holy cross sermon for palm sunday, march 20, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The best liturgical books say that a sermon “may” be preached at the principle mass of Palm Sunday. This is partly due to this liturgy’s being rather longer than usual. But its also because this liturgy – perhaps more than usual – sort of speaks for itself, in “words without words.”

With this mass, and the “liturgy of the palms” that precedes it, we enter into Holy Week, which will reach its climax with the events of the “Triduum” – the great “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday / Easter. These liturgies are all very different from what we do throughout the rest of the year. They are in fact unique. Each of them we only celebrate once a year. On Maundy Thursday: the Pedilavium, the stripping of the altar, and the Gethsemane Vigil at the altar of repose. On Good Friday: the veneration of the cross, the solemn collects, the reproaches of Jeremiah, and the mass of the presanctified. And on Easter Eve: the blessing of the new fire, the singing of the Exsultet, the reading of the prophecies, and the blessing of the baptismal waters.

All of these rituals are very ancient, their origins lost in the mists of the “disciplina arcani,” of the earliest years of Christianity, when Christians had to practice their faith secretly, sometimes literally underground. But more to the point – and as I am forever insisting with respect to the mass itself – these rituals have been given to us by God as the principle means of participating mystically in the life of Christ, of being incorporated into him. These things aren’t just edifying options; but they constitute life in Christ, and as such are, in a very real sense, the same thing as salvation. I say all of that by way of saying: I am glad you are here this morning, standing among the Lord’s disciples, bearing witness to his entrance into Jerusalem, and hearing of his impending passion. And I hope that you will come, if at all possible, to the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve – to accompany the Lord on the way of his suffering.

Maybe more than anything else, to me, today’s liturgy is disorienting. The vestments even change colors perplexingly part way through it. It has a festal character, and then suddenly, as it were out of nowhere, five days too soon, we’re hearing the account of Jesus’ suffering and death.

But this way of entering Holy Week is “meet and right.” Because we are embarking upon a weeklong ascent of Mount Calvary, climbing spiritually up to the “highest, thinnest pinnacle” of creation. And when we get to the top where – in the words of one of the meditations from the Carmelite Stations of the Cross that we have been using his year – when we get to the top, where we had hoped to see a clearer light, we are confronted by the cross, by this instrument of torture and death. And this is the Grand Disorientation. A disorientation on a cosmic scale – the revelation that the only open road to heaven lies through the center of the cross, that there is no way around it, no avoiding the issue. It is truly a “mundus inversus” – a world turned upside down. Though, of course, a great part of the point is that the world was actually upside down before; only now is it being put right side up. But this reorientation of everything, of setting the world at last on its proper foundation, requires a cosmic shakeup, and we naturally find ourselves disoriented – at least if we have engaged these events prayerfully, meditatively, and patiently.

Pope Benedict wrote in one of his books:

The ultimate goal of Jesus’ “ascent” [of Mount Calvary] is his self-offering on the Cross, which supplants the old sacrifices; it is the ascent that the Letter to the Hebrews describes as going up, not to a sanctuary made by human hands, but to heaven itself, into the presence of God (9:24). This ascent into God’s presence leads via the Cross – it is the ascent toward “loving to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1), which is the real mountain of God. (Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth vol. 2)

So this disorientation is salutary. It reminds us that the way to heaven is not something that we could have devised for ourselves. And so it reminds us that journeying along this path will mean that we will need to let go of preconceptions, prejudices, all kinds of personal “baggage,” and cultivate PATIENCE, passivity, a willingness to be acted-upon, in imitation of the Crucified. No doubt many of the same people who shouted, “Hosanna!” as Jesus entered the City of David, a very short time later, we hear, are shouting “Crucify him!” Perhaps their hopes had been dashed by the arrest and condemnation of their great Liberator.

I want to leave you with this simple question: in order to climb Mount Calvary, what do you need to let go of?

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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