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Sunday 5 April 2020: Palm Sunday

Down to earth

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

By Robin Gibbons

Greek-Catholic Priest and an Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church Oxford – he has recently celebrated 40 years of priestly ministry!

Context: a mixed congregation of all ages, Religious Sisters as well as various international families, very connected people who live out their faith

Aim: to encourage people to celebrate the whole of Holy Week in a spirit of prayer and devotion

If you ask children what happened on Palm Sunday, they will tell you the story of Jesus riding on the donkey into Jerusalem and people greeting him in triumph throwing cloaks on the ground and cutting branches to place with them. Yes, we too can sing our ‘Hosannas’ knowing that the King will, even as he enters into his passion and death, also triumphantly rise from the dead. But that is us, did the crowd have any idea this was so? Matthew gives us a portion of a prophecy to be fulfilled, that of Zechariah - and we can presume that this was understood and the actions of the crowd show that Jesus was for them somebody of great importance, the king who would come in humility, entering his city on the lowliest of creatures, a colt, the foal of a Donkey, he is even acclaimed as the Prophet from Galilee!

What importance is this Gospel for us? The palm branches, the donkey, the processions mark a day of celebration, but the liturgical week that follows is anything but, we enter into the dark deeds and negativity of deceit and sin at its most venal, when those who should know better turn bad, when loyalties are tested and justice is muddled up, even by the so called justice of the Roman Procurator and so an innocent man is executed! Is there a hint of this on this Sunday? Not really unless your church also reads the passion narrative in place of the main Gospel, but even that has a quality of oddness, a joyful procession acclaiming Jesus as King switches into the long passion narrative, and uneasy juxtaposition, so let us stay with the Jerusalemites welcoming Jesus and hear in their shouts and cries a message to take with us into Holy Week.

Saint John Henry Newman besides being a prolific theologian was also a poet, occasionally given to writing very simple lines that catch the eye and ear, one such, almost doggerel goes like this: ‘I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steeple, but God declared: “Go down again - I dwell among the people.”’ That for me is the pull of the entry into Jerusalem, in our haste to move on to the great drama of Holy Week our eyes and ears get caught up too quickly into the passion and death of Jesus, taking place on the city above us. The donkey and its colt, the children and the people call us to reflect on something else, the voice of God is calling us down amongst the people, for there we discover something necessary for our salvation! What might this be?

Let’s start by recognising that this crowd did Jesus no wrong, recognised him even if only partially, they have not denied him, or spat at or on him, or thrown lots for his clothes, they have not accused him, it’s the opposite, these little ones, the poor, the outcast, the children can only give him their joy and love and they do. It might be fanciful, but in Jesus’ reply to the ‘good’ thief who asked him for remembrance in his Kingdom, ‘Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Lk 23:43) we see the promise of the Kingdom being extended to all who come close to him particularly the little ones so loved by God.

Who then are these little ones? In the Palm Sunday Gospel, they are the children and that crowd of outcasts and poor, but they are also there in the animals, the colt that Jesus rode, travelling alongside its mother for security. Their symbolism is very prescient for us today, they represent those beasts of burden, part of our stewardship, now tragically recognised as so badly done! These beasts of burden, far more than many animals, have worked with humans for millennia, but get no thanks, little respite; the mere phrase beast of burden says it all! Yet on this Sunday they become the mounts of the King of Kings, the humblest becomes the best, and the heart of Christ reaches out to the two animals’ symbols of all creation. John Henry Newman also speaks up for them and joins them with Christ: ‘Animals have done us no harm and they have no power of resistance. Cruelty to animals is as if man did not love God. There is something so very dreadful, so Satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed us, who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power.’ On this Palm Sunday we are being bought down from our height, to the humility of finding the Saviour of the world at home with and loving creation. So must we! Hosanna!

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