As we work our way into the second year of lockdown to flatten the curve, many of us remain more or less forcibly unchurched. Well, I was that way in college, since there was no local church of my denomination, nor did I have a car available. So it was time to improvise, adapt, and overcome, as it is now for people of faith.
Our forebearers had their passion plays to act out parts of the story of the Bible, most especially the Passion of Christ. And in fact, there is a modern one that was my mainstay in college. It’s certainly not as good as the services we normally would attend this week, but it is much better than nothing, or perhaps for some of us, even reading the words and being unable to visualize what this sacrifice the God himself made to save us was like.
I hope and yes, pray, that this will remind some of you, as it did me years ago, about how much God loves us all, no matter how we have behaved. Oh, and enjoy as well, for it came out of a burst of creativity rarely seen.
In Little Gidding, Eliot describes the way in which the “brief sun flames the ice, on ponds and ditches, /in windless cold that is the heart’s heat/ reflecting in a watery mirror/ A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.” The season is “midwinter spring,” one well-known to Englishmen and women, where time is suspended “between pole and tropic.” But the poet is also referring to something else with which we are all familiar – that spiritual lukewarmness from which many of us suffer
Yesterday we considered our deafness to God; today I want to consider our blindness. In this time of trial how many of us have our eyes focussed on the news, and on each other? There is, at least to me, something shocking in the rush so many make to judgment. From the policeman telling people sitting in the park that they cannot do so, to those people themselves, congregating in numbers which rightly give cause for concern, from the person doing his or her best to comply with regulations thinly sketched, to those twitching their curtains and reporting their neighbours for going out “uneccessarily.” The cry to close down open spaces is easily made by thosen notn occupying small apartments with young children. All around we can see a rush to judgment.
We are not told that God is mercy or judgment, we are told that He is “love.” Indeed, St Johngoes as far as saying that the identifying feature of the Christian is the love we have for each other. This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that Christians have love for other Christians, but frankly, even if one accepts this narrower definition, we have to ask how many of us would be found guilty if such love were a crime; would there be enough evidence against us? There would if it were a matter of our rush to judgement; there would if it were a mater of preferring our own view to those of others; there would if it were a matter of virtue-signalling (at least in our own judgement of virtue. Yet, as Eliot reminds us, the “heart’s heat” is “windless cold.” It is that “glare” which blinds us.
We see not through agape, that love God has for all His creation, but through our own eyes. Little Gidding was where the proud Stuart, King Charles I, fled after his defeat at Naseby by the Puritans. It was, for him, a moment of humiliation to which a mixture of stubborn pride and principal had brought him. It was significant that he retreated to the religious community at Little Gidding.
Often accused of being a closet Romanist (enough to endear him to some of us), Charles I was an avowed Arminian, that is he supported those within the Church of England who emphasised continuity with its Catholic past, exemplified in particular by the episcopate. Had Charles been willing to compromise on this point, he might have saved his own life. That he did not do so is one reason why the Church of England recognises him as a Saint and Martyr. Like so many saints and martyrs, his career was one marred by sin, not least the sin of pride; but at his end, he died for something greater than himself. At the last, his blindess was lifted.
It took a greater trial than most of us have to bear to open King Charles’ eyes, but a crisis is an opportunity to turn our eyes toward God. On this, strangest of Palm Sundays, let us ponder what acts of love we might perform which would mark us as God’s. We know from the history of Christianity that it has often been the Christian response to such crises which has, indeed, convinced many of the truth that God is love. Can we, in our time, imitate what our forebears did?
I thought it would be a shame if this Christian blog did not have a post for Palm Sunday, as I noticed we didn’t this morning. And so I will do a hasty one, drawing on our collective beliefs. The one I have selected is one of Chalcedon’s from Palm Sunday in 2015. My comment on it makes a fair introduction, I think. This was my comment:
“My thinking parallels yours.The sacrifice, of course, hearkens back to the Temple but it echoes down in that far further. If an act, it echoes back to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac to God, and God’s message to him that he will provide the sacrifice, a ram, instead.
The quote in Lutheranism’s general confession is:
“We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone”
The English isn’t as beautiful as the BCP but we have the meaning right, at least. And yes, at my age it is more often “what I have left undone”. Sort of sad, really, it was much more fun to confess what I had done. 🙂”
It will soon be Palm Sunday; Lent is coming to its appointed climax. In Sunday’s Gospel we get the first sign of a something which will become more prominent on Maundy Thursday – Jesus’ fear of what awaits him: ‘Father, save me from this hour’. He would have seen crucifixions; he knew what there was to fear. Crucifixion was intended to instil fear; it was brutal, bloody and fatal. Yet it was for ‘this hour’ that Jesus had come into the world. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us so that He might be raised up as the propitiation for our sins. He died for our sins.
There is this something against which our notions of justice rail. How, we ask, can it be right for an innocent man to die for the guilty?’ What sort of Father, we wonder, sacrifices his son for rogues such as ourselves. Of late I have found praying the Sorrowful Rosary next to impossible; the envisaging of what happened to Jesus unsettles my prayer, and it is only by thinking on what was to come that I get through. But, as St Isaac reminds us, this is an act of love. There were, he tells us, many ways God could have chosen to save us, and by choosing this one, he shows us the extent of His love; I think He also shows us the extent of our sins.
Soon, then, we shall be following the familiar story of the Passion of the Lord, Perhaps its familiarity robs it of its power for us, so we might want to spend more time meditating on it. Every stripe applied to His back is a sin of mine; that Crown of Thorns he bears, they are the sting of my sins; and high on that Cross on Calvary my sins are forgiven, and through Him I am saved from my sins.
