We Brits love pomp and ceremony, marches and processions, and we are good at them. Think of the Trooping of the Colour or any great state occasion and its easy to be swept along by the pomp and pageantry. We like pomp and pageantry at the local level as well: weddings normally begin and end with a procession or march, at funerals the deceased is normally processed in with dignity and reverence, and of course, most Sundays we process the cross into church, lifting it high for all to see and reverence. Pomp, ceremony, pageantry are all important in so far as they lead us into a spirit of reverence and respect capturing a sense of either joy or sadness. Of course when they are performed uncritically for their own sake they run the risk of being mere pomp but without the sense of circumstance.
Today, Palm Sunday, the gospel reading describes Jesus’ triumphant procession into the City of Jerusalem; the Holy City. And its a funny old procession that we are asked to consider and reflect on. The pageantry is of an unusual and earthly sort. The only flags that the great multitude have to wave are their own clothes; their cloaks. This is, for me, deeply symbolic, for what we too are asked to give back to Jesus, above all else, is our very selves, our ordinary selves. Our marches and processions should, amidst their pomp, also have an earthiness about them.
Like the original Palm Sunday congregation we too are called on to reverence and acclaim Jesus. The crowd, we are told, chanted ‘blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ These words are so important that we are asked to repeat them each and every Sunday before we make our weekly ceremonial procession to receive and share in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Do we come to the Eucharist with that sense of Hosanna pounding in our hearts? If we don’t perhaps we have succumbed to the temptation to engage with the pomp but without any sense of circumstance?
The story of the Palm Sunday Procession, I think, needs to be read in the light of, and alongside, Jesus’ other great procession: the Good Friday Procession. The procession he makes to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the rubbish mound outside Jerusalem where he is to be cruelly crucified alongside two bandits, one who asks for and receives mercy, and the other who doesn't. The Palm Sunday crowd, with their folk pageantry, are right to acclaim Jesus, but in a sense they do so without any real sense of circumstance. The Palm Sunday crowd want a Messiah, for sure, but a very limited Messiah, and a Messiah of their own making. They want and desire a Messiah that will deliver them from Roman rule, but that’s all. Their definition of freedom and liberty is restricted; sort out the politics and everything else will be okay, we will be free to live as we want to live (and aren’t we still tempted by this most mythical of propositions?). But they, or we, are wrong for true freedom, real liberty, real truth is to be won at the climax of Jesus’ second Holy Procession; the procession to the cross. But, we mustn’t be too harsh because although Jesus has provided lots of hints as to his final destiny, all has not yet been revealed.
But, we do know. We do know that Jesus had to lead two very different processions in Holy Week. We also know that it was ‘on the Cross as Jesus died that the love of God was glorified,’ and it is because we know this that we are able to either say or sing that great processional anthem ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest,’ as we prepare to make our own Eucharistic procession. The events of Palm Sunday, as I have already suggested, need I think, to be read in the light of Good Friday. Both processions included their own distinct pomp and pageantry. On Palm Sunday Jesus was hailed as the Messiah, but on Good Friday he was dismissed as a failure. The crowd, including the apostles and disciples, proved to be fickle, scared, self-interested. Jesus' second procession was made largely alone, but it was a no less glorious procession.
Can I finish by inviting you to stay close to Jesus this week. Do come on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to the Eucharists, the harrowing, haunting Eucharists, so that come next Sunday we can all sing together with true gladness in our hearts that great song of reverence and praise:
‘Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.’
Over the coming Holy Week let’s enter into the pomp and pageantry of the church, but always with a sense of circumstance,