When I was a child my most vivid memory of Palm Sunday wasn’t the palms that were distributed at church, and then brought home to replace last year’s palms that had been tucked behind the crucifix that hung in the living room. It was the gospel reading. Specifically, it was the anxiety my father would stir up in the family in anticipation of “the long gospel.” In my father’s mind, the reading of the Passion took hours, and standing for that length of time was his annual Lenten torture.
I didn’t get too caught up into my father’s anxiety, though. I liked hearing the Passion, though I would never express my thoughts on this. Sunday gospels seemed to be just short little scenes to me; but the Passion was a complete story. There was a tremendous drama to it. There was the agony in the garden, the arrest, the trials, the screaming crowds, Pilate, Herod, Simon of Cyrene, the Centurion and the women standing beneath the cross.
Every Palm Sunday I wonder, as I take my role in the reading of the Passion, what’s going on in the minds of the people in the congregation. I wonder if they’re just enduring “the long Gospel.” I wonder what they’re hearing. I wonder if the Passion is touching them in any way.
We can listen to the Passion in several ways. We can approach it with a bird’s eye view, just skimming over the events. This puts us in touch with the pain and suffering of Jesus from his agony in the garden until his death on the cross. We can stop along the way to reflect on individual characters: Judas, Peter, Pilate, Simon, Mary and John. We can question what they might have been feeling, or how the death of Jesus affected them. We can stop to meditate on individual scenes from the passion. Today I invite you to ponder one scene with me, the arrest of Jesus.
Jesus and his disciples had gone to the Mount of Olives, an area outside the over – crowded city where the wealthy owned private gardens. Most likely, a disciple of Jesus allowed him to camp out there with his close disciples when he was visiting Jerusalem. Before he left the disciples to pray privately he told them, “Pray that you may not undergo the test.” He was warning them that the crucible was approaching.
He then knelt, entering into profound prayer. Kneeling is forbidden in Jewish tradition except on Yom Kippur. Here Jesus is kneeling before his Father in the aspect of a sinner seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness. By adding this detail, Luke may be suggesting that Jesus was taking on the sins of the world and bringing them to the Father. It was his destiny to do so. Nevertheless, Jesus asked his Father to take away the cup of suffering that was drawing near. But in the same breath, he handed his will over to his Father. His anxiety was so great “that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” With a simple phrase Luke painted a picture of the Father’s response of love and compassion. “And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.”
Jesus stood up and returned to his disciples who had, by then, fallen asleep. He woke them up, and, a second time urged them to pray. “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test.”
Before he could say anything more, a crowd approached. Judas, one of his inner circle of disciples, was leading them. He knew where Jesus would be. He had been with him at the Passover dinner. He came up to Jesus and kissed him. He used the sign of friendship, love and respect to betray him. Realizing what was happening, an unnamed disciple took out his sword and struck a person in the crowd. His wild swing cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus immediately intervened. He certainly knew he was being arrested. He also knew that the religious leaders were looking for a reason to kill him. As the cohort descended on him, he knew that one way or another, he was a dead man. Even so, the violent response of his disciple was met with an immediate response from him. “Stop, no more of this.” The darkness had descended on him and his disciples, but they weren’t to respond to the darkness with acts of darkness. Jesus instead reached out with kindness and compassion. He decided to shine the light of the kingdom on this act of darkness. Jesus immediately touched him and healed him.
Looking closely at this incident, we easily come to the conclusion that it’s highly improbable that anyone could, with one random swing of a sword, cut off a person’s ear. The best-case scenario would be that a piece of the ear would be cut, but the sword would certainly hit the person’s shoulder slicing deeply into the flesh causing a much more serious wound. Mathew, Mark and Luke reported that only the servant’s ear was cut.
If the person were wearing some kind of armor it would be possible for the sword to deflect off the armor and avoid cutting the shoulder. But this person was a servant, not an armor-clad soldier. Why did the Gospel writers stress that the servant’s ear was cut off?
Matthew, Mark and Luke presented a scenario in which Jesus and his disciples were suddenly hurled into the world of darkness. Their first response was to ward it off by retaliating in kind. Jesus stopped them. They were to be messengers of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of light. They were to offer everyone enslaved in the darkness a chance to hear the message of eternal life. “Stop, no more of this. Then he touched the servant’s ear and healed him.” Jesus restored his ear; he gave him another chance to hear the message of the kingdom. He gave him a chance to embrace the light.
Jesus then addressed the entire cohort. “Day after day I was with you in the temple area, and you did not seize me.” He taught them in the light – he taught them in the sacred confines of God’s house. His final statement to them is a condemnation, but also a plea. “But this is your hour, the time for the power of darkness.” Jesus was telling them that he could heal them all; that they could still hear the words of eternal life. They could still step out into the light. He would continue to offer them life even as “they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest…”