Palm Sunday marks the beginning of what is called Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ passion and death. Eight days that changed the world – that’s how Holy Week has been described. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode down the slopes of the Mount of Olives on a donkey, surrounded by His cheering followers. ‘Hosanna’, they shouted. ‘Who is this?’ the bystanders asked. His proud and joyful Galilean disciples answered, ‘This is the prophet, Jesus, from Galilee.’ For them, the Messiah had arrived, and was about to announce His presence in the City of God, Jerusalem. The years of heathen domination and of collaboration by a corrupt religious elite were about to be over, and the victory of God’s anointed one would be complete.
Yet, by Friday, that dream appeared to be in tatters. The city had not responded as they hoped to the prophet from Galilee. There was curiosity, interest even. But few seemed prepared to nail their colours to the mast. When the temple authorities made their move, the only response by the majority of Jesus’ followers was to run away. Denial, betrayal, false accusations, all followed, until the final dark moments on a hill called Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where the would-be Messiah was crucified. No wonder, on that Sunday morning on the Mount of Olives, Jesus wept over the city. ‘If only they had known!’
These eight days are at the heart of the Christian faith, and pretty well encompass the whole range of human emotions. To live through them, in liturgy, in imagination, in music and in prayer, is to share in the deepest mystery of human history – and the most glorious revelation. Mel Gibson’s graphic film, ‘The Passion of Christ’, if nothing else, at least focused attention on the central element of Christian faith, the crucifixion of Jesus. Many churches, ours included, have Services throughout Holy Week that enable Christians to relive the events of this crucial time in Church’s calendar. Yet we only have to compare the size of most congregations on Easter Day with the turn out on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday to conclude that, for many Christians, let alone the general public, the agony, arrest, trial, scourging and eventual crucifixion of the Saviour of the world are quietly bypassed. After Palm Sunday, it all tends to fizzle out until the great celebration of Easter Day. In one way, Easter celebrates itself, but the problem is that the real joy of that celebration will elude us if we have glossed over the darker or more challenging elements of the Holy Week story.
Yet all the Gospel writers give far more space to the events of these eight days than to anything else in Jesus’ life. And for those people who are prepared to set aside Holy Week as genuine preparation for Easter, the possibilities are endless. Each day, Jesus was engaged with different groups of people – each day the tension builds as there are words of encouragement or warning. As Maundy Thursday approaches, it’s possible to sense the dark forces closing in on Jesus.
So, starting today with Palm Sunday, let’s think for a minute about the cheering crowd. If you’ve ever been to a football match you’ll know that the behaviour of crowds can sometimes be unpredictable. The same crowd that cheers a player when he scores a goal can curse him when he misses a penalty. Any sports star or celebrity can testify to the fact that crowds, bound together in adulation, can quickly turn nasty, especially if you don’t meet their expectations. Holy Week begins here because it’s obvious that those who set Jesus up will do Him down. That’s how crowds work. Ask any national politician, celebrity or sports star.
And Jesus is no crowd pleaser. Jesus is a disturber of crowds. He doesn’t want their praise: He wants their commitment. The crowd expected a Messiah who would bring liberation from Roman oppression, but Jesus isn’t that sort of Messiah; He announces liberation into the Kingdom of Heaven; a liberation that occurs through forgiveness, non-violence, suffering and death. Jesus is God’s anointed one, but He is anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, not victory in battle. It’s not what the crowd expect. So Jesus enters Jerusalem, not on a war horse, but on a donkey, to claim not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.
How many times have we hoped for a more powerful Messiah? One who would wreak revenge on those who have hurt us badly. One who would right all the wrongs in the world. We need to think carefully about what the events of Holy Week tell us about the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship and about the nature of God.
The message of Easter is severely distorted if we transform Jesus into an eloquent preacher, charismatic healer and friend of the oppressed, all of which He was, whilst side-lining that which He saw as His primary mission, the crown and glory of His life, His death on the cross at the hands of sinful humanity. Jesus saw Himself as the ‘suffering servant’ of the Lord, foretold by the prophet, Isaiah, not as the conquering hero waiting to restore the kingdom of David. That suffering was an essential element of His God-given work, and as the apostle Peter was to remind us much later in His Epistle, it is ‘by His wounds that we are healed.’ (1 Peter 2.24). And because God suffered in Jesus, we know that He is also with us in our own suffering.
As the hymn writer put it –
We may not know, we cannot tell
what pain he had to bear;
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there.
So, as we walk slowly through the events of Holy Week, in liturgy, music, prayer and imagination, let us be silent and profoundly moved by a Fatherly God who loves us so very much that He is willing to die for us. Amen.
"There is a green hill far away"
Sung by the Lakefield Singers at Clippesby