Palm Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday

The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, which we celebrate today, is one of the most well-known events in the Gospels.  And two things in particular stand out about it.  Firstly, as we all know, when the adoring crowd greet Jesus, they do so waving palm branches.  And secondly, they greet Jesus with a very distinctive cry - a cry of 'Hosanna!  That's what we know happened on Palm Sunday.

So just to see how carefully you were listening: in St Luke's Gospel, which is the version that we have just heard - did you spot the two unexpected omissions from the story?  Firstly, there are no references anywhere to palm branches (or indeed, to the waving of anything else for that matter) - and secondly, although the crowd certainly greets Jesus with shouts of adulation, at no point do its members cry 'Hosanna'.  How very odd!

Each of the four evangelists -the Gospel writers - gives us a slightly different take on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, emphasizing different truths about the story.  And Luke's version of the entry into Jerusalem is distinctive in several very interesting ways.

To begin with, the crowd.  All the other Gospel writers give the impression that the crowd that greeted Jesus was a real mixture of folk - pilgrims attending the festival mingling with the general population - and all of them caught up in the excitement of the arrival of Jesus.  Luke, on the other hand, tells us that, far from being a random collection of people, those hailing Jesus as their king were in fact a large gathering of Jesus's own disciples.  He says this:

As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.

And then, to underline the point, Luke goes on to report that the Pharisees, looking on, say to Jesus, 'Teacher, restrain your disciples', to which Jesus replies, 'I tell you, if these were silent the very stones would cry out.' 

Why does Luke do this?  Because by shifting the focus as he does, he can highlight the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as the culmination, the pinnacle of everything that has taken place in his ministry so far.  The disciples are singing with joy, Luke tells us, 'for all the deeds of power that they had seen.'  So the crowd of disciples are those who know the truth, who know who Jesus really is, because they have seen it with their own eyes.  And so, instead of being a random gathering of individuals who just happen to get caught up in the excitement without really knowing what is going on, for Luke these are people who know precisely what they are doing when they proclaim Jesus as king.

And what of the strange omission of both palm branches and cries of 'Hosanna' in Luke's version?  Rather than describe them waving palms, Luke focusses instead on the fact that people spread their cloaks on the road before Jesus.  This appears to be a direct allusion to an Old Testament theme - an incident in 2 Kings, where garments are laid under a new monarch when he is proclaimed king, as a symbol of the people's submission to his royal authority.  In other words by majoring on this image, Luke highlights the theme of Jesus's kingship still further.  And Luke's omission of the word 'Hosanna' may simply be because Luke's readers were primarily those who knew little Hebrew or Aramaic, so he tends to avoid using words that would be unfamiliar to them when recounting the story of Christ. 

But it is also interesting to note what Luke's crowd shouts instead of 'Hosanna'.  Because in his version their cry is: 'Blessed is he who comes as king in the name of the Lord, Peace in Heaven, glory in highest heaven'- 'Peace in Heaven, glory in highest heaven' - a cry that calls to mind the song of the heavenly host to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside at the birth of Jesus, earlier in Luke's Gospel.  That angelic song celebrated the coming of Christ into the world.  This time the cry of celebration marks the coming of the Prince of Peace into his kingdom.

But for me, the most striking thing of all about Luke's account of the entry to Jerusalem is what happens next.  Because it is in Luke, and only in Luke that we then read this:

When [Jesus] came in sight of the city, he wept over it and said, 'If only you had known this day the way that leads to peace!  But no; it is hidden from your sight'.

Jesus weeps for the holy city; the city where his destiny lies; a city that craves peace, but, perversely, will greet the coming of the Prince of Peace by inflicting upon him torture, humiliation and death.

Back in 2003, a film starring Julia Roberts went on general release called Mona Lisa Smile.  And there is one scene in that film that had quite a profound effect upon me at the time.  If you haven't seen it, the story is set in the 1950s, in a very exclusive but rather stuffy and conservative women's college in the United States.  Two of the central characters are college girls called Betty and Giselle, who could not be more different.  Betty is very beautiful, very arrogant, and very full of herself, and she has recently married a highly eligible young man with prospects, whom she parades as the ultimate trophy.  She has a wonderful new home with all modern conveniences, and, confident that she has it all, is scathing about any girl who might aspire to anything else.  That is Betty.

 And Betty and her family despise Giselle, not only because she is a much freer spirit, open to the whole range of possibilities that life might offer her, but also because she is Jewish.  However, Giselle knows something that Betty doesn't.  Giselle has discovered by chance that Betty's wonderful trophy husband is being unfaithful to Betty.  Betty's idyllic lifestyle is in fact nothing of the sort.  It is an edifice built on sand.

 And at the heart of the film there is an extraordinary scene in which the powerful, arrogant, super-confident Betty suddenly, and with little provocation, lays into Giselle with the most devastating and aggressive verbal abuse, some of it explicitly anti-Semitic.  You can see from Giselle's face how appalled she is to be on the receiving end of such a tirade of sheer hatred.  Surely this must be the moment when Giselle, (who, remember, has the power to destroy Betty by revealing her husband's infidelity), finally retaliates.

Betty's outpouring of hatred continues, and suddenly Giselle lunges at her - one assumes, in order to strike her.  Except that she doesn't.  Far from striking Betty, which many people in Giselle's position would have felt like doing, Giselle instead takes the raging Betty in her arms and holds her.

And, in an instant, Betty's rage dissolves into tears; and she clings to Giselle, and sobs, finally able to share what she has in fact already realized about the truth of her situation, but has been unable to face - and saying of the husband she has so proudly and arrogantly paraded before all her friends - 'He doesn't love me.'

What is astonishing about this scene is that despite being the victim of Betty's appalling tirade of hatred and abuse, Giselle can see beyond it to the frightened, lonely, desperate young woman that Betty really is.  Which is why instead of retaliating, she reaches out to her abuser in love and compassion.  And in so doing, she not only dissolves Betty's rage - but she sets her free.

And that is how the Prince of Peace works, too.  Not through meeting aggression with aggression, but by embracing those who do him actual harm.  By meeting the worst and most appalling atrocities that his enemies can impose upon him, with love and forgiveness.  By seeing beyond the pain that they inflict, to the hurt and fear and despair that they are feeling - which is the truth that sets them free.  Which is the truth that sets us all free.

But that is a hard, hard road to follow.  Which is perhaps why it was that when he saw the city that was his destiny, Jesus wept. 



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