Brief Commentary on Psalm 118:
As we begin the whirlwind liturgical marathon of Holy Week, let us note that the Scripture lessons we read on this holy day are all framed by processions of one kind or another. We enter into the week, and we enter into the story, watching and cheering as Jesus passes by. But we don’t just watch. We go with him. We join in the procession ourselves. We follow along, in body, heart, mind, and spirit.
Here in the Psalm, we have a festal procession to the altar of sacrifice: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” (Psalm 118, 27. NRSV). In the Epistle, we have an ancient hymn text to carry us along as we march. In the Gospel, we bear witness to a literal parade of onlookers. We enact the ritual as we envision the crowds of people throwing their cloaks on the ground before the passing king and waving evergreen branches as they shout “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:19, NRSV).
Let us join in the celebration! Let us be part of the crowd! Let us shout Hosanna as we bid welcome to the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
And most of all, let us join with him in the journey. Let us follow him.
Sermon Notes on Gospel and Epistle:
I write these notes during the week that my nation, the United States of America, will inaugurate its forty-fifth president. I just returned from the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy, which, as it happens, was held in our nation’s capital this year. My husband Scot accompanied me to the meeting, and so we traveled a little bit early so that we could see some of the sites in Washington D.C. After flying out of Knoxville very early, our first stop was to visit my brother, who works in a building very close to the White House. My brother took us up to the rooftop terrace so we could enjoy the breathtaking view and get a bird’s-eye sense of the layout of downtown Washington. While we were up there, sirens began blaring. My brother said, “It’s a motorcade. There must be someone important heading to the White House.” I leaned over to watch as the cars processed along, sirens screaming and blue lights flashing. “They go by every day,” he said. “After a while you don’t even notice it.”
After our visit, Scot and I headed on foot toward the White House, and ultimately, to the National Mall and the Smithsonian. As we walked along, we noticed that the city had already begun preparing for the inauguration by installing bleachers along all the streets near the White House. A large staging area was under construction. Orange plastic netting marked areas as off-limits to the public.
I have watched many inaugurations on television, but I have to say, being in Washington D.C., while the city was in the midst of preparing for this historic event, gave me a totally different perspective on what takes place. I suppose at some level I realized that the inauguration involved a parade. After all, my husband had reported to me that the University of Tennessee band, “The Pride of the Southland,” would be marching in the inaugural parade. And I knew many other bands were planning to descend on our nation’s capital for the big event.
Still, watching on television, one doesn’t get the sense of a parade atmosphere. On TV, what you mostly see is the action on the stage. I suppose I have watched the procession to the White House after the ceremony, but I don’t think of the inauguration ceremony primarily as a parade. But it is. The transition of power from one president to the next is marked by a big parade with dignitaries, members of the armed forces, and marching bands.
The reminder that the inauguration of Donald Trump is marked with a parade provides an interesting juxtaposition this year to story of the procession of Jesus, amidst crowds of onlookers, that is told by the Gospel writer Matthew, and indeed, by all four of the Gospel writers.
The inaugural procession follows the official swearing-in ceremony, which is held in front of United States Capitol building. The route takes the bands, the officials, the dignitaries, the servicemen and servicewomen, and the newly inaugurated president and his family, straight down Pennsylvania Avenue. According to the official inaugural planning page, visitors are encouraged to line up along Pennsylvania Avenue to “to cheer on the presidential procession and inaugural parade as it makes its way from the U.S. Capitol to the White House.”
It is not unlike the event described by the Gospel writer, who describes the plan for the procession of Jesus this way:
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples. . . The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21:1, 6-11, NRSV).
