Palm Sunday & Holy Week


During the Millennium Year of 2000, the National Gallery in London mounted an exhibition called “Seeing Salvation”. The subtitle was “The Image of Christ” and traced how artists down the ages have represented Jesus whether in paint, stone, wood or precious metals. The exhibition was an amazing success. I want to say a word about two of my favourite pictures which were hung opposite each other in the Gallery. One was called “Noli Me Tangere” – ‘Don’t Touch Me’ . It was painted by Titian in about 1515. It depicts Mary of Magdala in the Easter Garden as she meets Jesus but does not recognise him. John’s gospel tells us “Supposing him to be the gardener she said ‘They have taken my Lord away and I do not know where they have put him’. Jesus said to her ‘Mary’ and she reached forward to touch him”. (John 20:13)

On the opposite wall was a picture called “The incredulity of St. Thomas” by Bernardo Strozzi painted about 1620. You will remember the scene in the Upper Room after the Resurrection when Jesus appeared to the disciples, although Thomas was not with them. When the others told him about the appearance of Jesus he refused to believe. When Jesus appeared again, he told Thomas to touch him. “Put your finger into the holes that the nails have made. Put your hand into my side”. Touch me. (John 20:27)

I love those two pictures because they speak to me of the need all of us to touch, to be sure, to be comforted, to know that what we are doing and what we believe makes sense and is true. And we have all in some way been touched by Jesus, and been embraced and comforted and taken by the hand. ‘Touch me’. But there are other times in life when we have had to walk by faith alone. No comforts. No security. No certainty. ‘Where is God in the midst of this turmoil or suffering I am enduring?’ You will remember the first week of Lent when we spoke of the Transfiguration. ‘If it had lasted much longer it would have lasted for ever’. And I hope you will remember the experience of Cardinal Hume when he was told of his terminal cancer.

The Gospel of John explores the twin themes of Darkness and Light. It explores death and new life. It explores Belief and Disbelief. It presents five ‘signs’ or miracles in which some people believe and others refuse to believe. They all saw and experienced exactly the same actions of Jesus. They heard exactly the same words. For some it evinced an act of faith. Others were convinced, for many different reasons, that this man was a threat to all they stood for and he had to be destroyed. “They have eyes but they do not see. They have ears but they do not hear”. (Mark 8:18) That is what I have been trying to unpack in these Friday talks. The synoptic gospels tell the story of the life of Jesus, his ministry, his passion, death and resurrection each in their own way, using their own literary structure, with their own insight and emphasis. John’s Gospel gives the ‘meaning’ behind the story, not keeping a diary of events or a chronology but using the five signs and remembering long prayers of Jesus which give shape and meaning to his relationship with God and his love for us.

I have said on many occasions that no matter how much we try we find it hard to put into words the deep truths about our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us; because these things are too deep for words. They go beyond words. Of course we try. In our prayers and hymns. In our theology and scripture. In the Creeds and the ‘definitions’ of faith.

The word made flesh is here made word again…

And God three angry letters on a hook…

On which the mystery is impaled and bent…

(The Incarnate One by Edwin Muir)

But in the end, the Word became Flesh and the language he spoke was action rather than words. His ultimate action was that of sacrificial love on the cross. That is why, during this Holy Week, we don’t use just words but actions too, so that we can enter into the saving mystery of his life, death and resurrection. That is why we walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the three great processions of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday. The entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was shortly before the Passover.

Do you remember what I was saying about the excitement at the Feast of Tabernacles? Passover was like Christmas and Easter and the Olympic Games, and all the Bank Holidays rolled into one. You can imagine the excitement and the tension, especially with the Romans trying to control Jerusalem with all this activity and this strange prophet and preacher confronting the religious establishment. I think of the security in London when I was there on Wednesday and the tension all around when there is a mass demonstration in any of the cities of our country. On Maundy Thursday we follow Jesus to the Upper Room and re-enact the Mandatum, the new commandment, the law of love, the washing of the feet of his disciples. And then we re-member, put back together again those dramatic words and actions when he took bread and wine and said “This is Me”. My body. My blood. Given for you in sign and sacrament tonight. In sacrifice tomorrow”. We follow him out to the Garden of Gethsemane. “Could you not watch one hour with me”. And then on the Way of the Cross to Calvary on Good Friday. The only thing I will say about the cross and Calvary is that while people were worshipping God in the Temple, the real worship of God was taking place on the Cross when God in Jesus gave himself completely for the glory of God and the salvation of his people.

I am struggling to find the right words to use in order to express what I believe about this profound mystery. As always, I have to go to my poetry book. I love the sentence which reads “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Somebody else wrote “If prose is a river, poetry is a fountain”. The fewer words poetry uses, the more meaning it contains. Listen to this poem called ‘Names’ by Wendy Cope. It captures the whole life of a woman in 107 words. “In poetry, the ultimate meaning is not found in the words but in us.” “When you buy a poetry book you aren’t getting many words for your money but you are getting more meaning for your money. Poetry is not about factual information but human formation”. (Mark Oakley). It isn’t surprising that in the Old and New Testaments there are beautiful poems: the Psalms, the Song of Songs, the hymns of St. Paul.

So let me leave you with three short poems – one for Palm Sunday, one for Maundy Thursday and one for Good Friday. They are by Malcolm Guite who is the Anglican chaplain at Girton College Cambridge. I have also printed for you a poem by R. S. Thomas on approaching Easter.


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