3 Jars, 3 Cups, 3 Lengths of Cloth: A Mini-Retreat for Holy Week from the Passion According to Mark

Palm Sunday, if you take it seriously, can really blow you away. The swoop from the high of Hosanna to the silence of Calvary is akin to those thrill rides that pull your stomach out through your nose. I’m not much for those anyway, unless I’m trying to convince my son I’m not a wuss, but the sensation is especially disconcerting when it happens at church.

In the trad-heaven days of my liturgically unreformed youth, the vertigo got spread over two Sundays. We had the Passion on the 5th Sunday of Lent, with the ghostly purple veils cloaking the crucifix and the statues (Fr Z has a nice piece on how and when that’s done now in many parishes; H/T to Deacon Greg Kandra for the link), and standing for what was known by all as The Long Gospel. Then a week later, out of order but appropriately for the beginning of Holy Week, we had Palm Sunday with its glory, laud, and honor and waving branches. So whiplash instead of vertigo, and over a more prolonged period.

But this morning I stood in the lightest of rains–heaven joining with the holy water sprinkling–as the palms were blessed and the Gospel read and we processed into church singing Hosanna. Then the quick and terrible shift from high to low, heralded by those two most moving readings, Isaiah’s suffering servant and Paul’s sublime hymn to the kenosis, the self-emptying, of Christ, threaded together with the premonitory wail of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The part that gets me, though, is the way the communal reading of the Passion–the not-so-long Gospel in Mark’s version, which we read today–forces us to Be There. I hate, literally hate, having to join in the chorus of “Crucify him!” I hate the way it sounds–by which I mean, familiar. I hate how easily I slipslideaway from joyful palm-waving to jeering self-interest. And I hate how that few moments’ silence in which we kneel threatens to swallow the universe. Palm Sunday guarantees that when we are asked, 5 days from now, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” we have cause to tremble, tremble, tremble.

I had the privilege of being part of Palm Sunday in another, more joyful way today. After Mass, I zipped over to Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church, and in a parking-lot quick change worthy of Superman’s phone booth, transformed myself with skirts and scarves into Tamar the Tea Seller, part of the Jerusalem Marketplace reenactment that my friend Wendy Symonds runs every year as an intergenerational Christian formation event. (I was standing in for the usual tea seller.) Adults portray various merchants and craftspeople of Jerusalem, while parishioners, especially the children, rove from booth to booth. We remain in character and ask all we meet if they have news of Jesus. I had some amazing conversations–children who argued whether he was riding on a donkey or a colt, one young man who professed to be the boy whose loaves and fish Jesus had multiplied, and a couple of men who tried to get me to agree that Jesus should overthrow the Romans. (I told them I never mixed politics and commerce.) “I haven’t seen him yet,” one young girl confessed, “but I’m going to keep looking. And if I find him, I’ll bring him back to you.”

This day begins a week in which the world finds Jesus and brings him back to us, over and over. We are joyful palm wavers and gossipy tea sellers, Passover pilgrims, owners of colts and renters of party rooms, and as the week goes by we will be more and more those jeerers and spitters, deniers and runaways. And the silence of Golgotha will deafen us.

So on this Palm Sunday night I step back a little from the all-too-human pageant ahead, and reflect on a handful of silent inanimate objects that leapt out at me from Mark’s Passion account this morning. Three jars, three cups, three lengths of cloth, a mini-retreat to take myself through this holiest, most harrowing of weeks.

Three Jars

When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard.
At whose table will I meet Jesus this week? What grand, foolish, generous gesture will he call out of me?

“Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him.”
Where will following the water of my Baptism lead me this week? Who will God send to meet me?

One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink . . .
For what is my soul thirsting this week? How will I respond when life gives me only bitterness to drink?

Three Cups

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
Where will I find communion this week? Will I remember to give thanks for the shared cup?

“Abba, Father, all things are possible  to you. Take this cup from me, but not what I will but what you will.”
What cup am I pushing away? Where is my Gethsemene, the place where God’s will becomes my own?

They gave wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it.
What addictions and distractions survived my Lenten discipline? What will this week ask me to face without flinching?

Three Lengths of Cloth

Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.
How will I be remembered as a follower of Jesus? What is the last piece of my old self to which I am clinging, that threatens to keep me captive to the world?

They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him.
Whom do I robe in scorn and ridicule? What things to which I give allegiance are really thorns, piercing my spirit?

Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.
How have I prepared myself to be buried with Christ, so that I may rise with him? How am I weaving my soul’s eternal garment?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14873681229902155435 Brother

    Wonderful reflection. Thank you, Ms. McPortland.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this devotion at Holy Week's start that reminds me of the image in Anne Dilliard's Teaching a Stone to Talk, On the whole, I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …The Churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out where we can never return.