From Palms to Passion

One of the hands-down coolest things to do in Richmond, Virginia in the summer is the reenactment of the Second Virginia Convention at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, during which Patrick Henry delivered the famous line, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” These guys are essentially trying to decide whether assembling a militia among the colonists to protect themselves from the occupying British soldiers would be considered treason. Patrick Henry and his supporters point out that England had already betrayed its responsibilities as a governing power, and forming a militia would be a reasonable response to their actions, but the loyalists in the crowd demur, saying, “we should play it safe, we shouldn’t do anything more to anger them, we don’t want to start something, and besides, their occupation isn’t really that bad.”

Three weeks later, the first shots of the Revolution are fired, and history changes forever.

Sitting in the old wooden pews of St. John’s and listening to this exchange is a profound experience because we know what’s coming next. The Convention was a critically important event at the time. Even the act of meeting as they did would have been treasonous and grounds for execution, and they weren’t just meeting for tea: they were contemplating rebellion against their colonizing country. But for a modern-day audience watching the reenactment of this event, the context of future events burdens this Convention, and this argument, with far more significant meanings. As we watch the reenactment of this pivotal event in history, we can’t help but dwell on the context: three weeks from this Convention, and this speech, the country will be at war. They had no idea. What would it have been like in their shoes? Would I have had the courage they showed? What if Patrick Henry had been sick that day? How could so much of history hinge on a single event?

Reenactments are powerful ways for a modern audience to experience an historical event. The Church knows this well; we don’t usually call them “reenactments,” but that’s what they are: every observation of communion, for example, is a reenactment of the Last Supper.

Holy Week, especially, is all about reenactments. Many of you may have had a processional of children waving palm branches this morning, reenacting Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Later this week, many of you may reenact the Last Supper at a Maundy Thursday service, and the crucifixion of the Lord during a Good Friday service. Some may hold an Easter vigil on Saturday, and most will return to church on Sunday morning to celebrate the risen Christ.

This morning, I was struck by how profound the reenactment of Palm Sunday can be when it’s viewed through its historical context. We hear the familiar story of Jesus entering Jerusalem, on a donkey, and people are paving the way for him, worshipping and praising him. It’s a celebratory time– we smile at the children waving their palm branches as they walk down the aisles, and we sing hosannas as our hearts are uplifted in celebration of the entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem, into our sanctuaries, and into our hearts.

But we know what’s going to happen next, and we know how quickly it’s going to happen. We know he’s going to be betrayed by those he loves. We know the crowds that are welcoming and worshipping him now are going to turn around and demand the release of the criminal Barrabas. We know that the authorities are going to push Pilate to put Jesus to death. We know all this is coming….

…. and so does Jesus. And yet, he still comes.

That is what makes Palm Sunday such an amazing time to worship. Like many churches today, the Methodist church typically arranges their services to shift from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday midway through. I love worshipping on Palm Sunday at a church that does this. Honestly, I’m so tempted to stay in the happy, hosanna-filled time of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, and I think to some extent, we’d all love to go to church just to be happy. The events that follow Palm Sunday aren’t pleasant, or easy, or unemotional. They’re messy, they’re tragic, they’re hard, and…….. they are breathtakingly amazing and profoundly life-changing. Shifting from Palms to Passion on the Sunday before Easter helps us view the events of Palm Sunday in historical context within the course of the worship service. We experience the hosannas with our knowledge of the coming events and what they mean. By keeping the context close at hand, it provokes in us a deeper understanding of the ramifications of actions of Jesus as he entered the city on a donkey that day.

I hope and pray that your Holy Week will be filled with meaningful reenactments of the final events of the life of our Lord, so that you will be brought closer to God in faith and love through your experience of his life, death, and resurrection.

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