Sunday, 20 March 2016

Holy Week: Palm Sunday



Holy Week has begun. This is when Christians recall events of the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The first day is Palm Sunday, remembering how Jesus rode an untamed foal of a donkey from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. Jesus was accompanied by his disciples who praised God for the powerful deeds they had seen Jesus do. People spread their cloaks and branches of trees ('palms') on the road as Jesus made this journey in fulfilment of ancient prophecies about a king who would come in God's name to set the people free and bring peace.

(You can read the story in Matthew 21: 1-11; Mark 11: 1-11; Luke 19: 28 - 44; John 12: 12 - 19.)

I love this dramatic 1617 painting (shown above) by Anthony van Dyck of the Palm Sunday event. There is so much in it - strength, movement and colour. There is jubilation, but also confusion, a darkly brooding sky and other hints that if this is a 'triumphal entry' it is a dangerous sort of triumph.

What draws my eye most in the painting is the figure of Jesus. He is far too big for his tiny mount. His hand is slightly raised in a gesture of blessing or peace. He is not glorying in whatever adulations are being shouted. His face seems immensely sad. Luke's gospel tells us that on this occasion, as Jesus came near and saw the city of Jerusalem,
'he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for Peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every died. They will crush you to the ground, you and and children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." '
Those words are a dreadful prophecy, fulfilled when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem 40 years later. Jesus does not speak them as a threat. He is not gloating over the city and the people he loves. He is sobbing because he knows the destructive consequences of the refusal of people to choose his way, God's way of peace. He is sobbing because as he comes into his own city, he knows that there he will be rejected, tortured and killed. 

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem echoes a royal procession, but Jesus doesn't fit people’s idea of a King. He uses His power to feed the hungry and heal the sick. He has no army. His weapons are story telling, laughter over dinner parties, friendship, and prayer. He has no palace. He identifies with the homeless, the poorest and the people others reject. He enters Jerusalem as a pilgrim to celebrate Passover, surrounded by a small group of followers, jostling with crowds of pilgrims, worshippers, sightseers and traders.

Jesus' royal triumph is through such humiliating circumstances that his own people reject him. His kingly victory is by a route that is hard to see as the way of life and peace, for what Jesus suffers is broken friendship, betrayal, injustice, violence and cruelty. As Jesus sees all this, no wonder he sobs. The tears he weeps are the tears of God's love shed for all.


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