Sermon for Palm Sunday – High Mass Sunday 29 March 2015
PALM SUNDAY, 2015 High Mass
As you heard Cedric say the officials of Westminster City Council label our outdoor Palm Sunday procession a “demonstration.” Perhaps they have no place for religion in their lexicon.
If we think about it, “demonstration” is not so far off the mark. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, he is engaging in a piece of street theatre which would have maximum impact. He was acting out something which could be said in no other way.
He was doing this not just on any day, at any time of the year. This was at the time of Passover – one of the great pilgrimage festivals for the Jews when the holy city would be packed.
They would be there to commemorate the foundational event in the life of their nation: retelling in word and action the story of Moses and the Exodus, slavery in Egypt, the Passover Lamb, the crossing of the Red Sea, the promise of freedom in the Promised Land. This was the freedom they longed to have again as once more they lived under the sway of a great empire.
It has been suggested that another piece of political street theatre was being staged at the same time. Roman governors of Judea did not normally reside in Jerusalem, but down on the coast at Caesarea – with its temple to the divine emperor Augustus and other facilities more to the liking of a Roman aristocrat than the crowded streets of Jerusalem.
But for the great Jewish festivals, Pilate would come up to Jerusalem. And he would not come alone but with a small army to ensure that the heightened national feelings excited by the religious fervour of the occasion did not spill over into riot and rebellion against the peace of Rome.
He would enter Jerusalem at the head of his troops, on a war horse and in battle array, to make it quite clear to the populace – both residents and visitors – who was in charge, where the real power lay and what the consequences of challenging that power would be.
Those who witnessed the entrance of Jesus saw something very different – a man riding on a donkey – a beast on which it is difficult to look powerful and intimidating.
More than that, the crowds would hear echoes of Zechariah’s prophecy of a king riding a donkey – as one who came not as a conqueror but in peace.
This contrast with the street theatre of their political masters held a lesson for those who joined in as well as for their imperial overlords. Many of them would be yearning for someone stronger than Pilate –someone to drive out the foreign oppressors.
It holds a lesson for us too as we commemorate it all these years later.
What did it mean?
- What does it mean?
- What sort of king was this?
- What drama was he enacting?
- What drama are we part of?
Unlike those who took part at the time, waving their palm branches and singing their messianic hosannas, we know how the drama ends. We have just listened to Mark’s account of the Passion. We have seen how enthusiastic crowds melt away or change their tune – no longing singing “hosanna” but shouting “crucify;” how even his inner circle of disciples desert him; how one of them betrayed him to his enemies in the religious and political establishment. This king does not turn out to be the anything like the one hoped for. He takes the nation’s story and radically re-interprets it.
Dramatic presentations of the life and death of Jesus Christ are a familiar feature of Christian tradition: medieval mystery plays – revived in modern times – the Oberammagau Passion Play in which a whole community is involved, there will be one in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday afternoon. There has been Dorothy L. Sayers’ radio drama, “A Man Born to be King,” and Hollywood’s repeated cinematic efforts.
Are these just imaginative efforts to communicate ideas in a dramatic and memorable way, something for the uneducated or uninitiated, something to be dispensed with once people have got the message, grasped the ideas behind them, or is there something more going on here?
The drama of the passion, “the greatest story ever told,” is something more than a brilliantly improvised piece of street theatre. The whole drama expresses something more even than the events in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
It is the drama which is at the heart of the universe, and of life itself: a drama in which are called to take part, to become actors, active participants. This “theo-drama,” this divine drama, as it has been called, is the relationship between Creator and creature which itself springs from the relationship of love within the Godhead – a relationship which overflows, spills out, in creative love. It reaches out to engage others, to draw them in to that love. To think of this as a drama helps us to see how we become involved, how we are called to become actors; to share in that love in word and deed.
In this drama we are given something like a script and stage directions in the scriptural record: we learn what to say and do. But we are not called simply to mimic actions for an hour or a week, or to dress like Jesus and his disciples, but to allow ourselves, our whole lives to be taken into and shaped by a drama in which we have an active part; one in which the drama of self-giving love is acted out, improvised in us as we give ourselves to the play and it becomes our own.
The Liturgy of Holy Week is not a passion play, a historical pageant – as accurate and detailed a reconstruction of the events as we can manage. It does have actions – we process with palms and hosannas, feet are washed on Maundy Thursday, we try to watch and pray with Jesus in Gethsemane, we venerate of the cross on Good Friday, we kindle the new light of the risen Christ at the Easter Vigil and follow it at the children of Israel followed the fiery pillar.
But it seeks to operate at a deeper level still, to do something more profound; that is to draw us into that theo-drama which is ongoing – which will only be complete when all have been gathered into the procession of those drawn to the one lifted up on the cross. It is a drama acted out in the life of the Church throughout the world and day by day in countless Christian lives, as we seek to respond to our calling; as we seek to serve the kingdom of love and peace, to wash the feet of others, to give of our deepest selves.
In the drama of Holy Week, we will see people like ourselves, people presented with choices – and we are presented with those same choices. Will we join the drama, get up on the stage? Will we follow this king or another? Whom will we serve? In whose demonstration do we take part? Whose procession will we follow? Will we still be there with the women at the cross or the tomb?