Palm Sunday 2020
In order to slow down the infection rate, churches are closed and clergy told to stay away. The last time this happened was in 1208 when King John refused to accept Pope Innocent’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. So the pope put England under an ‘interdict’ which endured between March 1208 and May 1213, thereby preventing the clergy from celebrating the sacraments. Magna Carta was sealed in 1215. We live in surreal and unique times.
One of the great blessings of faith is that whatever situation we find ourselves in, whatever emotional turmoil, grief, pain of sorrow, our Lord Jesus has been there too. On Palm Sunday he entered Jerusalem amid flag waving and acclamation, cheering and high hopes. Although he did so in humility, riding on a beast of burden, he was treated like a conquering hero, and everyone present loaded onto him and that beast, unrealistic, selfish or ambitious hopes. It was not to be, because, having been tempted by Satan in the Wilderness three years earlier, he knew not only how, but why not to lead his donkey down the route of fame and folly. So within days he was facing heard questions, hostile audiences, quizzing by the authorities, public complaint and then arrest, trial and betrayal. A court appearance, led to judgment by a dictator and then scourging, a walk of shame and then execution. We know the story - we rehearse, perform, recount it every year. It is as they say, the greatest story ever told.
Every year it is different though, because we are different. We map our lives onto his and in doing so we see reflections that both shock and comfort us. This year is no different in that respect, but it is also unique. As those isolated from the world, from loved ones, from families and friends, connected only by words on a page or screen, or voices in our heads, we might remember how the story of Holy Week is a double progression from crowd to isolation.
On Palm Sunday Jesus is greeted by a crowd, like an ancient God a warrior King. Ironic. A few weeks ago we were gathering in crowds, football, shops, parties, worshipping in church and sharing fellowship. It was lovely, and we miss it so. In a matter of days our lives went from public to private, communal to personal. Many slipped from hope to fear. After the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, Jesus went to the garden, where at social distance from his best friends, he prayed to God. He was alone, but surrounded in prayer. Then after arrest, he was taken to the High Priest Caiaphas’ House for a makeshift trial. The site is still there in Jerusalem, and visitors can visit a beautiful church, but then descend to a pit in the ground, a cistern, into which there is some likelihood Jesus was unceremoniously thrown on the night before he died. Some of us have been there and sung that wonderful Taize chant in the resonant acoustic, reminded of the isolation and trepidation which our Lord must have faced as the drama of death unfolded. Did he know that on the Cross, the main cause of death is not being able to breathe as arms lose strength and the victim cannot raise themselves to breathe and so suffocates?
‘Jesus, Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’.
Corona virus can be a merciless, suffocating killer too. Hundreds of people will die alone today. Let us remember them and their families in our prayers. Meanwhile we are in isolation and it may feel that we are in that dark dungeon with only our thoughts and fears to keep us company, fearing what may come next, or simply just going stir crazy staring at the walls. We will be hauled out. And when we are, it will not likely be to the double agony of Jesus the man, who having stood alone before Caiaphas and then Pilate, found himself in another crowd, socially undistanced, mocked, mistreated, and jeered with the chilling chant of ‘crucify’. They broke the rules and came close, putting a solitary reed in his hand and a thorny crown on his lonely head.
Then he was shoved through the streets of Jerusalem and given only one companion, Simon of Cyrene. Others kept their distance, other than to spit on him, or with acts of kindness to wipe his face. And then, basically alone, with only a few disciples allowed near, and two criminals socially distanced on either crosses, he was left to die, forsaken, alone. In NHS wards today there are ministering angels, who we applaud, it seems on the cross, even they were absent as Jesus cried ‘Eloi, Eloi lama sabbachtani.’
‘Jesus, Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’.
For us the story this week ends there. Hanging on the cliff of the cross, Jesus will be buried and rise again. There is hope to come. But now we leave him there, isolated in a world between life and death. Our own isolation may seem trivial the light of this. Who needs crowds anyway? For we are united with each other and with God. Through this isolation and Passion of our Lord, which, oainful as it is, unites us in common experience, cause and hope.
May that be God’s gift to us all through the Passion of his Son, this week - that isolated in body, we may be the crowd of faithful, hopeful, loving witnesses and that his light may shine in the darkness of isolation to us all.
Heavenly Father, our nation cries out to you in pain and fear. Guide us with your loving hand and help us see through this time of trial and torment. Give aid to the afflicted, feed the hungry and calm the fearful with the assurance of your mercy, protection and love, for you are one God, creator, redeemer and sustainer of all, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, Palm Sunday, 05/04/2020