Palm Sunday, 28 March 2021
Journeys throw people together, be it holidays or pilgrimages, random fellow travellers on a train journey or individuals who get stuck in the same queue at the airport. Think of the Agatha Christie classic, A murder on the Orient Express, where the execution, the investigation and the analysis all occurs while on a train, which for most of the time isn’t even going anyway. In classics of the Christian Faith, think of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, whose life is set in the context of journey. Consider the English classic, though less of a spirituality guide, The Canterbury Tales, where individuals are drawn together as they tell stories on their shared pilgrimage. Journeys are particularly lively to the imagination when there is a purpose to them. Think Indiana Jones travelling to seek the Lost Ark of the Covenant; think Frodo Baggins setting off in Lord of the Rings; remember Philieas Fogg travelling round the world in eighty days to win a bet worth £20,000 over a century ago.
Today, Palm Sunday, we’re celebrating a journey coming to an end and it comes to its conclusion not today but this Friday and beyond. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time that He might die here. On a couple of occasions in Jesus’ earthly ministry He says His hour had not yet come. For example, He informs His Mother of this at His first miracle, the wedding at Cana in Galilee (St John 2). Indeed on previous occasions, the soldiers might have arrested Jesus but we’re told that His hour had not yet come (St John 7:30). Well, now the hour has come for Jesus to be glorified (St John 17:31). He’s arrived in the Holy City.
Why did Jesus have to come to Jerusalem? It’s significance occurs early on in the scriptures: Salem, the name of King Melchizedek’s kingdom in Genesis 14, is another name for Jerusalem. Opinion is divided as to whether Mount Moriah, where Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, is actually Jerusalem or not: we’re not sure (Genesis 22). It is mentioned as one of the lands which the Israelites had to conquer as they settled in the land of the Canaanites (Joshua 10:1-4). Here, of course Solomon builds the Temple, building on its foundation of being the City of David and Zion, the place the Lord dwells. The second Temple built on this site was lavishly restored, largely paid for by Herod, to win the favour of the Jews who otherwise hated him, a tension that recurs in our readings during this Holy Week.
Journeying to Jerusalem would have been a very common experience for people of the region. Jesus Himself made the journey several times as His parents ensured when He was a child that they made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We read of this when they lose Him on the way home when He was a boy (St Luke 2). One such road out of Jerusalem is where Jesus sets His parable of the Good Samaritan (St Luke 10). The person attacked was on his way to Jericho. The priest and Levite were also making the journey, perhaps going in the opposite direction to Jerusalem. And perhaps their desire to stay clear of the near-dead person was because they were going to make a sacrifice and wanted to avoid being ritually unclean as would have happened according to the rules of the day had they come into contact with him. An early form of self-isolating, we might say!
The irony is that sacrifice and offering is meant to establish and renew relationships. Human beings were made to offer ourselves to God and this is seen in the account of the first sacrifice recorded, offered by Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). We’re not told why God “had regard for Abel and his offering,” but not for Cain’s - perhaps a deliberate omission. The point is we can’t buy God off by impressing Him with particular things we offer. He will be pleased with that with which He is pleased: we owe Him everything anyway. In our first reading the suffering servant described by Isaiah makes no resistance as he goes to his plight: “I offered my back to those who struck me.” This isn’t half-hearted discipleship. This is a following of God that puts the individual in tricky situations. It is not risk averse.
The Scriptures try to communicate this capricious nature of God by speaking of sweet-smelling sacrifices being pleasing in His sight. The idea here is not literally that they smelt nice with the most desirable Chanel perfume, but that they were what God wanted. God threatens not to smell the aromas that His people offer in Leviticus 26:31. In contrast St Paul praises the Philippians for sending through Epaphroditus an offering, which has a fragrant aroma (4:18, see also Ephesians 5:2). Does what we offer God smell good? Is it pleasing in His eyes or does He rather see the reticence in our hearts and the wealth which we keep back because we think we can God buy off with something else?
The thing about sacrifice and offering is that it is total. Jesus ridicules the Scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:11 where they say that something is “corban,” meaning dedicated to God, and this is used as an excuse not to offer the totality of their life to God and neighbour. This totality of the sacrifice we make to God is seen in another of Our Lord’s teachings where He says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister” (St Matthew 5:23). We cannot have a proper relationship with our neighbour without having a relationship with God; nor can God be praised by those who ignore others in need in their midst.
During Mass, the sharing of the Peace is the symbolic carrying out of our Lord’s words on this matter. Just before we receive Holy Communion the Priest says, “The Peace of the Lord be with you always” and we all respond, “And with your Spirit.” Usually here the people then turn to each other and say “Peace be with you” and it’s normally a jolly outpouring of warmth. We can’t do that now because of the pandemic but that’s fine because we don’t need to shake everyone’s hand or hug and kiss them to be reconciled one to another. But we do need to take seriously the exhortation to live lives worthy of the call to holiness. The holy nation and the royal priesthood of which St Peter speaks (I Peter 2:9), who are to offer this sacrifice of praise will realise our need of forgiveness, found in the Confessional. Jesus tells us there is great rejoicing in Heaven when a sinner repents (St Luke 15:7). Note that He doesn’t say there’s rejoicing in Heaven when His followers say “We’ve not got anything to confess because we’ve never done anything wrong.”
The totality of offering is seen perfectly in God sending Christ and we heard the glorious meditation on the emptying of Jesus in our second reading. “Christ Jesus did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the condition of slave.” This offering of Himself we see repeatedly in the Mass. Jesus says, ‘Do this in memory of me:’ He’s with us now in the tabernacle and soon to be on the altar. And what thanks does He get? Folk ignoreHim , we fail to do Him homage, some Christians even say it’s nonsense to say our Lord is present in these mysteries at all. The offering of Jesus is met with ridicule on the altar as it was as He carried the Cross to Golgotha.
The totality of the offering is in stark contrast to the greed we hear reported in the Psalm, a Psalm we’ll hear again on Thursday as the altars are stripped after Mass: “They divide my clothing among them. They cast lots for my robe.” The preoccupation is with what can I acquire, what’s in it for me, let’s gamble for these clothes of a condemned man. This is in stark contrast to the generosity of God. We see this too in the lives of the Saints, like St Martin of Tours, who tore his cloak in two so that a poor beggar might have half of it. We see the saint’s desire not to accumulate more and more, but a desire to give, to share even to the point of rendering the cloak pretty useless as it had been torn in two.
Let’s participate in this journey of Holy Week, spending these first few days of Holy Week listening to our Lord in the Temple. We’ll hear ourselves denying with the other disciples on Thursday that we’ll ever let the Lord down. On Friday we’ll wonder our actions and our inaction should cause the death of an innocent. On Saturday we wait in the pregnant tomb for the Lord of Life to burst forth. On Sunday we see faith and life and hope given fresh meaning as we long to cling to that which is sure, dependable and eternal. As we journey with Christ may we know that the point of this journey is sacrifice so that, united to Christ, we might participate in His saving obedience.