Growing up Anglican, I have never quite gotten over the oddity of the fact that we read through the Passion of Christ on Palm Sunday. It is a startling piece of liturgical foreshadowing. One moment, we are recalling the children who made sweet hosannas ring, proceeding to the altar to kiss and receive our own palms as tokens of the ones they waved, in the wild erratic way of children. Next moment, a cloud is passing over the sun of celebration. The chill of Good Friday is upon us.
Nearly all the step-out speaking parts in the play are reserved for men—Judas, Pilate, Jesus, the centurion. The narrator could be a woman, but is generally a male voice. In our small parish, the question of which woman would get to be Pilate’s wife has always been a running joke. She only has one line: “Have thou nothing to do with that just man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.” I happened to do the honors this year.
But the step-outs are not where the play’s true power lies. It is not in the moments when one voice speaks, but when the congregation speaks with one voice, with the voice of the crowd, in lines our booklets print with all caps. Even as a child, I was fascinated by this ritual, this strange participatory melding across time. I was chilled by the sound of my own voice shouting “BARABBAS!” when Pilate asks which man he should set free, my own voice shouting “CRUCIFY HIM,” my own voice shouting “HIS BLOOD BE ON US, AND ON OUR CHILDREN!” I was chilled to hear myself taunting Christ to come down from the cross, telling the man with vinegar on a sponge to let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him. I still am.
There is a small bit of “business” in our play as written, at the moment when Jesus yields up the ghost. Here we genuflect, and the palms which we have been holding over our right shoulders, we shift to our left. It is a small token of the shift the crowd felt on that day, in the wind, in the sky, in the plates of the earth. The veil rent, the stone table cracked, the timeline cleft. The shift felt by the centurion who only looked upon the hanging God, and believed.
“Herzliebster Jesu!” the poet exclaims. “Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” What law has he broken? What evil has he done? In this just man, what fault can we find? We find none, and therein lies at once all our shame and all our hope.
At home, I take one layer of one palm. I make the first fold at 90 degrees: In the name of the Father. I fold the crossbeam back across: And of the Son. I fold it behind: And of the Holy Ghost. I tuck and pull the stipes through: Amen.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,