Back in 1996, during the very first week that it opened, I took my elder daughter, who was then aged about five, to the National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham City Centre. One of the highlights is a 360 degree Ocean tunnel: which enables you to walk through an enormous glass tank, with sharks and rays swimming all around you on every side. And there are countless other marvellous and unimaginably bizarre sea creatures to see there. It really was, and is, amazing.
But for me the most remarkable thing of all was something that I had in fact seen many times before, both on television and in real life, but which still never ceases to astound me. Which is the extraordinary way in which an entire shoal of fish will suddenly and instantaneously change direction together – with such immaculate timing and precision that it is as if they were a single organism.
I am sure that this is a very well-charted phenomenon that is perfectly comprehensible to marine biologists, but I still find myself watching in awe and wonder – baffled about how the heck they do it. I mean, which one of those squillions of little fish is the one to decide suddenly to turn left or right, and why do all the others follow? – I have absolutely no idea.
Except that – interestingly enough – that kind of behaviour does have a parallel of sorts within human life, which you can observe when you watch people in crowds. I don’t know whether you have observed, or found yourself part of, a crowd whose mood suddenly changes. One minute everyone is happy and having a marvellous time, and then, suddenly, anger and even aggression take over.
It can be a profoundly unnerving experience, and never more so than when you find yourself caught up in it – because the mood of a crowd is highly contagious. And an individual who is part of a crowd can behave in a completely different way from the way that same individual would conduct himself or herself in isolation.
Back in 1976, I was present at the Notting Hill Carnival in the year when it descended into rioting and looting, which was a profoundly disturbing experience that I shall not forget in a hurry (although I hasten to reassure you that I remained an onlooker rather than a participant). And, as chance would have it, I am recording this sermon the morning after an anti-lockdown protest in Bristol suddenly became violent. Because it happens. Crowds are like that. Crowds can turn and change very suddenly.
And to understand Palm Sunday, and the sequence of events that it unleashes – events that we trace and re-live throughout Holy Week, it helps to know something about the psychology and the behaviour of crowds; and it also helps to know something of what was going on in the Jerusalem of Jesus’s own day, which informed that behaviour.
The people of Israel had had a difficult and turbulent history. The story that they told of themselves was of a people freed by God from slavery in Egypt and led to a land promised to them by God. As part of the deal, God bound himself and his chosen people, the Hebrews, in a covenant relationship.
But it was a relationship that repeatedly went wrong and broke down. The people established a monarchy that failed; their land became divided between Israel and Judah. They were invaded and taken over by the Assyrians and the Babylonians; their temple was destroyed; their leaders exiled. Under the Persian king, Cyrus, those in exile were permitted to return, and the temple was rebuilt; only for their land to fall under the control of the Greeks – the Seleucids and the Ptolomies – and eventually, during the time of Jesus, the Romans.
So when the people of Israel voiced their hope in the coming of a promised Messiah, a Messiah who would bring them salvation, that hope had nothing to do with their individual spiritual welfare in some kind of afterlife: on the contrary, it was about the rescue of a people, a nation, who were in a unique covenant relationship with God – and it was a hope that was very much rooted in the present – in the here and now.
In St Mark’s account of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, which we heard this morning, this is in fact the first occasion on which Jesus has entered Jerusalem at all – which heightens its dramatic effect. At Jewish festivals it was customary for pilgrims to enter the city on foot – so it is also highly significant that Jesus (who elsewhere in the Gospel walks everywhere – unless he happens to be on a boat), does not.
So for Jesus to enter the city riding an animal, as he does, highlights both his authority and his distinctiveness. And, incidentally, in the ancient world an ass was by no means deemed to be an inappropriate mount for a king. So this really was heady powerful stuff. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on an ass was an event worthy of note.
And the pilgrims who were thronging the streets for the festival, get caught up in the excitement. Their cry of ‘Hosanna’ – literally ‘Save now’ – was basically an appeal to God to bring them liberation, presumably from their foreign oppressors – but it swiftly becomes a shout of praise focussed on Jesus. You can almost touch the excitement. Could this be the long-awaited Messiah? Could it be that he has finally come into his Kingdom, to bring God’s chosen people the deliverance that they crave?
Unfortunately for those crowds Jesus turned out to be a very different kind of Messiah. One that was so remote from their yearning that they not only fail to recognise him for what he truly is, but they subsequently turn on him. Because crowds are like that. The one they exalt suddenly becomes the one they destroy; the one in whom they have placed all their hopes suddenly becomes the focus of their murderous rage, as we shall see as this coming week unfolds.
In the words of one of our most famous Passiontide hymns:
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.
So what is our task, today, in relation to all of this? I wonder if something we might all benefit from doing as we begin our journey into Holy Week, is to search for our own faces within that crowd. I wonder if we can recognise ourselves?
Because the thing about crowds is that they are both empowering and concealing. As part of a crowd you share in its strength and its exhilaration; you participate in a power that is far greater than yours alone. And yet being part of that crowd also gives you a sense of anonymity that can even dissolve all sense of personal responsibility. Any of you who have worked with young people and have had occasion to rebuke a child who was committing some felony or other, may well have heard the plea in attempted justification – ‘Well, everybody else was doing it.’ As if the responsibility lay with the group, rather than with any of the individuals within it.
And I wonder how far we are guilty of that ourselves? I, for one, have become shamefully and painfully aware of how the principal causes of climate change were allowed to run amok on my watch – when my own generation held the primary decision-making powers, both at a global level – and at an individual and personal level. I myself am responsible for how I vote, and how I choose to shop. It is always tempting to assume that these enormous things that bedevil our world are the responsibility of someone else. They are not. Because we all play a part in shaping the nature of that crowd of which we are a miniscule but integral and necessary part.
And how far is our commitment to follow Jesus driven by the benefits we think faith might bring us, rather than by our genuine willingness to walk the way of the cross regardless of where that journey leads, even if it takes us to a place where we would rather not go? And how far do we evaluate our own lives, and the worth of our own lives, in purely individualistic terms (what ‘I’ have managed to achieve – rather than what I might have managed to contribute alongside others, to the benefit of God’s world and God’s children)? Because all human beings are profoundly interconnected.
I shall leave you with an observation by the present the Dean of Westminster Abbey, David Hoyle, in a piece he wrote specifically on the subject of Palm Sunday:
To live fully, to live together, we have to give up our ambition and our obsession with power. Not just the obsession a few have for the butch and bruising forms of power, but the sly, beguiling kinds of power: the moral advantage, the intellectual edge, the wounded look, the over-extravagant apology, even the writhing determination to let others make the decisions. We have to give up all of it. Truth and grace do not barter.
Our Palm Sunday procession, our Palm Sunday gospel and the hosannas we sing recreate the way of the cross. They invite us to make a journey into a different kind of humanity and it is filled with risk.