Several things strike me about Matthew’s version of the story. Matthew has Jesus not riding on a donkey, but straddled across two beasts, a donkey and a colt, and balancing awkwardly atop a pile of cloaks. A large crowd has gathered, through which the procession passes, and the people respond by throwing down their cloaks to make a path for the man on the beasts. Finally, there is what is perhaps the most compelling line in Matthew’s text: “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”
Today, tourist agencies in Jerusalem provide guided walks along this historic processional route for visitors to the Holy Land every day. On Palm Sunday, this daily procession of tourists becomes an internationally attended event. One tour operator offers instructions for how to attend the annual Palm Sunday Procession in Jerusalem:
The Catholic Palm Sunday Procession will begin on the other side of the Mount of Olives at the Franciscan Church of Bethphage just below the Pater Noster Church. The procession will walk down to the Church of All Nations. From there, it will continue, passing St. Steven’s Gate (the Lions Gate) to Saint Anne’s Church in the Old City. More than 25,000 pilgrims and an additional 35,000 to line the route to greet the participants with songs and blessings are expected. This procession is one of Jerusalem’s most interesting and colorful pilgrims’ events.
So when we read this story and invite our children to lead a procession around the sanctuary waving palm fronds, or perhaps if we process as an entire congregation while singing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” we are not just putting on the annual show that signals the start of Holy Week. We are enacting, along with Christians from around the world—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike—one of the central rituals of our faith tradition. We are enacting the very same “interesting and colorful pilgrims’ event” that is still being enacted in Jerusalem today. This is serious business for us as Christians—as serious as any presidential inauguration. Just as the whole city of Jerusalem found themselves in turmoil on this day, likewise, we are in turmoil. The mood is not just celebratory. It is also ominous.
I have to say, during my visit to Washington D.C.. I felt a similar sentiment. It was as if the city had been preparing for turmoil. Let me be clear here and say that this turmoil was not, for me, linked to the particular president-elect. I believe preparing for an inauguration evokes the same feeling, no matter who is being inaugurated.
I wondered as I walked along looking at the barricades how the route could possibly be kept secure for the hundreds of thousands of people who would attend, let alone the residents of the District of Columbia. I wondered how those college students from Tennessee marching in a band, or the dignitaries riding in cars, could be kept completely safe. How many police and other security forces would it take to protect everyone? Was it even possible?
The answer, of course, is that it is not possible. Law enforcement can make a show of force and do their best, and I know they did. But the truth is, anytime we as citizens choose to attend a large public event, we make ourselves vulnerable to those who might wish to do people harm. No one can be assured of safety, not even in our own homes. Life on this earth is brief, for every one of us. There is no guarantee that any of us will even live to see tomorrow. Our turmoil is daily. Our turmoil is acute.
The scene in Jerusalem, no matter which version you read, is likewise a scene of turmoil and chaos. Thousands of people from all over the countryside were gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They had come to the city not to watch a parade, but as pilgrims who had come to the holy city of Jerusalem, to the Temple, to celebrate a sacred annual festival.
So we listen and watch as this chaotic scene unfolds before our eyes. We find ourselves unable to look away, even as we know it is beginning to feel out of control. We enact the ritual, but with a sense of fear and trembling. We participate through our presence, knowing that it involves personal risk.
But the truth is, God calls us to do more than just show up and watch. God calls us to do more than wave our palm fronds as Jesus goes parading by.
God calls us to get up and go with him. God calls us to follow Jesus into lives of discipleship. God calls us to join the parade, to put boots on the ground and start marching.
Maybe this year we can vision the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem through the eyes of marching for justice. Maybe we can embrace the start of Holy Week as a call to a particular kind of discipleship. Maybe we can understand that this is part of our baptismal covenant to “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
Because no matter where we stand on the political spectrum, to be a follower of Jesus means we are called to engage in acts of justice on behalf of the least, the lost, and the most vulnerable among us. This is true whether we are demonstrating for the protection of an unborn fetus or to protect the reproductive rights of women.
As Christians, we are not to remain spectators cheering from the sidelines. We are to fall in line. We are to join the procession. We are to become part of the parade itself. We are to follow Jesus, marching with him to wherever God’s voice is calling us to go.
