Palm Sunday begins the week of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The word “passion” is a word that comes from the Greek πάσχειν (paschein), which means “to suffer.” As I considered this reality, I couldn’t help but think of passionate worship, cited by Bishop Robert Schnase as one of the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. For a time, it didn’t really make sense … suffering and worship. Well, I know many of us have “suffered through worship,” but I don’t think that is what Bishop Schnase intends here.
Passion, as we consider it in Jesus’s life, is not only the suffering, but the motivation behind his suffering. In the Passion narrative, Jesus is not a victim. He has chosen to stay in Jerusalem when he could have easily escaped. He could have laid low and kept out of trouble. Jesus also does not see himself as a martyr seeking to draw attention to his own suffering. He suffers no egocentric pathology here.
Jesus is motivated only by his desire to empty himself completely before God that God might completely consume his being. In doing so, Jesus places himself at the front line in our battle with sin and death, and he confronts it with the most powerful weapon. That weapon is the God of all creation. And the only way for God to be victorious is for Jesus to submit fully by emptying himself and taking on our death. In short, the suffering of his passion and death was nothing less than his aching simply to let God be God in this moment.
So when do we ache for God to consume our lives and be made known through us? When do we experience passion in such a way that God is fully God and we are fully human? Bishop Schnase would tell us that worship that is not passionate is not worship. Passionate Worship is about opening our lives to God in such a way that God will be fully manifested in our lives. Passionate worship involves submission.
This past Sunday, in our contemporary worship service at 11:00, we had an experience that is worth sharing. Following a sermon that spoke to our need to be fully human in the face of God’s full divinity as expressed through Christ and following a powerful prayer and song that inspired us to that place of humility, one of our members, Ileana, came forward and knelt before the altar. Then she slowly lowered herself all the way to the floor and lay flat on the floor, assuming an ancient prayer position known as prostration.
Ileana and I spoke this week, and she gave me permission to reflect on this event here in this blog. As I have carried that image with me all week long, I have continued to think through the power of that moment. Prostrate prayer is lying face down (often with one’s hands at the side in the cruciform shape). It is not comfortable to the face, and it is the position of complete surrender. As a matter of fact, it is the position of surrender in battle when one completely submits to the will of another. And when that submission is made before the cross, it is complete surrender to God. It is a prayer position as old as the faith, and it is depicted here in a service of ordination out of another tradition.
Out of that simple act of surrender, the worshiping community was then made acutely aware of something else that was happening in the room. The Holy Spirit was moving powerfully through us as we absorbed the image of one of our own submitting entirely to God. In some sense, Ileana was our priest in that moment speaking on our behalf and surrendering us all to God. And that’s when I felt the passion … the suffering … the aching and the longing within us to have God fully at work in our lives. Many who were there felt it, as well, and our worship became passionate in the fullest sense of the word.
So as I enter this Holy Week celebrating the Passion of Jesus, my prayer is that I might experience it as a time of surrender. It is about “letting go and letting God.” It is about remembering who we are as people made of the dirt (humus to human) who breathe the breath of God within our chest. Finally, it is about facing our mortal nature … our sin and our death … and submitting ourselves wholly to the God of creation.
As you embark upon this week called holy, may you empty yourself to God and wait for the Holy Spirit to fill the emptiness with life and hope! That, my friends, is what passionate worship is all about.