Palm Sunday reflection

This is a reflection I put together for my church, Urban Abbey, in Thunder Bay for this past Sunday.

Since ancient times, Palm Sunday has had two Gospel readings—a short reading for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and then a long reading of a passion narrative, recounting Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution at the hands of sinners. The English word passion comes from the Latin passio, the word for suffering. This suffering and death, recounted to us in Mark 14:1-15:47 in today’s Gospel, is something that I have meditated on in these reflections the past few Sundays, pointing to Jesus, high and lifted up, glorious and dead, saving us, drawing us to the Father with whom he now reigns in glory.

A surface reading of this passage in Mark shows us a beaten man, dying unjustly under the thumb of an imperial power. Yet when we unite this with the events of Palm Sunday, something starts to peek out, as the crowd calls, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25, 26) and our Lord’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zechariah 9:9). On Palm Sunday we glimpse Jesus as the King of Israel, the Messiah, the anointed one of the God of Israel.

Philippians 2:5-11 brings out the deep meaning of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This passage is thought to actually be an early Christian hymn incorporated by St Paul from the church’s worship into his letter. Here we read that although Jesus was “in the form of God” he chose to “take on the form of a slave”. Most modern English Bibles have “servant” here—the ESV unhelpfully gives us the antiquated word “bondservant” in the notes as an option for “servant”. The Greek is doulos. It means slave. It’s worth thinking on this mystery.

Jesus is fully God—completely and utterly God, as much God as the Father is God. Anything we can say about God we can say about the Christ: immortal, invisible, wise, almighty, eternal, omniscient, just, loving, merciful, compassionate, infinite. He is also fully man—that is the upshot of Philippians 2:7, that he has the “form of a slave” and was made “in the likeness of human beings.” God in His very Self knows precisely what it means to be the lowest of the low—there is no one in ancient society lower than the slave. A Roman slave was the legal property of another human being. It was part of the regular process of Roman law to simply torture slaves if they were witnesses at trials—not even if they were defendants. If a master was killed by a slave, the entire household of slaves was liable for the murder and put to death; they should have known better or done better to protect him. This is how far God chose to come down to be with us.

God knows everything about being human—he is not aloof.

For us to consider to how deep the love of God the Word for us is, the next verse brings us to the cross—”he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) First, Christ our God took on the form of a slave, the lowest of human society. And then he did not merely suffer, he died. And he did not merely die, he died the death reserved for the lowest of the worst criminals. Romans crucified those they considered the scum of the earth, such as Spartacus and 6000 of his fellow slave rebels, the thieves and murderers on either side of Jesus, or 2000 Jews who rebelled against the Romans around the time when Jesus was born. It is a terrible way to die, as many Good Friday sermons enjoy describing for us.

Just as a reminder, here are of some of the divine attributes ancient Christians and Jews believed in and passed along to us—God is immortal. God cannot suffer. God is eternal. God is infinite. As Charles Wesley put it: “’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”

What is the result in the divine plan of his action in human history, his taking on our flesh and dying as one of us? “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) Because of the basic nature and order of the universe, humans and the rest of the creation are meant for loving and worshipping God; as has been said, our main purpose in life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” In falling away from the worship of God, we have fallen from our truest life, and therefore we have gone away from our truest joy and happiness and source of contentment.

Part of our salvation is for God’s glory because, when we give glory to God, we are living our best life now. This is what the Paradise we lost was and what the Paradise we shall regain is going to be. Following Jesus means going through suffering to glory. The grand narrative of the Bible is not simply creation to fall to redemption, but also from redemption to glory, to the new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation.

Let us now go back to Philippians 2:5. I quote my own translation, “Therefore, let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” From here, St Paul describes the mind that was in Christ Jesus. Ethics and theology are intimately united in the Bible. The ethics that flow from the theology that I have just described, the way of living that we disciples (or better, apprentices) are called to follow by our master and teacher, is given in Philippians 2:6-11. We are called not to grasp for power and authority but to pour out our whole selves in love for others. We are called to humble ourselves and deny ourselves daily. To take up our cross and follow Him—Jesus the Messiah, God the Son, Saviour, Lord, Prophet, Priest, King. His mind is a mind filled with loving humility, with humble love.

Humility, of course, is a strong biblical virtue, and through the centuries, disciples of Jesus have had much to say on the subject. Since we at the Urban Abbey follow a version of the Rule of the seventh-century Irish abbot St Columbanus, I thought I would commend some of his words to you this Palm Sunday:

if … we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to heal the poisons of pride and envy and vain glory, through the teaching of our Saviour Who says for our example, “Learn of Me for I am meek and lowly of heart’’ (Matt. 11. 29), and so on, then let us all, made perfect with no further blemish, with hatred rooted out, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another’ (cf. John 13. 35) with our whole heart. (Letter II.4)

The only pathway to humility, as with all virtue, is grace. St Columbanus reminds us of God’s grace in his third sermon, where he urges those pursuing eternal life to

call on God’s grace to help [your] striving; for it is impossible for anyone to acquire by his own efforts alone what he lost in Adam. (Sermon III.2)

In closing, here is the prayer of the day (called a “collect”) for Palm Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, bringing together many of these themes:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

Holy Week by the (Prayer) Book

Inspired by the post I shared from Biltrix about spending Holy Week in the daily readings, I thought I would post each day this week, drawing from the collects (special prayers for the day to collect our thoughts) and readings from the Book of Common Prayer. I missed yesterday (hence my re-post of a sonnet by Malcolm Guite in its stead earlier), so allow me to begin today with a few words of introduction.

