March 24 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Palm Sunday
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Luke
Text: Luke 22:39-23:56
[Note: I am following the practice of St Barnabas, Warrington here, which seems to be supported by The Lectionary. Although last Sunday was "Passion Sunday", and it might seem more logical to read the Passion narrative then, that is not suggested in The Lectionary. It seems to make more sense to have it on Palm Sunday as the perfect lead into Holy Week. Just how much of the narrative to select is a matter of choice. We are starting in Gethsemane, or, as St Luke prefers, on the Mount of Olives.]
Theme: "The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ "is the obvious candidate. An alternative might be "That All May Be Fulfilled", which appeals to me because it brings out the underlying thought that we are not simply recording a series of horrendous examples of humanity at its very worst: in all THIS God is working his purposes out.
Introduction. Every Sunday we are urged to "hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church", but we are still people of the "written" word, by and large. We do not listen very well, or very long; which is unfortunate when we remember that for most of our history our forebears listened to the Scriptures rather than read them. [Today I was reading an email from a friend who had forwarded an article on various poets who had chosen to work in a language other than their native tongue, for various "political" reasons. In an aside someone made the point that the first command that came to the Prophet Mohammed was "Read!". The Judaic-Christian tradition begins, surely, with "Hear!" In that regard perhaps we are better Moslems than Christians?]
So it is important on one Sunday a year to listen, to hear, and to let the word take possession of us. Our practice is to divide the reading into three sections, with a hymn or a period of silence in between. Using three different readers can also reduce "listener fatigue", but it is important that those who read today read well, slowly and clearly, and preferably from the same version.
A possible division might be Luke22:39-65 as the opening act of the drama, beginning with Jesus' own anguished struggle to accept the Father's will, and ending with Peter's denial of Christ and the mocking by the guards. The second act, from 22:66-23:25, would feature the "trials" before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod; and the third act, from 23:26-56, would cover the crucifixion, death and burial.
Background. In this week's Time Magazine there is an article on the election of Pope Francis. Most of it is the sort of journalistic stuff that seems to surround events of this kind. No one knows what went on in the conclave, except every journalist who was anywhere near Rome at the time. But the last paragraph caught my eye and has fired my imagination since I read it. It reads thus:
On the Sunday before the conclave began, the Gospel reading in Catholic churches around the world happened to be the parable of the prodigal son, the tale of a spoiled heir who takes his inheritance and wastes it – only to be forgiven by his father and taken back in. In Rome, the Cardinals used it to talk about bringing back Catholics who had left the church. Perhaps Francis, through his experience of living on the streets, may read that lesson differently. For the church itself has been prodigal, and now may be the time for it to find its way back to its people.
Of course, the parable of the lost son has the place it has in The Lectionary, not because it provides a good background for papal conclaves, but for the events of Holy Week. Nevertheless, I have found the idea of casting the Church in the role of the prodigal son very fruitful. Where I differ from the authors' approach is in their application of this insight: if the Church is the prodigal son then it is to the Father that the Church must return. When it does so, the people will turn or return to the Church. (Incidentally, the authors' description of the younger son as "spoiled" is an invention of their own: there is nothing in the text to suggest that he is any more spoilt than his elder brother.)
But let's see where this famous and much-loved parable might take us if the Church is the prodigal son. What might be the nature of the inheritance that the Church has received from the Father and has squandered it in wild living? Might that not be the Spirit, poured out so lavishly at Pentecost – not on the world at large but on the first members of the Church? And, if so, in what way could it be said that the Church has squandered this inheritance?
Although the text doesn't go into detail, commentators often picture the prodigal son having a fun life with guys (and girls) of his own age – great for so long as the money lasts, but inevitably ending in tears. (The elder brother, of course, has a slightly different take on all this, but he had every human reason for taking the dimmest possible view of his younger brother's activities while abroad.) We have only to think of our compatriot, the fake Tahitian prince who had a high old time in Queensland to fill in the gaps here. In short, what the younger brother was doing with his inheritance was courting popularity. Could the Church be accused of doing that?
