  • 27. The Lord is God and gives us light;
    tie up the festival offering with cords;
    bring it to the horns of the altar!
  • 28. You are my God, and I shall thank you;
    my God, and I shall exalt you.
  • 29. Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good:
    God’s steadfast love is eternal!

The Liturgy of the Passion

Isaiah 50:4-9a
God, Our Source of Strength

In this reading, Isaiah speaks of the vindication of God’s servant, whom Isaiah generally equates with the people of Israel and, here, with himself. Isaiah speaks of his prophetic vocation and states that God saved him as a result of his righteousness and willingness to accept the humiliation others imposed on him. The reading is placed here to evoke exactly such an image of Jesus, humiliated but soon to be vindicated.

  • 4. The Lord, God, granted me the tongue of those who are learned,
    so that I know how to waken the weary with a word.
    Each morning God awakens my ear to listen in the way of those who are learned.
  • 5. The Lord, God, unsealed my ear,
    and I did not rebel;
    I did not turn aside.
  • 6. I offered my back to those who wished to strike me,
    my cheek to those who wished to pull out my beard.
    My face I did not hide from insults and spit.
  • 7. But the Lord, God, will help me;
    therefore I have not been humiliated;
    therefore I have made my face like flint,
    knowing that I shall not be shamed.
  • 8. Close by is the one who declares me righteous.
    Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand together!
    Who has a case against me?
    Let him confront me!
  • 9a. The Lord, God, will help me.
    Who can declare me guilty?

Psalm 31:9-16
A Plea for God’s Protection

Psalm 31 speaks of God’s support of those in peril, a message of central importance in the history of the people of Israel. That God will save one who is forgotten and “like one who is dead” is recalled on Palm Sunday specifically to foreshadow Jesus’ experience of crucifixion and then victory over death.

  • 9. Show me compassion, Lord, for I am in distress!
    My eye is wasted from grief,
    my inner being as much as my body.
  • 10. For my life has been completely spent in grief,
    my years in sighing.
    I have become feeble because of my iniquity;
    my bones have wasted away.
  • 11. Because of all my adversaries I have become an object of reproach—
    to my neighbors, exceedingly so—
    and a dread to those who know me.
    Those who see me in public flee from me.
  • 12. I have been utterly forgotten, like one who is dead;
    I am like a broken vessel.
  • 13. For I have heard the whispering of the many, terror all around!
    As they gather against me, they plot to take my life.
  • 14. But I place my trust in you, Lord.
    I say, “You are my God!”
  • 15. My days are in your hand;
    rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from those who pursue me!
  • 16. Let your countenance shine upon your servant!
    Rescue me in your steadfast love!

Philippians 2:5-11
Having the Mind of Christ

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Jesus’ suffering servanthood as the Anointed is presented as the key to his glory.

Have this thinking be among you, which was also in the Anointed Jesus, who since he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to exploit. Instead, he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, by being in the likeness of men. And then, being found in outward appearance as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of a cross. Therefore, God highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is greater than every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee would bow in heaven, and upon earth, and under the earth, and every tongue would proclaim that Jesus the Anointed is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Mark 14:1—15:47
The Passion of Jesus

The Gospel according to Mark places the Passion of Jesus just before Passover. Key rituals of Mark’s community are embedded in the narrative, including anointing and the common meal called the Eucharist. The name means “Thanksgiving” in Greek, and Jesus gives thanks before the meal in a way that grounds the name as well as the ritual itself in his actions. He also anticipates the actions of others, including Judas’ collaboration with the authorities and Peter’s denial. Even Jesus’ opponents act “so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49). As they do so, they bring out his identity as the Anointed or Messiah, as a true prophet, and as God’s son.

