Emptying and the Cross: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year A, 2023

Palm Sunday 2023:

April 2, 2023

What a difference a few days make! What a difference a few minutes make!

We have gone from joy to sadness, from excitement to mourning, from celebration to despair. In the gospel’s timing, it’s a few days. For us, it’s a few minutes. Earlier, we shouted and sang Hosanna!; then, we shouted, “Crucify him!”

The emotional whiplash in those two cries reflects the liturgical compression of this day—Palm or Passion Sunday. We join with the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and minutes later join with the mob calling for Christ’s execution and then stand by watching as he suffers and dies. 

The emotions of this day will linger through the week as we reenact Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. On Maundy Thursday, we will remember the last supper he had with his disciples and in imitation of his own actions, and in obedience to his command, we will wash each others’ feet in act of service and love. Then, on Good Friday we will hear another passion gospel, that of John, and recall the brutality of the crucifixion and human complicity in that act. We will linger at the foot of the cross in silence, meditating on Christ’s love and our sin.

There are years when Holy Week comes at me like loaded dump track barreling down the highway, making me stop, overwhelming me with its power and confronting me with my mortality and humanity. But this year seems different. The crescendo of news—war, indictments, elections, natural disasters threaten to drown out and distract from the liturgical solemnity in which we are participating.

And yet there’s something else. Another school shooting this week reminds us of the horrors in our midst, the deep rot in our society and culture. And the politicians who wash their hands and say there’s nothing that can be done remind me more than a little of Pilate who washed his hands in the face of the frenzied mob. 

Our impulse might be to try drive all of that out of our minds, at least for today, or perhaps even for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to regard all of the world’s ills and suffering to be distractions from what really matters, from our focus on the events of this week. As understandable as such an impulse might be, I think it’s a temptation that we should avoid. As we recall what happened two thousand years ago, what is inscribed in our sacred texts and reenacted in our liturgies, the crucifixion of Christ, his confrontation with the forces of evil in the world, are not matters to be kept apart from our struggles, our lives, and our world, but are deeply embedded in them, and help us to make sense of them.

To help us regain our footing in the midst of the tumult of our lives, the tumult of our world, the tumult of the passion narrative, the words of St. Paul we heard from his letter to the Philippians is a good place to begin. Scholars call it the “Christ hymn.” It has been much debated over the centuries as we wonder whether it was something Paul wrote or whether he borrowed and adapted it from early Christian worship, 

who, though he was in the form of God,
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. 

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death– 
even death on a cross.

It speaks of Christ emptying himself to become human, humbly and obediently living in such a way to show us God’s love incarnate; living in such a way that he aroused the hatred and enmity of Rome, and died on the cross.

We may want to focus on the cross today and in the days to come, but the important point to remember is that death is not the end of the story, either for us or for Jesus. As Paul argues here, Christ’s obedience, humility, his incarnating of God’s love that ended in the cross was vindicated. The gory, painful, ignominious death transformed into life, a victory over the forces of evil and death.

Jesus’ silence comes to an end on the cross with his final, despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry of despair, doubt, and pain, at a moment when all seems lost, when the reign of God seems farther away than ever before, when the message of love proclaimed and lived by Jesus seems to be refuted completely by the power of the Roman state.

But in that moment we see the power of God; we see God suffering with us in all of our struggles, suffering, and pain, we see God with us, in the struggle for justice and peace, we see God breaking open the gates of hell and conquering evil. 

Many of us struggle; we are disheartened by the world in which live; horrified by attacks on LGBT people, by the resurgence of anti-semitism. We are fearful for the future of human life and our planet, crushed by the weight of injustice, our hearts breaking for the victims of oppression and violence, 

The cross offers no escape from any of this. The cross is a symbol of the reality of our world, the depths of human evil and depravity. But in its horror, in the horrors of our world, the cross also symbolizes the presence of God in all of those places, suffering with us, suffering with victims of injustice, violence, and oppression. 

The cross is a symbol that even when things seem darkest, when it seems that evil has triumphed, the story is not over. God hears the cries of the suffering and the oppressed. Sometimes, we cry with them, sometimes we cry on their behalf. Sometimes, God cries with those who are suffering and in pain. The cross is a symbol of hope, of our hope that ultimately God will prevail. God does prevail. 

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