Palm Sunday paradox — triumphant prelude or a sorrowful finale?
Archbishop Alex J. Brunett
Victor Borge had a comedy routine that's a real classic. He sets his music on the ledge at the top of the piano, and then he begins to play it. And it sounds fine to us. But something doesn't seem right to him, and after a few measures, he stops playing, and stares for a minute at the music. And then a light of recognition flashes! He reaches for the music, pulls it close to his face, and turns it right side up, and begins to play again! And all the notes sound the same, except that they're played exactly in reverse order!
There's something like that in these stories of Jesus' last week before dying. Which way do you set the music? Which side is up? Is it a prelude or a finale? Is it the beginning of his royal reign, or is it the conclusion of his aborted and pathetic story?
Christmas is so much easier. One of John Milton's most splendid poems is the ode that he called, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Thirty-three stanzas of glorious song! But then he tried to do the same thing with Passion Week, with Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday and Good Friday. But it didn't work the same for him. The signals were too mixed. He tried it, but he couldn't sort out the music; prelude or finale? Which should he write? He died; they found in his notebooks the beginning of such a poem. But it was only the beginning, and a poor one at that! And with it was a note. Milton wrote that he had tried to put this song to words, but that it had eluded him. He said that he was too immature to fully grasp the music of Holy Week. I don't think he is alone.
In many respects this Palm Sunday, March 24, seems like a prelude: Jesus' debut to greatness. The music of prelude is certainly there: The shouts of "Hosanna!" The songs of the children. It's a parade isn't it? A parade in Jerusalem and everybody in the city turns out to watch it!
There's power in a great tradition. Pianist Oscar Levant once talked himself out of a speeding ticket. He had been rushing along, far above the posted limit, when lights and sirens pulled him over. But he told the police officer that he was listening to the music of Beethoven. You can't possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven's Seventh, he said, and go slow! And so it was in Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday. The music of victory and the kingdom prelude swelled, and everyone was caught in the rush.
At the same time, however, the notes of the Good Friday finale are also swelling! Notice the sudden change in the liturgy. We go from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the sorrow of Good Friday. A bevy of amateur conductors is slowing the music to a ritard. This is the finale they've been waiting for. Jesus' music must come to an end. Judas, The Twelve, Peter, the Sanhedrin, Pilate.
Jesus however has another song to sing — Transition. Which is the true song of Passion Week? Prelude or Finale? Which way do we set the music on the stand? Do the notes go up and lift us in graceful cheering? Or do they go down and plant our feet in the crowds outside Pilate's palace. Actually, Jesus seems to think both songs are out of place. On Palm Sunday, as the crowd cheers, he weeps. And on Good Friday, as the mobs shout, he remains silent. For him this is neither Prelude nor Finale. Instead it's a modulation, a transition from one key signature to the next, a moment when the same old song takes on brand new significance.
The song that Jesus sings is the message of paradox. No one truly lives without first dying to self. No one ever finds life without first losing it — no grain of wheat begins to grow without first being thrown into the earth to rot. And the song that he sings is neither the beginning of the Kingdom or the ending of his own life. Neither the Prelude nor the Finale. It is the music of Transition and nothing would ever be the same again.
For us the music of Palm Sunday becomes a message of hope. The reality is already sketched out for us in the first reading. It talks about commitment and determination. It is that reality that the church wants us to focus on.
The Lord has given me a well-trained tongue that I might speak a word to the weary that will rouse them.
He opens my ear that I may hear.
The Lord is my help.
I have set my face like flint.
Palm Sunday reminds us that one of the great temptations of life is to waste precious time and energy looking for easy solutions to hard problems. It is easy to come to a mountainous opportunity and want to circle it rather than to climb it. It is easy to confront a moment of truth and want to flee from it rather than face it. We all know this temptation without formal introduction.
Palm Sunday asks us to discover the Jerusalem in our life because there is a "Jerusalem" in every journey that is worth taking in life. There is a citadel of resistance between us and every kingdom of significant values. Where is your Jerusalem? Is there a difficult moral decision you must make, one that might be costly, yet you know it is right? Maybe it involves your family or your parish. Maybe it is at church where the issues must be decided. We get to decide that our life and commitment are important, indeed essential. We need to be responsible for our own lives and families. Each of us determines whatever significance life has for us by the attitudes we adopt, the goals we seek, the decisions we make and the loyalties to which we give our energies and attention. How many times have you heard someone complain that he or she was not finding life worth living? No one finds life worth living, one always makes it so. No one else can shape or guarantee the meaning of life for us. We too must set our face like flint to meet the challenges that life gives us.
These are the challenges of living in Christ. I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing. As we go our separate ways, let us be united in the Eucharist, for then we will know each other best — one in Christ, one in the community of faith we serve, one in the church the visible sign of God's enduring love in Christ.
That my friends is not the music of Prelude or Finale, it is the music of transition — the transition from death to life.
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