Yet the Pascha—Passover Offering—and Unleavened Bread were two days off. The high priests and the scribes were seeking how they might seize by stealth and kill him. But they were saying, “Not on the feast, otherwise there will then be a riot of the people!” He was in Bethany in the home of Simon the leprous, leaning back, and there came a woman who had an alabaster jar of genuine, expensive nard ointment. Smashing the alabaster jar, she poured it over his head. But some were angry among themselves, “Why has this waste of the ointment happened? This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor!” And they were reproaching her. Yet Jesus said, “Leave her: why are you making problems for her? She has done a fine deed with me. Because you always have the poor among you, and whenever you want, you can always do them good, but you do not always have me. She acted with what she had; she undertook to anoint my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the message is announced in the whole world, what she did will also be spoken of in memory of her.”

And Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went away to the high priests, so that he could deliver him over to them. They rejoiced when they heard and promised to give him money. And he sought how he could deliver him over opportunely.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they were sacrificing the Pascha, his committed students said to him, “Where do you want us to go to prepare, so that you can eat the Pascha?” And he dispatched two of his students and said to them, “Depart into the city, and a man will meet you hauling an earthen vessel of water. Follow him. And wherever he enters, say to the housemaster: The teacher says, Where is the lodging where I eat the Pascha with my students? He himself will show you a big upper chamber, spread ready: there prepare for us.” And the students went away and came into the city and found just as he said to them, and they prepared the Pascha.

And when it became evening he arrived with the Twelve. And as they were reclining and eating Jesus said, “Amen I say to you, that one from you, who eats with me, will deliver me over.” They began to grieve and to say to him, one by one, “Not I!” Yet he said to them, “One of the Twelve, who dips with me in the bowl. Because the Son of Man departs, exactly as was written about him. But misery for that man through whom the Son of Man is delivered over. Better for him if that man had not been born.”

They were eating and he took bread and blessed, broke, and gave to them and said, “Take, this is my body.” He took a cup, offered thanks and gave to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out on behalf of many. Amen I say to you, I shall no longer drink from the yield of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” They sang praise and went out into the Mount of Olives, and Jesus said to them: “You shall all falter, because it is written, Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.[1] After I am raised, however, I shall lead ahead of you into Galilee.” But Rock—Peter—told him, “Even if all falter—nevertheless not I.” And Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you: You today, in this night before a cock sounds twice, will deny me three times.” But he was saying all the more: “Even if it is necessary for me to die with you, I will not deny you.” They all were saying likewise.

They came to a tract whose name was Gethsemane, and he said to his students, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took along Rock and James and John with him, and he began to be bewildered and to be distressed. He said to them, “My soul is mournful unto death: remain here and be alert.” He went before a little and fell upon the ground and was praying that, if it were possible, the hour might pass on from him. And he was saying, “Abba, Father: all things are possible for you. Carry this cup on, away from me! Yet not what I want, but what you want.” And he came and found them sleeping, and said to Rock, “Simon, are you sleeping? You were not capable of being alert one hour? Be alert and pray, so that you do not walk into a test beyond your limit. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He again went away and prayed. Having said the same thing, he again came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were weighed down; they did not know what to reply to him. And he came the third time and said to them, “Sleep for the time that is left and repose: it is enough. The hour has come. See: the Son of Man is delivered over into the hands of sinners. Be raised, we go. See: the one who delivers me over has approached.”

And at once while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived—and with him a crowd with swords and clubs from the high priests and the scribes and the elders. Yet the one delivering him over had given a signal to them, saying, “The one whom I will kiss is he: seize him and lead him away securely.” He came at once and came forward to him, said, “Rabbi!” and kissed his lips. But they put hands on him and seized him. Yet someone of those standing beside drew the sword, hit the slave of the High Priest and took off the ear.

Jesus reacted, and said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to apprehend me as a thug? I was with you daily in the Sacred Space teaching, and you did not seize me. But this happened so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” Everybody left him and fled. And a youth was following with him, a linen flung around his naked body, and they seized him, but leaving the linen behind, he fled naked.

