Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-8
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today is the tenth and final Sunday of our extended meditation on the priesthood, covering all the Sundays preparing us for Lent, all the Sundays of Lent proper, and now Palm Sunday, which stands in this brief weekend interlude between Lent and Holy Week.
How do we summarize all that we have said? We have spoken of the High Priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also discussed the ordained priesthood of our bishops and presbyters. And we have explored the royal priesthood of the people of God, exercised by every Orthodox Christian.
For the past nine Sundays, we have contemplated the priesthood according to the following themes: humility, return, the Last Judgment, forgiveness, reconnection, union, sacrifice, hope and purification. The priesthood operates in all these ways, and all these themes illumine for us what the priesthood is.
Today, we finish up this series. I thought for a long time about what a fitting end would be. We’ve spent the past nine Sundays discussing it, but we’ve only scratched the surface just barely on what we can say about the priesthood. So there is so much could say. But what will we say today, on this Palm Sunday?
The image we have been given from Holy Scripture for this day is of the King of kings and Lord of lords, the great Creator of all things, the One Who is both God and man, the Son of God, the Son of the Virgin, the Bright and Morning Star, the Redeemer, the High Priest, the One Whom the demons fear riding into the Holy City of Jerusalem.
And He comes riding on a great white horse! He comes surrounded by an army of angels! He comes with His captains the Apostles brandishing flaming swords ready to do battle against those who reject Him! He comes accompanied by a great choir singing His praises and blessing Him forever! He comes and His very footsteps make the earth tremble in awe!
Actually, no. He comes with none of those things.
He comes riding on a donkey, accompanied by a ragtag bunch of mostly fishermen. He is indeed acclaimed and given praises, but it is not by a professional choir but by an impromptu crowd who had been impressed by the raising of Lazarus and come out to see the spectacle of His entrance into Jerusalem.
This is not at all what one might expect of a High Priest entering to make His great sacrifice. It is all upside-down. This is the priesthood of paradox.
But His whole life had been paradox. It begins with His conception—not in the usual way, but virginal. No human father was involved. His birth continues this paradox—the One born King of the Jews is born in a stable next to animals, not in a palace next to nobles and servants. He shows a wisdom beyond youth when a boy, and He constantly shows His life to be a contradiction.
And what is paradox? It is when two things seem to contradict each other yet are both true at the same time. Paradox does not make sense. It does not resolve. It does not follow the rules of reason and philosophy. And yet its truths are still real and still mean very deep things for us.
Paradox is not mere contradiction. It is contradiction that is nevertheless true on both sides.
Probably the greatest paradox of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ is both God and man. That doesn’t make sense. According to all reason, a thing can be only one thing. It might have many phases or modes on display, such as how water can be solid, liquid or gas. But it’s still water. It’s not also lead. And the most profound contradiction is between the created and the uncreated. Only God is uncreated. He is not created. And we and everything else in the universe are created. We had a beginning. We were made. We were created. We cannot be uncreated.
And yet when the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, He is both uncreated and created at the same time. This doesn’t make logical sense. But it’s still true.
The great paradox that we behold today on Palm Sunday is the entrance into the Holy City of this humble King, this exalted poor Man, this great Conqueror Who is going to His death. How can this be?
But we Christians embrace this paradox. We embrace it not only because it is true but because it is our only hope. We hope in the God become man. We hope in the humble King. We hope in the Lord of glory Who showed Himself as a servant.
And why? Why should we put our hope in something that doesn’t make logical sense?
It is because, if we simply follow logic to its natural outcome, then the logic of our lives ends in one way—death. We are created. We are flawed. We are limited. We are breaking down.
And it’s not just because of our sins, either, though our sins accelerate everything about death. We are living deathly lives when we live in our sins and don’t repent of them. But our brokenness is inherited, too. It’s from Adam and Eve. When they sinned, they ripped the human race away from the life-giving God. And so we die. That is where the logic of human existence now takes us.
But this paradoxical King Who rides into Jerusalem today is coming to break the logic of human existence. He is coming to declare war on death itself. Yesterday, we saw Him raise Lazarus from the dead, a kind of warning shot to death and hell that their time had come. He is coming to kill death, to destroy its power forever. And with the raising of Lazarus who had been four days dead, the Lord of life is telling death that his dominion over mankind was coming to an end.
Paradox was being introduced into the logic of human existence, and that paradox would radically alter the outcome.
When we see Jesus ride into the Holy City, we see Him come in meekness but also coming to do battle. He comes as a sacrificial victim, but He also comes as the High Priest Who makes the sacrifice. He comes as humble, but He also comes as the Lord of glory. He comes as the One Who will be killed, but He also comes as the Conqueror.
It is by death that He will destroy death. His paradoxical priesthood places the victim on the altar Who brings life—Himself—and then raises that sacrifice from the dead! This is not how sacrifice normally works! This is not how priesthood normally works!
Of old, sacrifice was understood to transfer life to worshipers “because the life is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11), but that was always temporary, a transfer of life from one being to another. There was a cost.
There is still a cost—the cost of the life of the Lord of all—but now that transfer of life is eternal, flowing forever from the side of Christ. And instead of the sacrificial victim’s life being ended in order to give life to the worshiper, now the One sacrificed rises from the dead and also—and this is critical!—gives resurrection to the worshipers who receive. No sacrifice of animals could ever do that. This is a paradox. It is a contradiction that we still experience as fully true.
We Christians embrace this paradox and live by this paradox. Why? It is because our great hope is in resurrection. It is because, if the worst thing that anyone can do to you is to kill you, then even that act is now rendered powerless. Yes, we shall all die. But yes, we shall all rise from the dead. It is on this paradox that all our doctrine and theology of salvation rests.
So today, on Palm Sunday, we begin with the Lord Jesus. He is arriving to take on death and smash it forever. And it is the paradox of the eradication of death from death-bound humanity that is what characterizes this day. He rides into the city in both humility and glory. He rides into the city as both God and man. He rides into the city both to die and to give life.
This is the priesthood of paradox. So let us now go with Him and conquer death even in ourselves. And His Kingdom will come. And peace will be on earth.
And He shall reign forever and ever, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, unto ages of ages. Amen.