+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In what is perhaps the most egregious example of my exceedingly rare bending of the prayerbook’s rubrics–one hopes not so far as to break them–is that I typically omit the sermon on Palm Sunday. My legal justification is that sometimes “silence speaks louder than words”, and perhaps a period of intentional silence on this Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, after all we just heard, should serve as the most appropriate homiletic response. Perhaps it’s the fact that our services are now broadcast and available electronically (presumably for ever) and I don’t want to provide evidence for the inevitable ecclesiastical trial. Or maybe it’s just the mental fog and compromised judgment of living a year in the time of Covid. In any event, I am obviously preaching a sermon right now, but I promise to keep it brief, considering how full the day’s liturgy is and how frequently you’ll have the opportunity to heat my potentially ill-considered musings during Holy Week.
Speaking of ill-considered musings, and considering my general reluctance to preach on Palm Sundays, this may be my one and only chance to talk about what may be the strangest two verses in the whole of the New Testament. We heard them just a moment ago, in verses 51 and 52 of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark, immediately following Jesus’ arrest in the garden.
And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.
So, who on earth is this figure and what is he doing wandering around nearly naked, in the middle of the night, in the midst of what is clearly a dangerous, volatile situation?
The short answer is that we don’t know. St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom and the Venerable Bede all claim it was John, the beloved disciple. St. Epiphanius believed it was James the Just. Some believe it was Mark, the very writer of the Gospel we just heard.
It seems to me that the identity of the young man is less important, though, than the meaning of this incident. Don’t get me wrong- for a number of reasons I am absolutely convinced this is an historically accurate account of what actually happened. However, as many of you have heard me say quite frequently, scripture contains a surplus of meaning. The truth of the bible is multivalent, and as the Fathers of the church contended, even a single verse or passage can be read on at least four different levels: the literal (or historical), the tropological (or moral), a typological (making connections between the Testaments), and an anagogic (looking toward “last things”- like death, judgment, heaven and hell). Each of these levels yields some truth or another about God, our relationship to him, his plan for creation, and so forth. Modernist biblical scholars from the 19th Century up to today tend to ignore most of these, which suggests to me a shocking lack of imagination at best and a troubling lack of faith in the Holy Spirit’s ability to inspire scripture at worst.
In any event, while I certainly believe this strange thing actually happened, I think the greater truth here is to be found in its allegorical meaning. So, let’s do a little exegesis together.
The character in question is identified as a νεανίσκος, that is a “young man”, which Thayer’s lexicon tells us has a diminutive connotation. Unlike related words, it can also mean an attendant at some sort. So, we might say something like “this is a little fella’ who’s been hanging around.” This sense is intensified by the verb which follows it-συνηκολούθει. We are also told that the item with which he is covering himself is a σινδόνα, translated here simply as “a linen cloth.”
These two words–νεανίσκος and σινδόνα–each appears only one other time in St. Mark’s Gospel. Christ’s body is wrapped in a σινδόνα for his burial. Another νεανίσκος–another “little fella’ who’s been hanging around”–is spotted in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. They had gone into the sepulchre to anoint the body of our Lord, found it was not there, and instead the one they assumed to be a νεανίσκος, was in fact an angel, and he was not loosely covered in a burial cloth but in a dazzling white robe.
So, what does all this add up to? Is Father John just showing off and pelting us with Greek lexicography to exact a little bit more penance in this last week of Lent? No, there is a point here.
Just us the young man had what little shielding his modesty ripped away, so did humanity, in another garden, in the flower of its youth have its fig leaf ripped away to expose its sinful nature and so too did the callow apostles flee and so might we seek to avoid revelation of that which is broken and unlovely in ourselves. Just as the thin veil which separates life from death, when removed, exposes the horrible reality of what we are, so does the removal of the shroud from the young man create the shocking realization that something is amiss and something is needful and we haven’t the power in ourselves to help ourselves.
But then there breaks a yet more glorious day. Gone is the linen cloth, the burial shroud, the fig leaf which we use to shield ourselves from the conviction of our sins and the hard reality of our impending death. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” The graveclothes are folded and set aside. The young man is clothed with the righteousness of God. And even so, shall we all be changed.
But here we get ahead of ourselves. That is for next week. I am convinced that every Holy Week we do and should and must participate in a sort of willful act of selective amnesia. Yes, we know how the story ends, but that’s not today’s story. Today we stand exposed like the young man. Today we come to terms with the fact that our Lord is dead and that we are dead. Dead in our trespasses. Naked and afraid. Who will save us from the wrath to come? Who will save us from ourselves? Like Peter, James, and John we will keep watch and we will fall asleep and we will feel the shame of that again. Even so, watch and pray. Like Peter, we make a big, macho show of wounding the high priest’s slave, but when it really counts we claim we don’t know anything about that Nazarene trouble-maker. Even so, we stay in the courtyard, surrounded by people but profoundly alone, and break down in sorrow as the cock-crow accuses us. Like the centurion we realize that this was truly the Son of God, but we realize it just a moment too late. Even so, we see him taken down and we go with the women weeping on their way to the tomb. And at the stone-sealed entrance of that tomb, as it were a proscenium between earth and hell, which should have been our reward, not his, we wait. And:
Here [right here] might [we all] stand and sing.
No story so divine.
Never was love, dear king,
Never was grief like thine.
This is my friend,
In whose sweet praise.
I all my days could gladly spend.