And they led Jesus away to the High Priest, and all the high priests and the elders and the scribes came together. And Rock—Peter—from a distance followed him, right inside, to the courtyard of the High Priest, and he was sitting together with the assistants and warming himself by the light. But the high priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus, to put him to death, and they were not finding it. Because many witnessed falsely against him, and the testimonies were not consistent. Some arose and witnessed falsely against him, saying: “We have heard him saying: I will demolish this Temple made with hands and during three days build another, not made with hands.” And even so their evidence was not consistent. The High Priest arose in the middle and interrogated Jesus, saying, “You do not answer, nothing? These people are accusing you!” But he kept silence and did not respond at all. The High Priest again interrogated him and said to him, “Are you the Anointed, the Son of the Blessed One?” But Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right of the power and coming with the clouds of the heaven.” The High Priest ripped through his garments and said, “What need have we still of witnesses? You have heard the cursing! How does it appear to you?” But they all condemned him, as deserving death.

Some began to spit at him and to strike around his face and to assault him and say to him, “Prophesy!” And the assistants took him into custody with beatings. Rock was down in the courtyard, and there came to him one of the serving girls of the High Priest. She saw Rock warming himself, glared at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied, saying, “I neither know him nor recognize what you are saying!” And he went out, outside into the forecourt. And the serving girl who saw him said to those standing by: “He is from them.” But he again denied. And after a little the bystanders were again saying to Rock, “Truly you are from them, for you are also a Galilean.” Yet he began to execrate and swear: “I don’t know this man you are talking about.” And at once a cock sounded a second time. And Rock remembered the utterance, how Jesus said to him: “Before a cock sounds twice you will deny me three times.” He threw himself out, and wept.

At once, early, the high priests with the elders and scribes and all the council made a motion, bound Jesus and bore him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate interrogated him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But he replied to him, said, “You say.” And the high priests accused him a lot. But Pilate again was interrogating him, “You do not answer, nothing? Look how much they accuse you!” But Jesus no longer replied at all. In consequence, Pilate marveled. Now at a feast, he customarily discharged to them one prisoner, whom they requested. But there was one called Barabbas, bound with the rioters, such who had committed murder during the riot. The crowd went up and began to implore just as he used to do for them. Yet Pilate replied to them, saying, “Do you want me to discharge to you the King of the Jews?” (Because he knew that they had delivered him over out of envy.) But the high priests had stirred up the crowd so that he would rather discharge Barabbas to them. Still, Pilate again replied and was saying to them, “What then shall I do with the one you call the King of the Jews?” But they again shouted, “Crucify him!” Yet Pilate was saying to them, “Why? Because he has done bad?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” Pilate wished to give the crowd their due and he discharged Barabbas to them, and having whipped Jesus, delivered him over, so that he would be crucified.

The soldiers led him away inside the courtyard (that is, the praetorium), and summoned together the whole cohort. And they garbed him in purple and put on him a thorn-crown they wove, and began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they beat his head with a reed and spat on him and going down on knees they offered him fake homage. And when they had ridiculed him, they stripped him of the purple and clothed him with his own garments, and led him out so that they could crucify him.

They commandeered a passerby coming from a field, Simon—the Cyrenian (the father of Alexander and Rufus)—so that he would lift his cross. And they bore him to the place Golgotha, which is translated “Skull’s Place.” And they were trying to give him myrrhed wine, but he did not take. They crucified him, and divided up his garments, casting lot upon them—who would get what. It was the third hour, and they crucified him. There was an inscription of his charge inscribed, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two thugs, one on his right and one on his left.

Those who proceeded by cursed him, shaking their heads and saying, “Misery for the one demolishing the Temple and building it in three days! Save yourself, descending from the cross!” Similarly the high priests derided him among themselves and with the scribes; they were saying, “He saved others, can’t he save himself? The Anointed, the King of Israel, should come down now from the cross, so that we will see and believe!” Even those crucified with him reviled him.

