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Palm Sunday and Death’s Defeat

By Clint Wilson

When they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. Zechariah 12:10

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we stand at the edge of the Promised Land, awaiting the bounty of the feast — milk and honey, bread and wine — yet knowing we must go through the scourging and the hard wood of the cross. There is no escaping the clanging of the nails.

Why this play-acting (or is it)? Why this dramatic rehearsal each year? Why palm fronds, and foot washing? Why the cross?

In 2017 I came across a truly terrible story. The 9-month-old twin children of Abdel Hameed Alyousef were killed along with his wife, two brothers, two nephews, and a niece in a chemical attack in northwestern Syria. He held his children in disbelief; their little bodies and adorable faces had a veneer of death — but this was no veneer, it sunk through to the core of their hearts. The children died; the father wept.

That same year, Coptic Christians gathered in Egypt to commemorate Palm Sunday and were attacked by suicide bombers in two different locations: St. George’s Church and St. Mark’s Cathedral. Gathered to follow in the way of the one who was pierced, they themselves were wounded, murdered, on this very day.

So why palm fronds? Why the cross? Because of events like these. The solemnity, the tragedy, the horror of the cross matches that of our world, but it does not leave us there without hope; it calls us to live as people of sacrifice, even amidst great loss.

One of the most heartbreaking hymns of the Christian tradition is entitled the Stabat Mater. It is considered one of the greatest Latin hymns of all time and is based upon the prophecy of Simeon that a sword was to pierce the heart of our Lord’s mother, Mary (Lk. 2:35). It reads:

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
All His bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had pass’d.

From the very beginning, the sacrifice of the cross has called forth sacrifice from those who would walk with Jesus, even his mother — especially his mother. His followers have a sacrifice to give, not because they have earned it, but because grace is not cheap — it was paid for in blood, and continues to be paid for in blood by the martyrs, the slaughtered innocent. Few know this better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose feast (the date of his martyrdom) will fall this week on Maundy Thursday. He wrote:

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death — we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time — death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. (The Cost of Discipleship, 99)

We have now entered into Holy Week, where we enter into the mystery of this death on the cross. And on this side of the cross we might be tempted to become lost in mourning. But because we know the far side of the cross, we trust in hope in the God who pierces death by death. This hope is for babies killed, sons lost, lives given, worship interrupted by suffering and virus, because in Christ, our worship is perfected through his suffering, our lives are saved by his death, the death of a Son — the firstborn — and the death of a child, the child of a Virgin. Amen.

Fr. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, KY.


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