A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, with the addition of a reading from the prophet Zechariah: at the Liturgy of the Palms: Zechariah 9:9-12; at the Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and St. Matthew 21:1-11; following the distribution of Communion, St. Matthew 26:14-27:66. Most of these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
Redemption is a drama in three acts – three acts and a brief intermission – today the prelude, the overture, an introduction encapsulating the story to be fleshed out as the action proceeds. Jesus and his companions enter the city of Jerusalem from the east while the Roman governor, Pilate, makes his annual procession into the city in pomp and circumstance from the west.
The crowds welcome Jesus, singing “Hosannas” (a Jewish word meaning “Save us, we pray!”). We can perhaps hear a chorus, as in the Greek theater, singing sentiments later put into writing by the English philosopher journalist G.K. Chesterton:
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
Jesus, eschewing pride and showing a different way, enters the city on a donkey.
Later in the week, Act One, Scene One – An upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.
In the first act, Jesus shares a Passover meal with his friends. He knows, although they seem not to, that this will be their last formal meal together. At supper he tries to explain to them what he believes is going to happen and how he hopes they’ll remember him. He uses bread and wine to make his point, but they don’t seem to understand. In fact, as the scene ends, they are arguing about their relative ranks! Who among them will be the greatest? The curtain falls on a frustrated rabbi.
Act One, Scene Two – the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.
Dinner is over, so Jesus tries something else. Taking on the role of a servant, he kneels down and washes their feet, but they still don’t get it. Later they would begin to understand; later they would re-enact Jesus’ actions and ponder them again and again, trying to more fully understand him. We, too, are pondering; we, too, grope for understanding.
Act One, Scene Three – a garden outside the city walls at Gethsemane.
Depressed and agonizing, feeling he has failed, knowing his actions of the past three years are leading inexorably to a final “showdown” with the political authorities, Jesus prays to be delivered from the inevitable. He asks his closest friends to stay awake with him, but they cannot. Falling asleep as he prays, they abandon him emotionally just as they will abandon him physically. Soldiers enter the scene led by one of Jesus’ own friends, Judas from the village of Kerioth. After a brief struggle in which a servant is injured, Jesus surrenders. His friends scatter and even deny knowing him. We hear the chorus sing more of Chesterton’s words:
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
Act Two – another place outside the city, a hill called “the place of a skull.”
Jesus, struggling under the weight of a cross, staggers up the hill from the city to the summit. Once there, he is nailed to the cross he has dragged along the way. The crowd jeers, the soldiers mock, his friends (so few of them now) weep. Speaking from the cross as he dies, “Forgive them…. It is finished.” His friends take his body and seal it in a borrowed tomb. What more is there to do? It certainly seems to be the end. What more could possibly come after the death of the drama’s protagonist?
Intermission – another garden occupied by a sealed tomb.
The characters have all left. The stage is as bare and as silent as a grave. Is this intermission or has the drama concluded? The principal’s death certainly seems to have ended things! The silence of Holy Saturday is profound; it is palpable; it is pregnant with uncertainty. What does all that has come before mean? How can there possibly be anything more after this?
Act Three – the same garden, the tombstone rolled away.
What seemed to be a tragedy at the end of the second act turns out to be a comedy. The tomb is empty! There are angels where there should be mourners! There are only folded linens where there should be a body! Confusion mixes with relief, disbelief encounters faith, death is overcome by life. The joke is on the powers of evil, but what does it all mean? Many who have missed the first two acts of this drama arrive to see the end of the story, but can one truly appreciate the momentous conclusion without having lived through it all? Can one really get the punchline without hearing the whole story?
As the drama ends, Jesus’ friends and others who now believe are moving into the world, a world they will change, a world to which they will bring a message of love and a vision of peace. The chorus sings the last of Chesterton’s verses, a triumphant supplication to the conqueror of death:
Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.
The story of our Lord’s Resurrection, the story of redemption is a drama in three acts. Today, only the overture . . . don’t miss the whole story!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.