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Palm Sunday, Year B

Sermon at Saint Margaret’s, Budapest (2024.03.24)

Palm Sunday, Year B

Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

“It was two days before the Passover and the Festival of

Unleavened Bread.”

I have four kids, three of whom are teenagers, so when our family gathers around the table for a meal, it is often marked by interesting discussions and debates. Some of these are light-hearted and fun, others are interminable, like the argument about when Christmas begins. 

In vain I’ve tried to explain that the 24th of December is not Christmas, but rather the “eve” of Christmas, as its name implies. Instead, the tradition of celebrating Principal Feasts on the preceding evening goes back to the Jewish conception of a day, which drawing from the Creation narrative in Genesis, goes from sundown to sundown, thus the 25th begins at sundown on the 24th. 

Nevertheless, despite my protestations, my family is convinced the 24th is Christmas. 

Here in the Passion Narrative of Mark’s Gospel, we find that Jewish people had a similar problem. 

Technically speaking, the Passover Seder (or meal) was to be held at twilight on the 14th of Nisan (the equivalent of our April) which was immediately followed by the 7-day Festival of Unleavened Bread which began on 15 Nisan and ran through the 21st. However, in practice the Israelites merged the two festivals and referred to the whole period as Pesach (פֶּסַח), or the “feast of the Passover”. 

So when Mark writes that, “It was two days before the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread,” did that mean two days before the 14th of Nisan, or the 15th?! The whole chronology of Holy Week depends on it. Was the Last Supper part of the Passover Seder – and therefore does the Eucharist find its roots in it – or was it just a normal meal?

In Mark, as well as the other so-called “Synoptic Gospels,” that Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was a Passover Seder is incontrovertible. Alongside the chronology provided by Mark’s account, with the slaughter of the Passover lambs serving as an anchor point, other textual clues are overwhelming. For example:

  • Jesus returned to Jerusalem on Thursday evening for the meal (14:17), which makes sense, given the rabbinic tradition in which the paschal meal had to be eaten within the city walls (Mishnah Pesachim VII. 9). 

  • Similarly, the Passover meal began at sundown and continued well into the night, whereas typical Jewish meals began in the late afternoon. 

  • The disciples were reclining (14:18), which accords with the first century custom that required everyone, even the poorest, to recline for the meal (Mishnah Pesachim X. 1). 

  • Normal meals began with the breaking of bread, whereas here, Jesus breaks the bread in the middle of the meal, in keeping with the Passover Seder, “the one occasion when the serving of a dish preceded the breaking of bread” (W. L. Lane, NICNT).

  • Wine was customarily reserved only for special occasions but was integral to the Passover Seder.

  • Additionally, the leader of the Seder is expected to periodically explain or interpret the significance of various parts of the meal, something we see Jesus doing with the bread and wine – though in this case, a novel way.

(See William L. Lane, NICNT, pp. 500-501)

Consequently, there is very little doubt in Mark that the Last Supper was, in fact, a Passover Seder.

(By the way, following the example of Barack Obama who was the first US President to host a Passover Seder in the White House, if you are interested in experiencing one, the Chase Family is preparing a Passover Seder that we will host together at my house this Thursday!) 

The Gospel of John creates issues though, since John situates Jesus’ crucifixion within the framework of the “day of Preparation” (Jn 19:14ff) and indicates a concern that the priests would become defiled and therefore not be able to “eat the Passover [Pesach]” (Jn 18:28). Thus, he seems to shift the Passover Seder to Good Friday, meaning the Last Supper would have simply been a normal meal. 

This presumed discrepancy goes back to the problem of the blurring between the Passover Seder and the Festival of Unleavened Bread and whether the day of Preparation referred to the 14th of Nisan or the 15th. Like Mark, the Gospel of John includes all the tell-tale signs that the Last Supper was indeed a Passover Seder. 

Equally confusing is the bit about the priests “eating the Passover” or Pesach, because the Pesach can refer to either the paschal lamb that was eaten as part of the Passover Seder, or it can refer to the paschal sacrifices – lambs, kids [baby goats!], and bulls – that the people offered throughout the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Unhelpfully these sacrifices were also referred to as “pesach” (e.g. Dt 16:2; 2Ch 35:7) (ibid). Consequently, if we understand it in the latter sense, the tension between Gospel accounts dissolves. 

At the end of the day, whatever you make of the relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover Seder, the important thing is that it actually happened. The entire course of history changed because of the events of that Holy Week. 

While many continue to question the historical veracity of the Biblical text, the crucifixion of Jesus remains one of the most attested historical events in the ancient world. 

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, when the things that were set in motion over the course of Jesus’ ministry begin to come to a climax.  The bitter irony of Palm Sunday is that the crowds cheering in celebration, hailing Jesus as the promised Messiah – the Davidic King who would reign forever – would call for his crucifixion five days later. He simply didn’t fit their preconception of what the messiah would be like.

In different ways, it is easy to lead a similarly bifurcated life today – wave willow branches downstairs and then go on living our life tomorrow as if Jesus is simply a character in an old story. Or for others, to mould Christianity into the kind of religion and suits our tastes. 

Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and Good Friday are all powerful reminders of the hypocrisy that resides in the heart of each one of us. But the good news, the Gospel, is that in the greatest plot twist of all time, while our sinfulness resulted in Jesus hanging on the cross, it is precisely because he hung on that cross that we can be reconciled to God.   Amen. 

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