Crowding - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons


Mark 11: 1-11

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11 And when they came nigh to Jerusalem, unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount of Olives, he sendeth forth two of his disciples,

And saith unto them, Go your way into the village over against you: and as soon as ye be entered into it, ye shall find a colt tied, whereon never man sat; loose him, and bring him.

And if any man say unto you, Why do ye this? say ye that the Lord hath need of him; and straightway he will send him hither.

And they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door without in a place where two ways met; and they loose him.

And certain of them that stood there said unto them, What do ye, loosing the colt?

And they said unto them even as Jesus had commanded: and they let them go.

And they brought the colt to Jesus, and cast their garments on him; and he sat upon him.

And many spread their garments in the way: and others cut down branches off the trees, and strawed them in the way.

And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord:

10 Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.

11 And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.

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In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I can still remember, with uncomfortable clarity, the occasion on which I experienced for the first time the way in which a crowd of people can take on an identity of its own - or, to put it another way, how a crowd can become something far more powerful, and far more frightening than the sum of the individual human beings within it.

It was 30th August 1976, and a school friend and I had travelled to London for the Notting Hill Carnival.  Those of you who have memories that go back that far might remember that that was the year in which, notoriously, the Carnival descended into chaos and rioting.  Over a hundred police, and many Carnival goers were injured and needed hospital treatment.  There was violence and there was looting.   And it was frightening.  I emerged unscathed, although my female companion later discovered that at some point during the proceedings her bag had been slashed open with a knife.

I was struck at the time by the unnerving speed at which an event that had begun as a joyful celebration, on a beautiful summer's day, could change so dramatically.  At first I was simply aware of what felt like a wall of sullen brooding resentment; which then later tipped over into actual violence.  And all kinds of people - most of whom were doubtless for the most part perfectly law abiding citizens - somehow became swept up in it.  Such is the nature of a crowd.  It can take on a life of its own.

Crowds play a very significant role during the events of Holy Week.  Today, on Palm Sunday, we unite ourselves symbolically with those who greeted Jesus's entry into Jerusalem with adulation.  In St Mark's version of the story, which we heard a moment ago, this event is presented as the culmination of Jesus's ministry.  According to Mark, this was Jesus entering the Holy City for the first and final time, and we are led to understand that the whole of his ministry had been leading up to this point.

And Jesus enters the holy city as a monarch would do: instead of walking, as he did throughout the rest of his ministry, he rides on a beast that has been requisitioned, just as a monarch would have done.  And the crowds hail Jesus as their king: 'Hosanna!  Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Blessed be the kingdom of our father David that cometh in the name of the Lord.'   Jesus is surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, hailed as a triumphant hero, their long awaited saviour.  And why?  Because they are an oppressed people under foreign rule, and they believe that he is there to rescue them.

But as the events of Holy Week unfold, all this is to change.  The very crowds that greet his arrival with joy and enthusiasm on Palm Sunday, are the same crowds that on Good Friday are baying for his blood.  And that is the reason why one of the hymns that we shall be singing a little later during this service, we shall also sing here again on Good Friday.  Because it contains these words:

Sometimes they strew his way, and his sweet praises sing,
Resounding all the day 'Hosannas' to their king.
Then 'Crucify' is all their breath; and for his death they thirst and cry.

Such is the fickle nature of crowds.  Because when Jesus does not deliver for them what they had mistakenly been expecting, they turn on him.  Disappointment; disillusionment; the despising of weakness and powerlessness in one in whom they had placed all their hopes; rage; frustration; a need to see somebody suffer for their own feeling of dis-ease and distress - all those recognizable human emotions and feelings ignite.  And so they turn on him.  The terrible irony being that Jesus had indeed come as their saviour - but in a way that so subverted all of their expectations that they were completely incapable of seeing it.

One of the most challenging books I have ever read is this one: it is a book by Jonathan Glover called Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.  What Jonathan Glover does in this extraordinarily courageous book, is to chart in chilling, and horrific detail, some of the worst atrocities that human beings committed against each other during the twentieth century: the brutality of the Stalinist and Nazi regimes; the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; the atrocities of the Vietnam War and in the former Yugoslavia; the Rwandan genocide - they are all recorded here in gruesome and sickening detail.  

It is not an easy book to read.  But the purpose of the book is a profoundly important one: namely, to ask how it is that ordinary human beings - people like you and me - become capable of committing acts of such brutality.  Because the frightening truth is that, aside from the occasional deranged psychopath, it was people like you and me who were responsible.  Ordinary respectable human beings ended up working as concentration camp guards.  All it takes is for factors to come into play within a culture that systematically dismantle our basic human compassion and resistance to cruelty and violence.  And once that has happened, all of our hidden hardness of heart; our desire for revenge; our underlying resentment of others; the seduction of exercising power over the powerless, all the forces of darkness within us start to become the forces that drive us.  Lift the lid on the darkest corners of the human heart, and all kinds of uncomfortable truths can start to crawl out.  And that is what is so frightening.  

The point of celebrating Palm Sunday as we do - indeed, the point of sharing the journey through Holy Week - is not so that we can look on as observers, witnessing a re-enactment of events that took place two thousand years ago.  Rather it is a chance for us to recognize ourselves in those events.  To acknowledge that we are all somewhere on the same spectrum of human frailty and brokenness and sinfulness, whether we happen to be St Francis of Assisi or that disturbed young pilot who willfully took the lives of his passengers and fellow crew members when he crashed his plane in the Alps on Tuesday.  That is not to suggest for a moment that any of us would be either capable or desirous of doing such a horrific thing.  It is simply to point out that human life and human frailty is a spectrum. And we are all on it somewhere.

On Thursday evening I went to a concert at St Sepulchre's, just up the road from here.  It was a performance of a work called Passio - Arvo Pärt's setting of the passion narrative of St John's gospel, based on the traditional Latin text of the Bible.  It is a piece I already knew quite well from recordings, but I had never before seen it performed live.  And I had never fully appreciated before quite how powerfully it ends.

Because although the composer chooses to conclude the Biblical text that he is setting with the death of Jesus, where he says: 'It is finished': and (in the King James Bible translation) 'he bowed his head and gave up the ghost', that is not in fact where the piece ends.

Because it is followed by one final line of text, sung by the chorus and soloists together, which is devastating in its directness and its simplicity.  Little wonder that the audience sat in stunned silence before they eventually managed to applaud.

The Latin of that final line is:  Qui passus es pro nobis, miserere nobis.  Which, translated into English means: 'You who have suffered for us, have mercy upon us'.


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