It was the sixth hour and it became dark upon the whole earth until the ninth hour. And during the ninth hour Jesus bellowed in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lemma sabakhthani,” which is translated: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some of the bystanders heard and were saying, “See: he is calling Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with vinegar, put it on a reed and was about to give him to drink. Others said, “Leave him: let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Jesus gave a huge cry and expired, and the curtain of the Temple was split in two from top to bottom. The centurion standing by before him saw how he expired and said, “Truly this man was God’s son.”

or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]
The Crucifixion of Jesus

The Crucifixion in the Gospel according to Mark focuses on how even those opposed to Jesus brought out his identity by means of their behavior. Only Roman officials could command an execution on the cross, and the centurion on the site speaks of Jesus as God’s son. Burial, however, is arranged by Jesus’ female disciples from Galilee, including Mary Magdalene, and a member of the aristocratic council that had condemned Jesus to Pilate.

At once, early, the high priests with the elders and scribes and all the council made a motion, bound Jesus and bore him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate interrogated him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But he replied to him, said, “You say.” And the high priests accused him a lot. But Pilate again was interrogating him, “You do not answer, nothing? Look how much they accuse you!” But Jesus no longer replied at all. In consequence, Pilate marveled. Now at a feast, he customarily discharged to them one prisoner, whom they requested. But there was one called Barabbas, bound with the rioters, such who had committed murder during the riot. The crowd went up and began to implore just as he used to do for them. Yet Pilate replied to them, saying, “Do you want me to discharge to you the King of the Jews?” (Because he knew that they had delivered him over out of envy.) But the high priests had stirred up the crowd so that he would rather discharge Barabbas to them. Still, Pilate again replied and was saying to them, “What then shall I do with the one you call the King of the Jews?” But they again shouted, “Crucify him!” Yet Pilate was saying to them, “Why? Because he has done bad?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” Pilate wished to give the crowd their due and he discharged Barabbas to them, and having whipped Jesus, delivered him over, so that he would be crucified.

The soldiers led him away inside the courtyard (that is, the praetorium), and summoned together the whole cohort. And they garbed him in purple and put on him a thorn-crown they wove, and began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they beat his head with a reed and spat on him and going down on knees they offered him fake homage. And when they had ridiculed him, they stripped him of the purple and clothed him with his own garments, and led him out so that they could crucify him.

They commandeered a passerby coming from a field, Simon—the Cyrenian (the father of Alexander and Rufus)—so that he would lift his cross. And they bore him to the place Golgotha, which is translated “Skull’s Place.” And they were trying to give him myrrhed wine, but he did not take. They crucified him, and divided up his garments, casting lot upon them—who would get what. It was the third hour, and they crucified him. There was an inscription of his charge inscribed, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two thugs, one on his right and one on his left.

Those who proceeded by cursed him, shaking their heads and saying, “Misery for the one demolishing the Temple and building it in three days! Save yourself, descending from the cross!” Similarly the high priests derided him among themselves and with the scribes; they were saying, “He saved others, can’t he save himself? The Anointed, the King of Israel, should come down now from the cross, so that we will see and believe!” Even those crucified with him reviled him.

It was the sixth hour and it became dark upon the whole earth until the ninth hour. And during the ninth hour Jesus bellowed in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lemma sabakhthani,” which is translated: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some of the bystanders heard and were saying, “See: he is calling Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with vinegar, put it on a reed and was about to give him to drink. Others said, “Leave him: let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Jesus gave a huge cry and expired, and the curtain of the Temple was split in two from top to bottom. The centurion standing by before him saw how he expired and said, “Truly this man was God’s son.”

Yet there were also women discerning from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him and provided for him. Many other women had gone up with him into Jerusalem.
It already became evening, and since it was a preparation (that is, before Sabbath), Joseph from Arimathea—a reputable councilor who was also expecting the Kingdom of God—came and dared to go into Pilate. He requested the body of Jesus. But Pilate was surprised that he had already died, and summoning the centurion, interrogated him, “Is he long dead?” He found out from the centurion and granted the corpse to Joseph. Joseph purchased linen, took him down, wrapped him in the linen, and placed him in a tomb that was carved from rock and rolled a stone upon the door of the memorial. Yet Mary Magdalene and Mary of Joses discerned where he was placed.


Footnotes

  1. Zechariah 13:7.

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