The Rev’d Matthew D. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut
Palm Sunday, Year B
March 29th, 2015
Christians tell the truth. Except when they don’t, because it’s not always an easy to do. But the liturgy of Palm Sunday compels us to tell the truth. The truth about ourselves. The truth about who we think God is.
In the third century, the Christian theologian, Origen, wrote a book against a certain Celsus. Celsus, in the second century, wrote a work called True Discourse. In it he details his problems with Jesus, his disciple, and the early Jesus movement. Origen defends the faith and counters Celsus’s argument.
In one section, Origen constructs a dialogue between him and Celsus about the crucifixion of Jesus. Celsus finds the whole story of Jesus’ death an amusing and humorous tale of a charlatan who was rightly mocked, shamed, and effeminized in his death. For Origen, Celsus is wrong at each point and he fails to see that he mines the information he uses against Christians from the Christian Gospel itself. Both derive their antipodal meanings from the same source. Celsus reads the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in one way; Origen reads the same source in another way: the former as a medium for laughter and reproach; the latter for praise and example.
How can that be? Is one “misreading” the text? While we can disapprove of the theology of Celsus, I suggest that he is not misreading the Passion Narrative, but that the story is doing to Celsus exactly what it is designed to do. The story today of Jesus’ death confronts us. It forces us to tell the truth. It demands that we take a side. And that is the case because the story is laced through and through with irony.
Irony is a way of saying the opposite of what you mean, while pretending not to say it. It’s a form of doublespeak. It’s inherently multivalent. And it is present at every turn in the story of Jesus’ death. For instance, when the centurion says, “Surely this man was the Son of God,” it is a statement full of irony, and it matters how you say it. “Surely this man was the Son of God” is different from “Surely this man was the Son of God.” When the soldiers dress him in royal purple, place a crown, on his head, and prostrate themselves before him, saying “Hail, King of the Jews!”, it matters how that role is performed. To an average person, living somewhere in the Roman Empire in the first century, I think this would have simply been a hilarious scene. I suggest that they would have laughed out loud, maybe even slapped their knee. But to early Jesus followers and to Origen, it was a statement of reverence and worship, thinly veiled in the language of mockery. It was a statement of profundity and theological truth. That is, to them, the characters in the story mock, but the Christian reading aloud to their community, it was a true theological statement. He is the King. He is the Son of God. He is the Savior.
The irony latent within the Mark’s story of Jesus’ crucifixion encourages a multivalence of meaning. It creates a space that must be filled. What’s more, the liturgy demands that we participate in the story and make meaning out of the latent irony within the story itself. An audience full of people like Celsus would likely have heard The King of the Jews applied to the crucified Jesus and understood that Jesus is not the real king of the Jews—and nothing like it either! When they say it, it is meant as a funny mockery.
On the other hand, however, an audience full of people like Origen would likely have heard The King of the Jews applies to Jesus and understood it quite differently: Jesus is not the king of the Jews as his mockers understand the term, but he is one in a different, more subversive sense of the term. When we say it, it is meant as a statement of worship and reverence.
In this way, the Passion Narrative—more than just passively “offering” meaning—confronts us with the need to make own meaning, to tell the truth. As we perform the story today, it forces us to tell the truth about ourselves and about who we think God is. When we are given a role in the story to say, “Hail, King of the Jews!”, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself. Let him come down from the cross so that we may believe”, “Crucify, crucify him!”, we are confronted by the liturgy and must perform our role and so tell the truth about who we are and who we believe God is. The story, when read aloud cannot but be performed. And in performing it, it must be interpreted. And in interpreting it, we ourselves are in fact interpreted. That is to say, it is not just us that we interpret the story, but it is also the story that is interpreting us.
In that moment, to borrow the language of Eliade, the “founding of the world” is reenacted, the irruption of the sacred does not only project a fixed point into the formless fluidity of profane space, a center into chaos; it also effects a break in the plane, that is, it opens communication between the cosmic planes (between heaven and earth). And we have a role to play. We tell the truth. We yell, “Crucify!” We confess Jesus as King, as Son of God, as Savior. We bow down and worship. Not in mocking, but in truth. Telling the truth.
This is not just true of Palm Sunday, it is true of much of the liturgy of Holy Week. We don’t just hear the stories, or even passively participate in the liturgy. We are active participants and meaning makers. They confront us. We will descend into the darkness with Jesus. We will have Christ wash our feet, but then we will strip the altar and abandon him. We will kiss the cross and then we will leave him—until he meet him again, in the still darkness, in the first spark of light of Easter.