And we know where the call to discipleship in Christ ultimately leads. All processions for mercy and justice lead us to the cross. They lead us deeper into risk and insecurity. They beckon us to each take up our own cross and walk with Jesus for the rest of our lives. In the words of the hymn writer:
Sometimes the church is marching;
sometimes it's bravely burning,
sometimes it's riding, sometimes hiding;
always it's learning.
“We Are the Church,” Words and Music by Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh. Copyright © 1972 Hope Publishing Co.; 380 S Main Pl; Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
What is happening in your community that demands a response? What kind of Christian response might the members of your church offer? How can you enable people to join in the march for justice for all God’s people? What reservations might your congregation’s members have about marching? What can we learn from the historical march toward justice in the church of Jesus Christ?
The good news is that on the other side of the cross is the promise of eternal life. The story of our faith does not end with crucifixion. It ends with an empty tomb! It ends with a new beginning, a birth into a new kind of life, one that is marked by water and the Spirit.
As we follow Jesus into his confrontation with the powers of his day, let us find courage and strength by holding fast to the words of another, more ancient hymn of our faith:
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Christians have been participating in public processions in a variety of forms from early Christianity to the present time.
From at least the early fourth century, when Christianity became a legal religion, a number of specifically Christian religious processions have “gone public.” Among these are Palm Sunday processions, Rogation Day processions, Theophany processions (in the Orthodox Church), Corpus Christi processions (in the Roman Catholic Church), and Good Friday processions. All of these and more continue to this day around the world. One might call these processions something along the lines of a “religious parade.” Like a parade, they are typically intentionally ordered, have a well-defined route, and are of a fairly limited duration.
Another early and enduring form of Christian public procession is the pilgrimage. Unlike the “religious parade” type of procession, the pilgrimage is a journey with or joining a substantial group of people over what is often a much longer period of time, which may be weeks, months, or longer when counting the journey to the destination site, the time spent there, and the journey home. Though pilgrims may start out from various places, they find one another along the route and in that way form a procession even before the more defined religious processions they may join when they arrive. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales illustrates with some humor some of what may happen on procession to and from the pilgrimage site, making clear how the journey as a whole is as fully part of the whole pilgrimage as what happens at the site itself. Indeed, typically, until nineteenth and twentieth century innovations in travel dramatically shortened travel times, the time it would take to get to and from the site would be far longer than the time one might spend there.
A third form of Christian public procession may be of more recent vintage: the social witness march. In nineteenth-century America and quickly spreading internationally, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a specifically evangelical Protestant organization, became noted for its marches (larger scale “parades” at larger meetings) calling for abolition, and its chapter-based, sometimes daily, “processions” from a local chapter house to a saloon in the area outside of which the assembled gathering would offer a prayer service. WCTU was and is motivated by Christian commitments to make such public social witness in this public way.
The marches and procession of the US Civil Rights movement owe their antecedents as Christian public processions to such efforts in the nineteenth century, as much as to the philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance practiced by Gandhi in India and adapted by The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the United States. Evangelical Christians in the United States already had the precedent of public marches and processions as viable forms of authentic Christian witness to a wider culture it deemed at odds with the will of God. The leadership of the Civil Rights Movement also drew on and added to the “social witness march” the more ancient Christian practice of pilgrimage in the longer marches it organized, such as from Selma to Montgomery, and, on the grandest scale, the March on Washington.
Christians around the world have continued to participate in all three forms of public procession to this day. As I write this, many Christian women, children, and men are gathering for marches on Washington D.C. and other cities around the country and world to declare their witness for the rights of women and their vision of social justice more broadly, a vision that in many points is in complete harmony with the official statements of the Christian churches to which they belong. This includes my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, who writes these preaching notes, and my spouse, the Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards, an Episcopal priest, who is braving the rain with several church members to join the march in Atlanta, Georgia.