Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday

Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, opens Holy Week. Psalms used on the occasion correspond to singing in the Jerusalem Temple, especially at the time of the pilgrimage festival called Sukkoth in Hebrew (often rendered “Tabernacles” or “Booths” in English; Leviticus 23:33-43, Numbers 29:12, Deuteronomy 16:13-15). Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem prior to his death and the crowd’s use of palms in greeting him. That entry, rather than the feast involved, becomes the focus of interest.

The Gospel readings for the Liturgy of the Palms, Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16, both represent the shift of interest to Jesus. The final statement in the portion from Mark’s Gospel, with its assertion that Jesus “glared” at the economic activities in the Temple, signals the tension between Jesus and the priestly authorities of his time. The psalm of thanksgiving for today—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 given by God in the Torah and the experience of Jesus in his final days.

The name Passion Sunday comes from the leading theme of Holy Week. The 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. Today’s corresponding readings from the book of Isaiah, the book of Psalms, and Paul’s letter to the Philippians highlight the support God offers those in peril, especially in response to 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. The second reading for today, Philippians 2:5-11, is Paul’s mature statement of how Jesus’ suffering servanthood is key to his glory. The account in Mark’s Gospel—which provides today’s final Gospel readings—is the earliest written version of the Passion 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

The Psalm
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Thanksgiving for the Victory Brought About by God

This psalm of victory perhaps originally celebrated the Israelites’ return from the Babylonian Exile. Though it does not in its Israelite context reflect an ideology of resurrection or eternal life, the psalmist’s declaration that “God did not hand me over to death” anticipates the central theme of the Easter season. Verse 19 uses a two-letter (in Hebrew), shortened, poetic form of the four-letter name of God usually translated “Lord.” This usage is familiar from the declaration of praise, Hallelu-Yah. The “horns of the altar” (verse 27) refer to horn-like projections at each corner of the Jerusalem Temple’s sacrificial altar. The book of Exodus requires this feature in the altar’s construction (Exodus 27:2).

  1. Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good:
    God’s steadfast love is eternal!
  2. Let Israel speak out:
    God’s steadfast love is eternal!
  1. Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I shall enter them giving thanks to Yah.
  2. This is the Lord’s gate;
    only the righteous shall enter it.
  3. I thank you, for you have answered me;
    you have become my victory.
  4. The rock the builders rejected has become the cornerstone!
  5. This is from the Lord;
    it is extraordinary in our eyes.
  6. This is the day the Lord brought about;
    let us rejoice and celebrate on it.
  7. Please, Lord, rescue us!
    Please, Lord, cause us to prosper!
  8. May all who enter be blessed in the name of the Lord!
    We bless you all from the house of the Lord.
  9. The Lord is God and gives us light;
    tie up the festival offering with cords;
    bring it to the horns of the altar!
  10. You are my God, and I shall thank you;
    my God, and I shall exalt you.
  11. Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good:
    God’s steadfast love is eternal!

The Gospel
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 the book of Zechariah, who also enters Jerusalem in all humility riding on a colt (Zechariah 9:9).


And when Jesus and those with him approached to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, toward the Mount of Olives, he dispatched two of his committed students and said to them, “Go from here into the village right in front of you; at once proceed into it. You will find a colt bound, on which not one person 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 roadway, 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, this reading displays a shift of interest from the feast associated with Sukkoth 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.

The Liturgy of the Passion

The First Reading
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.

  1. The Lord, God, granted me the tongue of those who are learned,
    so that I know how to awaken the weary with a word.
    Each morning God awakens my ear to listen as do those who are learned.
  2. The Lord, God, unsealed my ear,
    and I did not rebel;
    I did not turn aside.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 9a. The Lord, God, will help me.
    Who can declare me guilty?

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

Psalm 31 speaks of God’s support for 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.

  1. Show me compassion, Lord: I am in distress!
    My eye is wasted from grief,
    my inner being as much as my body.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 outside flee from me.
  4. I have been utterly forgotten, like one who is dead;
    I am like a broken vessel—
  5. for I have heard the whispering of the many, terror all around!
    As they gather against me, they plot to take my life.
  6. But I place my trust in you, Lord.
    I say, “You are my God!”
  7. My days are in your hand;
    rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from those who pursue me!
  8. Let your countenance shine upon your servant!
    Rescue me in your steadfast love!

