Words on the Word

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-7: Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple.
Philippians 2:6-11: Christ Jesus emptied himself and became as men are.
Matthew 26:14-27:66: Let it be as you, not I, would have it.

The event we celebrate today fulfils a statement of intent made with increasing force by Christ our Lord. In the Gospel, the crescendo is punctuated by a thrice-repeated announcement: ‘Behold we are going up to Jerusalem’. The orientation inspired fervent expectations: we see that orchestrated throughout Holy Week. For many of Jesus’s disciples, it bought into a dearly-held ambition, at once political and spiritual. To a Scriptural mind, Jerusalem is above all the City of David: the guarantee in time and space of God’s eternal promise. The city has cosmic significance. In a phrase of remarkable audacity, the Psalmist refers to Jerusalem as ‘true pole of the earth’—the point of magnetic force that draws the needle of our inner compass, drawing all men and women to itself. Zion’s beauty is unequalled, says the Psalm. Further, the site seems indestructible, not just for being well built, but because the Lord is ‘in its midst’, its stronghold. God dwells in Jerusalem. He protects the city on account of his covenant with David.

The covenantal terms are set out in another Psalm. There, the Lord swears: ‘[David’s] dynasty shall last for ever. In my sight his throne is like the sun, like the moon it shall endure.’ By the time Christ walked our earth, that promise had been unfulfilled for hundreds of years. Israel had long been kingless. When the monarchy was at last restored, it was by a line of foreign usurpers. Herod’s claims were to pious Jews something half between a bad joke and a blasphemy. The expectation of a ruler ‘like David’, after God’s own heart, was impatient and strong. People longed for the vindication of God’s promise —even more, perhaps, for their own vindication. Little has more power to stir a frustrated nation for good or ill than the promise or projection of a messianic leader. We see that principle at work today, in the troubled world of 2017. We are well placed, then, to appreciate the electric charge of the title that stuck ever more firmly to Christ the nearer he got to Jerusalem. At Jericho, a blind man accosted him shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Son of David’. Jesus heeded him and healed him. That fact seemed to show that the title was no empty flattery. It caught on. By the time Jesus entered the Holy City, the solitary cry that had resounded from a ditch was in everyone’s mouth: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ The man on the donkey was branded as the symbol of comeuppance, restoration, victory.

Let us be careful not to distance ourselves blithely from the mindset of the people whose Hosannas, after all, we make our own. Let us rather reflect deeply, truthfully, on our own real motivation for accompanying Jesus to Jerusalem. Am I there—that is, here—because Christ is my friend and I wish to love him better, to be near him, comfort, serve him, come what may? Or do I follow with a view to forming a strategic alliance, to be proved right and duly rewarded? ’Through this child’, said old Simeon to Mary, ‘the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.’ That prophecy fulfils itself in Holy Week, now as then, in our lives as we conduct them. Jesus’s own notion of what awaits him in Jerusalem is clear. He ‘must go’ there, he says, ‘to suffer many things, to be condemned, mocked, scourged, and crucified, and on the third day to be raised.’ He can hardly be blamed for not using plain speech. Yet the crowds fail to listen, then as now. How easily we assume that, when God speaks, he does not mean what he says! Yet he does, and, what is more, he assumes that we also are women and men of our word.

How can we respond to the call of Palm Sunday with integrity? We can, quite simply, refuse to run away. We can stay close to Jesus, sharing the effect of a total love rejected coldly, casually. We must take sides: either remain under the cross or walk away; there is no middle ground. May we be graced not to abandon Jesus in his agony, which, as Blaise Pascal remarked, carries on until the end of the world. In the strength of Christ’s fortitude, we can aspire to make his clear-sighted fidelity our own. We all have our Via Dolorosa to walk. To be a Christian is to confront it and say, ‘I must go’; that is, to embrace even the hard, dark things that come my way as part of God’s loving purpose for my life. I may struggle to make sense of them now. That’s not to say they’re senseless. In the light of eternity they may turn out to have been the very crucible in which I realised my call and rose at last to full stature.

Above all, this Holy Week, let’s hear Christ’s statement of purpose in totality. Today and in the days to come, our eyes will be fixed on the cross. That’s how it should be. To take our faith seriously is to take sin seriously and to confront indifference, cowardice, and violence, recognising them for what they are, around us and within us. But to take our faith seriously is no less to affirm that these tendencies of destruction do not, cannot, have the final word. Their reign, for all its noise, all its pomp, is temporary. Light has shone in the darkness. The darkness will never overcome it. ‘I must go up to Jerusalem’, says Jesus, ‘to suffer, die, and rise again.’ That is no mere figure of speech. Remember: the Lord means what he says. It is a crazy affirmation, yes, but who is to say that ultimate reality is not a blessed, saving madness? May Christ’s words of strength give us comfort this week, direct our gaze, keep us resolute and true. Amen.

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