It could be argued that the heart of the Prayer Book is not Cranmer’s soaring Tudor prose, nor is it the subtle reformational yet catholic Augustinian theology, but the Bible — consider how much of the book is taken up with the Psalter on the one hand and with the collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the Lord’s Supper on the other. And, of course, an important way the BCP differs from its mediaeval forebears is its daily lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer, which thrusts the reading of Scripture into the forefront of the office. Finally, of course, the liturgies themselves include entire passages of Scripture as part of them as well as phrases, words, and concepts of Scripture woven throughout the finely crafted prayers.

So if we’re doing Holy Week by the Prayer Book, then the selected readings are a most important part.

The tenor for Holy Week by the Prayer Book is set by the collect, and lived in the readings. I am using the Canadian 1962 BCP, for those who are interested. And here we have, Monday through Thursday, the same collect (with an added one on Maundy Thursday):

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The readings for Holy Communion today are Isaiah 63:7-9 and Mark 14, which is the beginning of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day, in fact, we read part of a passion narrative. Sunday: Matthew. Monday-Tuesday: Mark. Wednesday-Thursday: Luke. Friday: John. Saturday: The deposition and burial from Matthew.

Morning and Evening Prayer move us to the Cross as well. The Second Lesson (the New Testament reading) is from the Gospel of John at both offices every day, moving through the teachings of Our Lord at the Last Supper, His prayer in the Garden, His arrest.

The Book of Common Prayer is Christocentric and crucicentric overall. This week, these two centres of the book come out and come to the fore. There is nothing more worthy to consider, nothing more important to reflect on and pray through, than this. These Gospel lessons are woven together with prophetic readings from the Old Testament and with the reflections of the Epistles, bringing us to the climax of sorrow on Good Friday.

And as we feel the words of the hymn “never was grief like thine,” (“My Song Is Love Unknown”), as we consider the “Christ’s side-piercing spear”, we read and pray Psalms. Today, Psalms 20 and 21 (yet not 22: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”). The cross is the victory of God over the power of sin and death, especially when seen as part of the fullness of these days, in light of the power of Easter. And so, as we read the Passion narratives, we pray these words of Scripture:

We will rejoice in thy salvation, and triumph in the Name of our God: the LORD perform all thy petitions.

Now know I that the LORD helpeth his anointed, and will hear him from his holy heaven, even with the wholesome strength of his right hand.

Some put their trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the Name of the LORD our God.

They are brought down, and fallen; but we are risen and stand upright.

O LORD, save the king, and mercifully hear us when we call upon thee. (Ps. 20:6-9)

Hopefully you will find time in your devotional life to take the BCP’s cue and meditate on his priceless death, on the blood shed for our sin, on the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

Reflecting back on this week of poems of the Passion

Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)
Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

This week of mediaeval (plus Ambrose) poetry began with Theodulf of Orleans’ triumphal eighth-century hymn in J M Neale’s wonderful Victorian rendering, ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour.’

But the earthly triumph of Palm Sunday so quickly turns to Good Friday, to ignominy and death.

In Holy Saturday, Christ’s body rests in the tomb, cold and dead.

The scattered disciples are probably in hiding.

We, however, have a different perspective because of tomorrow, when all the promises of God are fulfilled in Our Lord’s Resurrection. Western Christian hymnody and devotional poetry demonstrate this perspective, that the cross — a historical action filled with shame and defeat — is, in fact, the true triumph of God in his upside-down kingdom.

And so, in the light of this knowledge, St Ambrose, in the fourth century, composed a hymn to be sung at the Third Hour of prayer — and not just on Good Friday:

This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.

Christ trampled down death by death on the Cross. He destroyed the power of sin and the devil. God entered into the fullness of human experience in Christ. It is victorious, as Fortunatus demonstrated to us on Tuesday, where the juxtaposition of the ‘standards of the King’ and the ‘mystery of the cross’ remind us of this victory over the forces of evil wrought for us on the tree.

Wednesday brought us the Ruthwell Cross with its inscription, yet another hymn bringing the royal aspect of Christ’s death to the fore of our thoughts.

And then on Thursday, I diverged from the passion hymns. I gave us a Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and liturgist of the feast of Corpus Christi. Whether we believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation enshrined by Innocent III in 1226 or not, I believe that faithful Christians can stand behind Aquinas in ‘Pange, Lingua’ — Christ is present to us in the Eucharist; ‘This is my body’. And so, we turn from his body broken, bleeding, sorrowing, sighing, dying, on the Cross to his body present to us in the bread and the wine:

Fac me cruce inebriari. Et cruore Filii. -Innocent III

Make me drunk with the cross and the blood of the Son.

And then, Good Friday, when at the Third Hour the King of Glory ascended his throne, his sole earthly crown an instrument of torture, came the poem that inspired me to put together this assembly, the Middle English devotional poem, ‘Man and woman, look on me.’ This poem is a graphic reminder that Christ’s blood washes away our sins.

And as we meditated on Christ in our hearts, I provided art to look upon literally. All save the Giotto on Palm Sunday were photos I took in the churches and museums of continental Europe. The devotional life of mediaeval Europe was powerfully, mightily crucicentric. Maybe, sometimes, too much.

Yet on that Cross, the saviour died. God bled out.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

And so we have the ivory carvings, Gothic retables, stone crosses, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations of European devotion. So our physical eyes can behold what our spirits feast upon — the efficacious sacrifice of the Saviour.

If we enter into the blood and the gore and the sorrow and the pain of Good Friday, into the crown of thorns, the nail-pierced limbs, the spear in the side, how much more may we enter into the joy of glorious Easter and the empty tomb, the resurrected Saviour and the conquest of death.