The Second Reading
Philippians 2:5-11
Having the Mind of Christ

Paul’s letter to the Philippians presents Jesus’ suffering servanthood as 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 the earth and under the earth, and every tongue would proclaim that Jesus the Anointed is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

The Gospel
Mark 14:1-15:47
The Passion of Jesus

The Gospel according to Mark places the events of Jesus’ Passion in the season of Passover. Key rituals of Mark’s community appear in the narrative, including anointing and the common meal we now call 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, the narrative reveals Jesus’ identity as the Anointed (that is, the Messiah), as a true prophet, and as God’s son.


The Pascha—Passover Offering—and Unleavened Bread were still two days off. The high priests and the scribes were seeking how by stealth they might seize and kill him. But they were saying, “Not during 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, “Go from here 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, set up and ready: there prepare for us.” And the students went away and came into the city and found just what he had 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 this bowl. Because this human being departs, exactly as was written about him. But misery for that man through whom this human being 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 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: This human being 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 one of those standing there drew a sword, hit the slave of the High Priest, and took off an 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, but 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 their midst 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 one known as the human being sitting to the right of the power and coming with the clouds of 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 swear under oath: “I don’t know this man you are talking about.” And at once a cock sounded a second time. And Rock remembered the assertion Jesus made to him: “Before a cock sounds twice you will deny me three times.” He withdrew and wept.

At once, early, the high priests with the elders and scribes and all the council took action, bound Jesus, and bore him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate interrogated him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Replying to him, he 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. There was one called Barabbas, bound with the rioters, such who had committed murder during the riot. The crowd went up and began to ask for what he usually did for them. Yet Pilate replied to them,  “Do you want me to release 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 instead release 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 had Jesus whipped, 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 robed 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, kneeling, they feigned homage to him. 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 pick up 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, which he did not accept. They crucified him and divided up his garments, casting lots upon them—who would get what. It was the third hour, and they crucified him. And there was a written inscription of his charge: “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two thugs, one on his right and one on his left.

Those who walked by cursed him, shaking their heads and saying, “So much for the one demolishing the Temple and building it in three days! Save yourself by 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 make him drink. Others said, “Leave him: let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Jesus gave a huge cry and took his last breath, and the curtain of the Temple was split in two from top to bottom. The centurion standing by before him saw how he breathed his last and said, “Truly this man was God’s son.”

Yet there were also women observing from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James the less and also 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 day of 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: “Has he been dead for long?” Having learned from the centurion, he 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 across the door of the memorial, while Mary Magdalene and Mary of Joses observed where he was placed.

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

In the Gospel according to Mark’s description, the story of the Roman crucifixion of “the King of the Jews” ironically ends with the centurion on the scene confessing Jesus to be “God’s son,” confirming the Gospel’s proclamation. A member of the aristocratic council that condemned Jesus arranges for the dignity of his burial, which the female disciples from Galilee, including Mary Magdalene, witness.


At once, early, the high priests with the elders and scribes and all the council took action, bound Jesus, and bore him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate interrogated him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Replying to him, he 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. There was one called Barabbas, bound with the rioters, such who had committed murder during the riot. The crowd went up and began to ask for what he usually did for them. Yet Pilate replied to them,  “Do you want me to release 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 instead release 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 had Jesus whipped, 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 robed 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, kneeling, they feigned homage to him. 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 pick up 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, which he did not accept. They crucified him and divided up his garments, casting lots upon them—who would get what. It was the third hour, and they crucified him. And there was a written inscription of his charge: “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two thugs, one on his right and one on his left.

Those who walked by cursed him, shaking their heads and saying, “So much for the one demolishing the Temple and building it in three days! Save yourself by 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 make him drink. Others said, “Leave him: let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Jesus gave a huge cry and took his last breath, and the curtain of the Temple was split in two from top to bottom. The centurion standing by before him saw how he breathed his last and said, “Truly this man was God’s son.”

[Yet there were also women observing from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James the less and also 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 day of 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: “Has he been dead for long?” Having learned from the centurion, he 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 across the door of the memorial, while Mary Magdalene and Mary of Joses observed where he was placed.]


Footnotes

  1. Zechariah 13:7.

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