Palm Sunday opens the events of Holy Week, with the Triduum, its three central days, at its heart. And we are blessed to be able to share this together in such a beautiful place.
The triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on a donkey as portrayed in the gospels, also prepares us for the week ahead. But how is it a preparation? What does it reveal that we need to hear as we journey through the darkness and the light which Holy Week represents?
Central to the message of Palm Sunday is an act of subversion. The imperial parades of Rome, with the new emperor entering the city as a display of a new ruler, are turned on their head by this depiction of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The imperial pomp and ceremony are subverted from within, so to speak, by the gospel writers alluding to these imperial parades, but putting the true King on a donkey and carrying with him a message which will accompany us throughout Holy Week, namely, that in death is life that in powerlessness divine power is revealed.
Like all subversive stories, that which is expected is undermined by the arrival of the unexpected. The entry of Jesus, the King, an entry into rejection, derision, and ultimately into his own death, which we have heard proclaimed in the reading of the passion today, will enact the ultimate triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, of God over evil. Palm Sunday disrupts the imperial Roman narrative of power and triumph by revealing it to be a symbol for the way in which the world thinks, and not only the Roman world. Even today, after thousands of years of hearing this story the world fails to hear its message as it pursues a course of violence and oppression. The advent of war on European soil, a reality which had seemed almost unimaginable only a short time ago, has reminded us that God’s ways are not our ways, and the chief priests and the Pharisees of our own day, are still working to do away with the Lord of peace (as we heard in our Gospel reading this evening).
In such a context it is not an indiscreet question to ask, what effect Palm Sunday and the Holy Week event have had on human history. Might it be a good story, but only that? A kind of ancient fairy tale we have told ourselves to cope with the real truth that violence and force ultimately control things. In darker moments, and Holy Week leads us into these darker moments, it can seem like this, as all we have believed in crumbles, and our lives seem to fall apart, as it did for Jesus and the apostles.
Perhaps a more manageable way to engage with this question might be, through scaling it down to more human proportions, and asking the question, what effect Holy Week has had on my life? How has the process of Holy Week inaugurated a transformation in me? Because if the story of Palm Sunday is to subvert the imperial stories of triumphant entry into the city, I have to appropriate it in my life, into the imperial narratives living within my own soul. The lingering fear that it may be just one of those fairy tales is no doubt an echo within us of the fears and doubts we all have from time to time about our faith, that it is simply a comforting illusion. Perhaps even Jesus had been tempted in this way.
This might well be true, of course, if faith for us, is like that, a kind of comfort blanket to wrap ourselves up in to make things seem alright. But faith in God is not like that. As I am sure each of us know from our own faith journeys, it is more like a roller coaster ride in the dark, where you never quite know where the twists and turns are, or more to the point, the ups and downs.
Faith in God is trust in the architect of the journey who through these ups and downs will lead us to Joy, the joy of the Resurrection. It is not a talisman which protects us from the ups and downs, a palliative that makes the pain go away. It may, in fact, lead us into tragedy, into pain, into all that life throws up on any of life’s mystery tours.
Another message we can take from Palm Sunday is that fickleness, the tendency to lean into the easy way, to go with the crowd, is part and parcel of the human condition. Those very same crowds cheering Jesus as he enters into Jerusalem, who will later shout for him to be crucified also represent us as we recoil from entering into those dark spaces of life because it is too painful. The call to follow the way of the cross is not something we follow by nature, but only by grace, and the extent to which we intuit this is the degree to which the grace of Holy Week have soaked into us.
Yet, the survival instinct, drummed into us as a species over thousands of years of evolution, resits this letting go of our lives and handing ourselves over to God. It really is not a natural thing to do this and so we should not be surprised that we seem to be so bad at it. Were we to be good at it, we might be tempted to think we can do this. But in reality, we cannot. It is a gift which only God can give us and we need to ask God for this grace so that our entry into Jerusalem with Jesus is an entry into his Holy Week, and not into our various evasions of it.
So, as we plunge beneath the baptismal waters of Holy Week, let us pray for one another that this time together may better enable us to receive its graces, namely, a true sorrow at the sufferings of our Lord, and of those of our brothers and sisters who are living their own Holy Weeks at this time, a faithful hope that God will not let us fall into the pit of eternal destruction, and an incomparable joy in the promise of the resurrection. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen