Palm Sunday: Luke 19, 28-40 Pomp and circumstance
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,
Mothering Sunday – it’s not mother’s day
Mothering Sunday, also known as Easement Sunday, is an interesting day in the church’s year, or at least I think it is! Well, come on, it is far more interesting than, say, the 17th Sunday of Trinity! Historically it was the day that domestic servants were given the day off (after making sure they had prepared enough food for the big house to cope whilst they took their short break) so that they could visit their own families and their own ‘mother church'; the church in which they were baptised.
The concept of Mother’s Day is a much later, secular, invention. Mothering Sunday, whilst of course allowing us to celebrate and give thanks for our own mothers, does however allow us a rare opportunity to think of God in the feminine, and this is important when so much of our God talk, our religious discourse, is highly masculine. God, we should remember, can only be described within the confines of language and should not be reduced by the limitations of language. God also transcends all human binaries; the bible makes this abundantly clear. In an increasingly high octane, alpha male-dominated environment it is good to reflect on the nature of the ‘divine feminine', allowing ourselves to be nurtured by the ‘divine feminine'. The church perhaps needs to recapture the essence of the ‘divine feminine’ for, as Augustine of Hippo said, perhaps in a challenge to the male of the species because Augustine was nurtured into the faith by his mother Monica, ‘he who does not have the church as his mother does not have God as his father.’
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus also had an incredibly high regard of his mother; the mother who was literally the God bearer and who raised Jesus and whose fidelity led her to stand at the foot of the cross. If we as 21st century Christians desire to see a bigger and better church, we must like Mary be prepared to give birth to Christ, to make Jesus real, by walking the way of the cross, for it is on the cross that Jesus exemplifies the essence of motherhood through his final act of compassion: his care for his mother and the beloved disciple. It is in this moment that the tradition of ‘mother church’ is born.
So what is this mother church to look like? Or perhaps the better question is how is this mother church to relate and behave? St. Paul provides the answer: we are to be holy, beloved (that is to know that we are truly loved just as Mary knew through Jesus’ words from the cross and that she was truly loved), compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient. And here’s the paradox: when we are all of these things then we are truly strong; strong and resilient, just like Mary, just like the Mary who was there at Jesus’ birth and at his death. When we commit to allowing these virtues to take shape in our hearts under the ‘inspiration of the Holy Spirit,’ then we become the sort of people who love as God would have us love, we become the sort of people who again like Mary can hold all things, even life and death, together in harmony. We become the sort of people who live by a better, grander, more Godly story. We become the sort of people who enable, reconcile and build up. We become wise.
So today let us reflect on the life and ministry of Mary and countless women through the ages, on notions of the ‘divine feminine’ and ‘mother church’. Let us, as St. Paul encourages us, ‘be thankful;’ thankful for all who have nurtured, encouraged and mothered us, and for the example of Blessed Mary, that incredible mother who gave birth to Jesus and remained faithful to him even to the cross. Let us recommit this Mothering Sunday to being compassionate, kind, humble and meek so that we, the Church, can mother a deeply fractured and disjointed world, a world which seems to lack any sense of ‘harmony;’ a world that desperately needs to know that it is ‘beloved;’ a world desperate to live within ‘the peace of Christ.’
Third Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 55, 1-9, 1 Corinthians 10, 1-13 and Luke 13, 1-9
We live in a world where we are used to hearing shocking and barbaric stories; the recent events in Christchurch, New Zealand, being a poignant and heart rending example. We also live in a world where so called leaders do appalling things to their own people and trample all over their God-given dignity and rights; just think of Syria. We live in a world that is in many ways characterised by injustice and violence. And we deceive ourselves if we think that barbarism and atrocity are solely features of life in other countries. Extremism, hatred and cruelty permeate, sadly, in our society; think of the rise in knife crime. We also live in a world where many, many, people are discriminated against, sometimes explicitly, sometimes because we fail to speak out, simply on the basis of who they are. We live in a world where power and authority are frequently used for the worst of reasons. As a church we need to face up to this and be honest.
Horror, atrocity and the refusal to let people simply be who they are has always been a feature of life. Sadly it’s often, as we know, a distinct feature of life for those who profess a religious faith. Again think of the Muslim community in Christchurch, or the Coptic Church in Egypt. Being a Christian in middle England, is, it has to be said, somewhat easier. But against this we do need to acknowledge the fact that the church has, and continues to be, a place not of affirmation, but fear, for many, many people. Sadly, not all feel welcome in church. Sadly we know that people have been abused and sidelined by the Church.
In this church we strive to provide an unconditional welcome. We may not always succeed, but real and true hospitality is one of our three aspirations. I long for a church where all may flourish and none need fear. In Isaiah’s terms I long for a church where ‘all may come without price,’ (where price means the sacrifice of their very souls) and where all may ‘eat what is good and delight in rich food.’ I long for a church and a world where all will truly know, as St. Paul puts it, that ‘God is faithful.’ Will you join me in these aspirations and longings? I have never been more convinced than I am now that what the world needs is a good, virtuous and healthy church; a model community that is manifestly and obviously the body of Christ on earth, showing to the world a better way, a deeply relational way, that says to all ‘you are welcomed, you are valued.’ If we commit to this way of being, and offer this way of belonging, the good news is that we – the church - will discover for ourselves that God is indeed both faithful and merciful. We will discover that God hasn’t given up on us, and that God is both with us and for us. We will know for ourselves what it really means to ‘delight’ in our faith.
Committing to this way of being, and offering this way of belonging is, for me, the heart of repentance. Repentance isn’t a trivial word, it doesn’t just mean saying sorry for minor misdoings, although it might include this. It means instead a complete turning away from the abuse of power as personified by the likes of Pilate and a commitment to grow in holiness. It means adopting the very characteristics of the Christ who refused to give way to the vicious, humanity-denying, antics of Pilate and instead aligned himself with the weak, marginalised and down trodden. Repentance means keeping our eyes fixed on God and allowing ourselves, through our spiritual nutrients: prayer, reading the bible and sharing in the sacraments (the rich food Isaiah talks about) to be truly transformed, so that we become more Christ-like. Repentance, as the Prayer of Preparation so beautifully puts it, is all about allowing the ‘thoughts of our hearts,’ to be ‘cleansed,’ through the ‘inspiration of the the Holy Spirit.’ If we don’t take these practices seriously, if we don’t live by the ‘inspiration’ or in-spriting, ‘of the Holy Spirit’, we the Church, will be of no earthly use whatsoever. These are the practices, the daily practices, that build up our resilience. They are both the antibodies and the ‘rich food’ that allow us to keep going when all seems futile, when we feel that we are being tested ‘beyond strength,’ so that we can be of earthly use; so that we can bring something of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ into the here and now.
As I have said before, Jesus established the church to be the 5th Gospel, the living testimony to the all encompassing love of God. The way we get there, the way we become the 5th Gospel, is by taking the notion of repentance to heart. The good news is that if we do this we will testify ‘to the glorious, loving, life-giving freedom of God, known in Christ, full of the Spirit – generous, open and accepting of all comers?’ We will be of real and enduring earthly use.
So, let’s do it. Let’s repent.
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