As I pondered that question I found myself once again comparing the Church pre-Constantine and post-Constantine. Of course, the temptation is to take a too romantic view of the Church in the earliest centuries, bravely struggling against violence from without and treachery from within. For every martyr who accepted death rather than deny his or her faith in Christ there were no doubt many other members who followed the path Peter himself made infamous before the cock crowed.
But does it not remain true that, in general, what we now call Christendom was a monumental waste of our spiritual inheritance? How many times have we baptised the infants of people who are not themselves practising the faith in any real sense, and have no real intention of bringing up those infants in that faith? How many times have we married people whose interest in a "church wedding" is more about photographs than God's blessing? In all the talk about the need for the new Pope to sort out the Vatican bureaucracy has anybody wondered why so many ordained priest are employed there when there is a worldwide shortage of priests carrying out the ministry for which they were ordained?
Were we really given our spiritual inheritance so that we can maintain empty buildings, attract tourists, display art, and exhaust ourselves in all manner of petty fund-raising schemes "to keep the show going"? Doesn't our present predicament, our great need, suggest that we have spent everything and the severe famine is now upon us? Are we far from hiring ourselves out to citizens of another kingdom, if only they will give us something to eat – or at least chip in towards the cost of up-grading our earthquake-prone buildings?
In short, is it not time for the Church to come to its senses – to set out and go back to the Father and say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you..."?
And so to Holy Week and beyond. For me, in the light of all this, I find myself attracted to the extraordinary vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his little book The Divine Milieu. For him it is the Body of Christ that hangs upon the Cross on Good Friday. At the very least that means the Church is crucified in Jesus Christ: the Church then rises with him on Easter Day and, perhaps most importantly in this reflection, ascends with him forty days later – returns to the Father.
Pope Francis may or may not have experienced "living on the streets", as the authors of the Time Magazine believe. But he is a Jesuit, in which case he will be familiar with the writings of his fellow Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin. Perhaps that will be in his mind as he enters Holy Week. I hope so.
Taking It Personally.
· This is surely the week for giving priority to our faith. Whatever else demands our time, we surely cannot deny to our Lord at least an hour of our time each day throughout Holy Week for self-examination and special devotion.
· If at all possible attend a church where the whole Passion Narrative will be read this Sunday. Let the whole thing wash over you and soak into you. Avoid anything flippant or unnecessary for the rest of the day.
· Remember it is Palm Sunday. Read that story, too. Enter into it imaginatively. Where would you place yourself? Among the curious, the cheering, the mocking, or just on the fringe, not really taking a particular interest in what's going on? Have you got your cellphone with you? Are you taking pictures? Why?
· Each day take part of the Passion narrative and reflect on it in the same sort of way. Can you watch with the Lord for one hour? Are you aware of his struggle? Are you fearful of what might lie ahead for you?
· Experience the arrival of the arresting party, led by Judas. What are your feelings now? Have you been betrayed by someone close to you? Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? Have you ever betrayed Christ?
· Stand with Peter in the high priest's garden. Watch his panic grow, listen to his repeated denials. What would you do if the spotlight turned to you? What do you say today if someone asks you if you are a Christian? Hear the cock crow.
· Follow Christ through the so-called trials before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod, and then back to Pilate? Is there anything in you that might be represented by these people? Are you quick to judge? Do you understand Pilate's dilemma? Would you have acted differently in his position?
· See Jesus the prisoner on his way to Golgotha. Watch as Simon is grabbed and made to carry the cross. In what ways do you feel you are bearing the cross of Christ sometimes?
· Listen to the conversation between the two thieves and Jesus. Which one of them speaks for you?
· Take the story of Jesus' death on the cross particularly slowly. Notice the darkness all around. In the darkness hear Christ call out with a loud voice "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Stay in silence for as long as you can. Then hear the centurion: "Surely this was a righteous man" (or, better, "Surely, this man was the Son of God.")
· Notice the change in tone in the last section as the body is placed in the tomb. It is all about being practical: it returns us to the mundane detail of our daily lives. But spiritually it is time to stand back, watch, and wait in hope.
· Do your best to attend services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Try to observe Holy Saturday quietly, and then, O then! Enter fully into the Joy of Easter Day!