Palm Sunday


{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

Advertisements

SONY DSC{This meditation is based on the mug seen here, and intended for the Saturday in Lent that proceeds Palm Sunday. Then begins Holy Week…and six final mugs.}

This mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard is really Joan’s. It hasn’t seen a drip of coffee; Joan drinks tea. But I’ve chosen this mug for today because it reminds me of a Palm Sunday procession that fit the day, the neighborhood, and the churches there perfectly.

Joan was the Church Musician at the First English Lutheran Church on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. She was the choir director there, and played both pipe organs (one in the chapel, a larger one in the sanctuary) for worship services. I suppose that after all these years, it’s OK to write this publicly, that she broke the Lutheran stiffness of the choir within a few weeks and they brightened up considerably under her leadership. Joy found a welcome in their midst.

I had once worked at the Presbyterian church next door to the one Joan served. It too had an imposing structure and a substantial congregation, among whom were the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and even more daunting, some of my former seminary professors. Those two churches were part of an ecumenical alliance of congregations that shared a neighborhood near Stuart Circle. Around or near the Jeb Stuart monument were the Lutherans and Presbyterians already noted, but also Episcopalians and UCC-ers (United Church of Christ), with the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart a few blocks away.  Those churches still make up what is called the Stuart Circle Parish.

And, as far as I know, they continue to parade together on Palm Sunday. The model is an impressive show of commonality as members of the five churches gather at mid-morning on Palm Sunday near the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church. Opening words of welcome and prayer begin the festivities, with everyone joining voices in singing the hymn of the day, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” The crowd then moves down Monument Avenue to where it becomes West Franklin Street, and then on a few blocks to the Cathedral.

The year I videotaped the parade for a cable TV program (1982?), there was a high school marching band providing the cadence, biodegradable helium balloons for kids of all ages (!), palms for everyone to wave, with various clergy in their traditional colorful vestments, and hundreds of participants crowding the broad boulevard. The street narrowed once we got to Franklin, and the townhouses lining the path had some onlookers peering out second story windows, some of those folk probably having no idea what was going on. I caught one on tape, adding it to the final edit, hinting at the suspicion that greeted Jesus on that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.

Another scene I got at the end of the route was a priest conferring with a police officer, an innocent conversation that, in the context of the video and its narrative, hinted at religious authorities conspiring with Roman soldiers on that day almost 2000 years before in Jerusalem. (Admittedly, it was a pretty subtle hint.)  In the photo above, note the band uniform: it wasn’t meant to be a Roman soldier, but it worked for the video. And speaking of Jerusalem, I needed some background music to fill out the story, so I chose a Don McLean tune entitled “Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem all roads lead to you.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem your light is shining through.
And you will show, show the way, to all who see it shine,
That we can live, in peace, in Jerusalem this time.

I also used “Hosanna” from a then-current rock opera called “Truth of Truths,” as participants marched. It seemed a better choice than the similar tune from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with its cynical take on the parade. “Ho-sanna, hey-sanna, sanna-sanna-ho.”

I still have a grainy third or fourth generation VHS version of that “film,” and even after thirty years it effectively chronicles the story, low tech as it seems today. What I love about that procession, and no doubt others like it throughout the world, is the unity of diverse denominations joining in commemoration and celebration of the joyful entry into Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna!” In Richmond it was not only the ecumenical nature of the event in 1982 (when I shot the video), but the interracial diversity, with the Jefferson-Huguenot-Wythe Marching Band from what we called a “predominately African-American” high school leading the way.

Among the churches involved in that parade all those years ago, my guess is that the most integrated parish was the Cathedral, with the other Stuart Circle churches more than “predominately white.” (I’m glad to be corrected in the comment section at the end of the blog.) Important to note here, too, is that the Palm Sunday parade is not the only activity these congregations engage in together. There are social and outreach ministries that serve the larger neighborhood, among them a Meal Ministry that in 1996 was threatened with court action because of neighbors’ complaints about certain conduct that they claimed injurious to their community. The Parish claimed that to prevent them from feeding the hungry was a violation of the free exercise of religion. The Jesus who had entered Jerusalem on that fateful day would no doubt have stood in solidarity with the lines of hungry folk awaiting food, and then he would have moved behind the counter to serve them. Hosanna, indeed.

As this is being posted, another Palm Sunday will be celebrated tomorrow, April 9. Some churches will join with others in a public procession and witness to the shared strength of ecumenicity. Others will have their own smaller parades, perhaps just a half block around the building as my church will do. Still others will process less publicly, moving around their sanctuary waving palms and singing the hymn. These mostly modest pageants are all the theater that remains in many churches. Yet, there are others: living nativity scenes at Christmas, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and Easter Sunrise services. The more, the better, to put some drama, some life, into the people of the pews. The choreography of merely sitting and standing for an hour in church is flat and, I think the operative word is, boring. The “processional” may be a weak dance, but at least it has movement.

Processions in churches have many expressions: groom and bride process to the front of the sanctuary to say their vows; in some traditions, Bible, cross, banners, flame, and water for the baptismal font are carried forward as worship begins; choirs process during the opening hymn to take their place in the loft. To see bodies move during the service may remind us that the church itself must be on the move, processing from the sanctuary into the world, where eyes will watch for signs of courage and hope, where ears will listen for words of encouragement and songs of joy, where hands may join in feeding the hungry (no matter what ticked-off neighbors think), and where feet carry Jesus’ followers into alleys, highways, rural roads, and all the places love is in need of love today (as Stevie Wonder has sung).

Instead of palms, we may wave protest signs. Rather than releasing colorful balloons, we may let go of prejudice and fear of “the other.” And in place of the marching band’s cadence, we may well march to the beat of that different drummer, whose heart beats in time to Easter’s newest rhythm, Jesus. We have pledged to follow him in his processional footsteps.

On Palm Sunday, he comes amid celebrating cheers and songs.

But later in the week…