But my sins are not banished. By this stage of my life, it is more a matter, in the words of the old Anglican General Confession, of the ‘things I have not done’ rather that the things I have done. That I am conscious of that is a sign of growth I think; but it is also a sign that the journey continues. Words sometimes darken discussion.
I also commented,
“And of course Julian of Norwich, who in her illness also witnessed the scene, reminds us:
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
or so we pray in this, and all, seasons.”
My thoughts this day echo his when he ends, as I shall, “But the path to the Resurrection leads through Gethsemane and the hill at Golgotha; at times the Cross is too heavy to bear – and save for His presence would be so.”
Neo has written about leadership; in the story of the Passion of the Lord we have two examples: one is Jesus Himself; the other Pilate. If Jesus offers us a leader who is wiling to pay the ultimate price to do what is right, Pilate offers us something we see only too much of in our own world, a political leader with the instincts of the Duke of Plaza Toro – I am their leader, I must follow them.
Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea. This was not a first-class governorship. Judea was on the very edge of the Empire, and not the sort of posting given to those on the way up. Pilate, like most governors in such jobs had two priorities: to keep things quiet and make money for himself. The Romans were pragmatists. Gods? They had hundreds of them. So it was irritating that those Jews insisted there was only one of them. What was worse is they wouldn’t bend the knee to the gods of Rome. Live and let live was Pilate’s motto. He went to Judea in about AD 26, and had been there a few years when the Jews brought Jesus to him. He couldn’t see much wrong in the fellow, and he tried to find a way of avoiding blatant injustice. He was quite willing to have him flogged, but crucifying him – that was another matter.
Napoleon once said you could do anything with a bayonet – except sit on it. Imperial rule was not easy. Repression cost money, and everyday life went on because the Jewish authorities usually collaborated in making things easy for him; so his feelings about the innocence or guilt of Jesus, took second place to pragmatism. The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus crucified. Pilate didn’t want any trouble, and you can almost hear him: “Come on, give us a bit of wriggle room here, the man’s basically harmless, how about you cut me a bit of slack.” But they wouldn’t. On the one side the pragmatic politician looking for a way through; on the other men who knew what they wanted and would stick at nothing to get it. If you didn’t know, you’d be able to tell who was going to get their way, and you’d not put money on the first man.
Enter Mrs Pilate, telling him that she’s had a dream and that he should let the man be. That was all he needed, the little lady putting her oar in. Didn’t she realise he had enough trouble with those stiff-necked Jews? Clearly not. Well, only one thing to do, wash his hands of it and let it be. And it all went off well in the end. There weren’t any riots, and although there were the strangest stories that the man had not died, it caused Pilate no problems for a bit. Politics is the art of the possible. You can see him afterward with Mrs P: “Come on my dear, what else could I have done? What do you want? I did my best. Now what’s for supper, not more larks’ tongues?”
How little either of them could have realised that nearly two thousand years later more than a billion people would repeat the name of Pilate every Sunday. It is said that Alexander the Great wanted his name to live forever. Pilate had no such ambition, and yet, ironically, where it was the great daring and ambition of Alexander which ensured that his wish would be granted, it was Pilate’s lack of these things which has made his name live for ever.
[I gratefully notice that Jessica is going to pick up this theme as well today, and her post will further illuminate why this is important to our faith.]
On Palm Sunday, way back in the mid 60’s, according to the traditions of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, I became a man, with all the responsibilities to God that that carried. It was also when you traditionally got your first suit. The Sunday before was Examination Sunday, the test was verbal, in front of the congregation. This entitled me to take my First Communion on Easter Sunday, as was considered meet and right.
As always the Sanctuary was decorated in palm fronds commemorating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Also as on all special Sundays we processed behind the Pastor and Choir up the center aisle to this, Hymn No. 1 in the old E&R Hymnal.
And so I became responsible for my own everlasting fate, which up until this time had been my parents (and Godparents) responsibility.
Palm Sunday was, of course, the most triumphant day of Jesus’ ministry. With the adoring and worshipful crowds which of course would soon demand and receive his death.
What can we learn from this? General Patton put it this way:
For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. . .
A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.
We know that earthly glory is fleeting, who can recite the exploits of Edward Longshanks, or Frederick Barbarossa from memory. Sure we remember some of our forefathers (and mothers) but its only been a few generations, and we have been trained (some of us anyway) pretty well.
But what is different about the Christ, other than the Resurrection, that is. Like most troublemakers through the ages He died a common criminals death. Think about that for a moment. Within a week He went from the darling of the populace, to an executed criminal, that’s quite a fall, in any time or place.
The other thing is: He never forgot the mission. What thoughts must have been in his mind on that long ago Palm Sunday, knowing, as He did, the fate that awaited him. But He never flinched, only prayed that this fate might be averted. He knew, as did his disciples and followers in coming times, that there would be many martyrs, Saints of the Faith, if you will. There will be many more. Christianity, even more than the Judaism from which it sprang, is the religion of the oppressed, the underdog, the person who never got a fair shake in this world, the sovereign individual made in God’s image. All you have to do is: Remember the Mission and take care of your people. The shepherd of the flock. And that is more than most of us can do consistently, without God’s help, because it is one of the most difficult missions ever entrusted.
Do not fall into the trap of triumphalism, earthly glory leads to nothing but trouble. I think most of us know this instinctively. What is the thing we remember about George W. Bush? He had many faults, which most American conservatives can recite from memory. But, and it’s a huge but, he was a humble God-fearing man. To me, that is a lot of the difference between him and Barack Obama. Obama wants lives for the acclaim of the crowd, the earthly glory, one could easily call it the cult of personality. In some ways he reminds me of a magician who has managed to turn some of Christ’s miracles into mere magic tricks, for glory and money.
And so the lesson for me from this Palm Sunday is the old one that the US Air Force taught me long ago and far away:
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