Palm Sunday, too

A Token Performance

Palm Sunday
Passion Sunday

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Mark 11:1-11

Hang on to the wheel
for the highway to hell
needs chauffeurs for the powers that be
– Mark Heard, “Rise from the Ruins”

Early in my years as a pastor, I was conscripted to be in a pageant as part of a gathering of area churches. Several of us chosen ones wore either a crown of rejoicing, a crown of righteousness, a crown of glory, or a crown of life. As the appropriate Scripture passage was read, each one of us, dressed as royalty, processed down a long auditorium aisle and placed our crowns on a stage altar. The producer/director/stage manager/costume designer (the sister had a lot invested) was as earnest as the day is long in wanting to portray visually a Revelation-like casting crowns before the throne. My wife hesitantly had to admit afterwards that the overall visual message was more like “Elvis impersonators are in the building.”

I think of that night as another processional draws near.

This Sunday, members of our congregation will process, waving palm branches and singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” We will read the extended Passion account from Mark’s Gospel and conclude the service outside with the planting of the cross. From time to time I’ve worried that, with the best of intentions, we might be turning this high drama into Christian kitsch, a mere token performance. But I’ve learned through the years never to underestimate the power of the public reading of Scripture, especially the Passion narrative. Too many things have happened, like the year the narrator’s role was read by a lady who served in a lightning-rod position with the Juvenile Justice System. She resolutely directed the juvenile facility from a restorative justice model, even when she was being skewered on the front pages by the local D.A. and a very ambitious young journalist. Throughout her time in the crucible, she remained in steadfast good cheer; but as she read her part in the Passion narrative that Sunday, her voice quivered and cracked, and when it did our sanctuary was filled with the Story’s surplus of meaning.

So anything can happen, even if the reading functions only as a “re-hear-sal.”

It’s the “performance” of the first part – the Liturgy of the Palms – that I wonder about. A simplistic reenactment of Psalm 118 denies that Mark 11:1-11 is high drama as well. Ched Myers says that Palm Sunday is carefully choreographed street theater, a showdown in the war of myths. Jesus staged his theater of messianic politics to expose what William Stringfellow names “the authority and reign of death over the world,” and what songwriter Mark Heard calls “the highway to hell.” That ought to have some bearing on how we process!

It goes without saying that the rhetoric and symbolism of restoration – of nation and/or Christendom, usually through decisive military or political triumph – are as powerfully seductive as ever, especially during this endless season of political campaigns. Part of our performance of the Palm Sunday processional, then, will be the confession of our “nostalgia for the parade,” for the ways we still try to make Palm Sunday, instead of Easter, the fulfillment of Christ’s ministry.

But we’ll also process in anticipation of hearing the Passion story yet again. We’ll walk the aisle in the faith that, because of God’s triumph over death in Christ, we’ve been freed from the dead-end of being chauffeurs for the powers that be.

Come to think of it, a “token performance” is just what the day calls for. While attending a Prairie Home Companion episode in Nashville, Lee Camp was struck by the idea to use a similar format with an “understated but explicit and coherent theological agenda.” The idea germinated and, since 2008, he coordinates four wonderful “Tokens” performances each year, a name he took from a William Stringfellow quote:

Discerning signs have to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings, with perceiving the sign of salvation within the era of the Fall. It has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair.

Mark Heard gives us our cues for Sunday’s performance::

Go and tell all your friends and relations
Go and say what’s not easy to say
Go and give them some hope
That we might rock this boat
And we’ll rise from the ruins one day.

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