A friend of mine once argued that, in a way, the Palm Sunday procession seemed to him to be the greatest celebration in the Bible. Not that it is the greatest event. The Birth of Jesus was greater and of course our celebration at Christmas is more important to us. But when you think about it, at the Birth of Jesus itself, there weren’t too many people involved. Mary and Joseph, a few shepherds, later some wise men. The first Christmas was a private, almost secret time.
The Resurrection of Jesus was greater, and our celebration of Easter is more important. But the first Easter was a very strange time for the disciples. There was great joy, but some of the disciples were afraid, often they didn’t understand, some didn’t even believe. The Day of Pentecost was a greater day, and a greater celebration, but the coming of the Holy Spirit was an awesome and unworldly time. It would have been hard to relate to for many people.
When it comes to a truly triumphant and celebratory event in the life of Christ, then Palm Sunday might be the closest thing to that. The Passover was celebration enough. The people all came to Jerusalem and the population of the city swelled from about 55,000 to about 180,000. The city was crowded with pilgrims. And although the number of people involved in the Palm Sunday celebration would have been small compared to all the people in the city, people would have been watching and waiting for this demonstration on behalf of Jesus.
All through the gospels the people were wanting Jesus to step up and be recognized as King. They couldn’t wait for it to happen. On Palm Sunday, Jesus finally allowed them to recognize him. The people wave palm branches, the sign of royalty. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, as Zechariah had foretold. They throw their cloaks on the road in front of him. If you think about what that means, you can see that if you put your coat in front of someone riding on a mule, you are offering what you have in his service. You are saying, what is mine is yours, and I will follow you with all that I have. That is the spirit we enter into on Palm Sunday.
Its one of the fundamental laws of the Spirit. The law is even mysteriously present within nature: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. " So what is the spiritual law? " He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."
The law would have no meaning, no reference at all, except that Jesus himself manifested its reality by his own death and resurrection. In our Gospel this coming Sunday, Jesus speaks of his own death as his “hour of glory” when he would be “lifted up from the earth” and would “draw all men to himself”. Jesus saw his death on the cross as triumph over the powers of sin and darkness.
In order to allow us to approach the mystery, Jesus points us to nature, in particular a “grain of wheat.” Seeds cannot produce new life by themselves. They must first be planted in the earth before they can grow and produce fruit. What is the spiritual analogy which Jesus alludes to? Is this simply a veiled reference to his own impending death on the cross and resurrection? Or does Jesus have another kind of "death and rebirth" in mind for his disciples? Jesus, no doubt, had both meanings in mind. Jesus’ obedience and death on the cross obtain for us freedom and new life in the Holy Spirit. His cross frees us from the tyranny of sin and death and shows us the way of perfect love.
If we want to experience the new life which Jesus offers, then the outer shell of our old, fallen nature, must be broken and put to death. In Baptism our “old nature” enslaved by sin is buried with Christ and we rise as a “new creation” in Christ. This process of death to the “old fallen self” is both a one-time event, and a daily, on-going cycle in which God buries us more deeply into Jesus’ death to sin so we might rise anew and bear fruit for God. There is a great paradox here. Death leads to life. When we "die" to our selves, we "rise" to new life in Jesus Christ. This is what our Baptism is about, and this is what every celebration of the Holy Mysteries is all about: dying to ourselves, and rising to new life
W.H. Auden famously said "now is the age of anxiety." The anxiety we're talking about here isn't just the daily worry about things, like money, health, family, comfort, etc. Its a much deeper kind of anxiety which concerns our underlying belief about ourselves, the world and God. Christians make quite an outrageous claim when they declare that not only is there a profound reason behind the world, but more specifically, that reason is love. Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter in his conversation with Nicodemus: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus offered his own coming as evidence of the love which lies behind everything. God proved his love for us by giving us the best he had to offer – his only begotten Son who freely gave himself as an offering to God for our sake and as the atoning sacrifice for our sin and the sin of the world. This passage tells us of the great breadth and width of God's love.
Part of what was so radical about Jesus' words was the universality it implied: this love was not an exclusive one, for just a few or for a single nation, but an all-embracing redemptive love for the whole world, and a personal love for each and every individual whom God has created in his own image and likeness. God is a loving Father who cannot rest until his wandering children have returned home to him. Saint Augustine of Hippo says, "God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love." God gives us the freedom to choose whom and what we will love. Jesus shows us the paradox of love and judgment. We can love the darkness of sin and unbelief or we can love the light of God’s truth, beauty, and goodness. If our love is guided by what is true, and good and beautiful then we will choose for God and love him above all else. This is the single-minded love we pray for in so many of our lenten devotions.
Its a poem about the Christmas mystery - but this bit is too brilliant a fusing of our Sunday Gospel and our lenten discussion group theme. The Gospel overturns the tables of all our attempts at manipulating God's house into a house of merchandise - this isn't about the commercialization of religion as much as the turning of the whole of creation into "currency" to satisfy (and perpetuate) our own fantasies. We must recognize the world for the wilderness that is it, before the garden of communion with God is even possible.
For the Time Being
W. H. Auden
If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember;
As long as the self can say "I," it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist, the miracle cannot occur.
For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert;
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent,
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain;
And life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.
Therefore, see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking:
The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance;
The Real is what will strike you as really absurd;
Unless you are certain you are dreaming, it is certainly a dream of your own;
Unless you exclaim -- "There must be some mistake" -- you must be mistaken.
This Sunday we will hear - surprisingly - the story of the transfiguration of Christ. Our Lord Jesus, with Peter, James and John, climb a mountain and there the Lord is transfigured before them. The Gospel says, "his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus."
How is this related to our journey to the passion and death of Christ? I asked myself the same question. Then I came across this brilliant bit from the ancient breviary (the daily prayers of the Church, the pre-1960s version). In the service of Nocturns for the feast of the Transfiguration, this was the fourth lesson (of nine). Its from the sermons of St Leo. The Transfiguration is our foretaste of the resurrection - so that we might not be completely overwhelmed by the horrors of Good Friday.
- The Lord revealed His glory before certain chosen witnesses, and brightens that bodily form which He had in common with others with such splendour, that His face was like to the sun's blaze, and His raiment all one with the snow's whiteness. In which Transfiguration this was the chief design, to remove from the hearts of the disciples the scandal of the cross, that their faith might be proof against the lowliness of His voluntary passion, by the revelation of the excellence of His hidden dignity. And it was no less a providence, that hereby the hope of the Holy Church has a sure stay, by knowing how high a change is in store for the whole body of Christ, so that the honour first shown in the Head, might be shared in anticipation by the members.