In a piece specially written for The Time and published on 3rd April 2020, Cardinal Vincent Nichols reflects upon Palm Sunday, Holy Week and the quiet nature of our current world.
As we approach Palm Sunday a vivid image comes to my mind. I am standing on the Mount of Olives, facing the walls of Jerusalem across the Kedron Valley. It is a magnificent sight. The narrow road winds steeply down into the valley, the very route taken by Jesus as he approached the City on the day we now commemorate.
It was the last day of the Passover Feast. This last day focussed on the coming of the promised Messiah. I learned from the guide that, at the time of Jesus, every year Jerusalem and the surrounding hillsides were crowded with thousands of pilgrims coming for the Passover. It was their expectation that on this day the Messiah would appear and enter the City through the Golden Gate. Often, on that day, a man would appear, proclaiming himself loudly to be the One. If a crowd gathered and became rowdy, it would be dispersed by force. But often the incident fizzled out.
I suspect that the appearance of Jesus at first aroused curiosity. He was different. Riding a donkey! However, the Gospel accounts speak of the crowd being ‘moved’ or ‘stirred up’ at his entry, as if by an earthquake or a violent wind (Mt .21 10) . Certainly the days that followed saw astonishing scenes, in the palace of the High Priest, in the Praetorium of the Roman Governor, at Golgotha and, finally, in the Garden of the Resurrection.
All that had to start with the entry of Jesus into the City. That is where it has to start with us, too.
In these days, our cities are quiet, all but essential activity brought to a standstill. Normally they are bustling, noisy, crowded. It is hard to find a quiet spot. There is not much notice given to the entry of one who claims to meet our deeper needs.
That is not so today. In our silent cities, during this Holy Week, maybe there will be space for his quiet, unassuming entry to be noticed. Maybe the imposed inactivity we share will uncover within us a sense of emptiness, a need, which is often the ‘golden gate’ through which the gift of faith can enter.
Anyone who has walked through the narrow streets of Jerusalem knows how they teem with humanity. This is where Jesus chooses to be. He does not turn his back on our ways of life, but quietly comes alongside us, waiting for the moment when we notice his presence and welcome his gaze. Then he enters not only our city but also our hearts and souls, bringing the gift of peace which only pure love can bring.
The great events of the last days of the life of Jesus take place in outdoor scenes characterised by rock. Those who have visited them will recall immediately the rock of his agony in the garden, the rock of Golgotha which we bend low to touch, the rock which closed his tomb. The harshness of these rocks symbolise the harshness of so much of our experience, culminating in the brutal reality of death. Yet it is precisely out of this rock, this harshness, that the triumph of the risen Christ emerges.
The pattern is ancient. The Feast of the Passover, of course, commemorates the escape from Egypt of the enslaved people of Israel. Their journey through the desert is a depiction of our wandering uncertainly on our journey of life. The people of Israel ended up facing death by thirst until God led Moses to the ‘rock of Horeb’. There Moses struck the rock and water poured out of the rock face, enough for all the people and their sheep and cattle! (Exodus 17.6).
The challenge facing us today, with the coronavirus, may seem like a rock face, harsh, demanding, a tough challenge. Yet already it is breaking open to reveal springs of remarkable generosity and self-sacrifice. These we see in the dedicated staff of the NHS, in the schemes of community volunteers, in the countless small acts of kindness. It seems to me that there is a deep, underground stream of goodness in our human nature. Maybe we are often compromised, but we never lose the desire for goodness or fail to recognise it when we see it face to face.
The drama of our history and our salvation, laid before us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a drama that touches us all. In the Christian faith we are privileged to sing of its glory, to proclaim its message, which is never our possession, but the pathway we are honoured to share. The great mystery of this coming Holy Week is, radically, the mystery of our creation, of who we are, given life by the breath of God, destined for an eternal glory, lifted up and healed from ancient wounds by the constant outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
We read in the Gospel of John: ‘On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ’Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (Jn 7.37-38).