This year for Holy Week and Triduum I am giving a message series entitled “Dress Rehearsal.” I explain what I mean by that title in this first message given on Palm (Passion) Sunday.
Homily for Palm Sunday 2017
Students in high school English classes often have to study a kind of literature called “Historical Drama.” Historical dramas are plays like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Henry the Fifth which tell the story of a historical figure’s trials and triumphs. Or maybe the student watches a movie of the historical play “A Man for All Seasons” about Sir Thomas More who chose obedience to the Pope over his king, Henry the eighth who wanted an annulment of marriage that the pope wouldn’t grant. Historical dramas try to help the audience explore the why and who and meaning of events in history.
Sometimes, people like to look at the ceremonies of Holy Week as a kind of historical drama. Some of our brothers and sisters in Protestant denominations actually dramatize the events of this week with passion plays and last supper reenactments. Disciples of Jesus often view the liturgies of this Holy Week as a kind of chronological narrative of history. First Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, then he has dinner with friends, then he dies only to escape the grave on Easter. That is one way of approaching the why and who and meaning of the death of Jesus. It’s not exactly how liturgy works, though. Liturgy is not something an audience watches performed by skilled performers on a stage called the sanctuary. In liturgy, everyone from the priest at the altar to the usher in the last pew are the actors. The whole assembly of people in this room act out the drama of Jesus dying and rising in every liturgy in which we participate. (Notice I said participate in, not watch! We’re all actors.) In our processing from outside the building to our places in pews and sanctuary, our singing refrains during the Passion and processing once again to receive communion we are in a way rehearsing the mystery that was revealed in Jesus, death is the way to discover what the fullness of life is.
The Liturgy of Holy Week is a kind of dress rehearsal of what our daily life should be like if we call ourselves disciples of the crucified and risen Jesus. That’s why I’m calling my series of messages this week “Dress Rehearsal.” Each day of Holy Week we’re practicing, through ritual, what the rest of our everyday life should be proclaiming to the world. Disciples are actors on the world stage telling a story that should engage the onlookers to know the who and why and meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The Christian is the primary actor in the drama of revealing God’s love for humanity that was Jesus. We rehearse in this building what our faith is about, a journey to eternal life, the new and heavenly Jerusalem.
Like any dramatic stage production, though, the days of this week can be compared to the parts of making a play a reality. Each part of making a play keeps the vision of the whole in mind. The theme that runs through each liturgy is “Death leads to fuller life.” This is what I said in the introduction to the liturgy, outside.
Today we gather together to herald …
our Lord’s Paschal Mystery,…
For it was to accomplish this mystery
that he entered his own city of Jerusalem.
Therefore, with all faith and devotion,
let us…follow in his footsteps, so that,
being made by his grace partakers of the Cross,
we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life.
Each day of this week keeps the theme we call the Paschal Mystery, death opens up the possibility of fuller life.
Today is like the first gathering of the cast that will eventually perform the drama on a stage, a kind of pre-rehearsal. The cast, you and me, have a table reading. We get familiar with the story. We discover the meaning of the story that we want others to learn.
Our procession with palms in hand was a rehearsal of our life’s journey. We learned that this story of Jesus we’re co-actors with is supposed to be a journey from life outside of the kingdom of eternal life to the banquet of heaven life which is glimpsed each time we come into this building, each time we approach this altar to receive a morsel of bread and sip of wine. The building we entered from being out in “the world” is a symbol of the heavenly realm.
Ah, but this is no stroll in the park on a sunny day. To walk with Jesus on the way to fullness of life requires suffering. The journey may have betrayal or people who think we’re on the wrong path to God who reject us. Perhaps, at times we’ll even feel rejected by God crying out “My God, where are you?” It’s not easy getting to a fuller life. The cross of death and the need to sacrifice ourselves for others is always part of the drama we enact as disciples. So we read the passion of Jesus as the script of every Christian’s life.
To keep us from being discouraged, on this day of Palms and Passion we still enact the resurrection. Our celebration of the Eucharist and reception of communion enable us to experience the risen Jesus who says the difficult work of our performance rehearsal is worth it. Jesus stands on the other side of the cross, the arms he opened on the cross ready to welcome the disciple who perseveres to his or her own death in acting out the Gospel.
Our “Dress Rehearsal” of the mystery, the who, why and meaning of Jesus in the liturgy of today and this week is how we remain faithful even when tempted to give up on faith in Jesus. Our liturgical dress rehearsal helps us to hold onto the truth in our hearts and daily lives that Jesus walks the journey with us and we walk with him.
Once we were people afraid, lost in the night.
Then by His cross we were saved:
Dead became living. Life from His giving.
For to live with the Lord, We must die with the Lord.
[Inviting all to sing the refrain sung during the proclamation of the Passion reading]
We hold the death of the Lord, deep in our hearts.
Living; now we remain with Jesus the Christ.
- Text: Corinthians, 1 John, 2 Timothy; David Haas, b.1957 Tune: David Haas, b.1957 © 1983, GIA Publications, Inc.