Palm Sunday

The category: Worship

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One of the hallmarks of Palm Sunday is the reading of the Passion narrative, this year, from St Matthew’s Gospel. You can listen this Passion in this video, or you can read if for yourself by reading Matthew 26:14 – 27:66.

You can also watch the latest Sermon from the Vicarage on our YouTube channel, or you can read the text below.

This has definitely been the strangest preparation for Holy Week that I’ve had. Normally at this stage, I am madly dashing around getting order of service printed, sorting out flowers for Maundy Thursday, panicking that nobody is going to have their feet washed, desperately trying to remember how to do all the liturgies that we only do once a year. There is normally a great long to-do list for each day: sort palms, find readers, polish thurible and so on. Today, my to-do list says precisely nothing. There is nothing in my diary. There is nothing on my to-do list. It is really, really weird. And it’s left me asking a very big question. How on earth do we enter into Jerusalem with Jesus when we can’t go out on a procession with palms? How do we sit with him at the Last Supper or watch with the disciples when we can’t be with others? How do we stand at the foot of the cross when we can’t be in church? How do we gather around the new fire and celebrate the resurrection when we can’t really leave our homes? These are big questions for Christians all over the world. 

For now, it is just Palm Sunday that we need worry about. At St John’s we normally join with brothers and sisters from other parishes in the deanery, and from the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches. We go together on procession around the parish in a great act of Christian witness. It is a slightly chaotic affair – noisy and joyful. We arrive back at St John’s ready to triumphantly enter into our building, and ready to begin in earnest the story of Holy Week. 

I came across this painting by American artist John August Swanson. It reminded me of our procession. Ours isn’t quite so big, but the children run freely around with their palms. People in the flats and hotels along Seven Sisters come out to windows and balconies to watch us come past, and there is, of course, a donkey. I love how this painting captures the busy-ness and colour the scene. It is hugely crowded – it would be impossible to count the number of figures present. You can sense the movement, as people rush towards this person on the donkey and the soldiers look on, powerless to act. There is nothing to distinguish the person of Christ from any of the other figures, bar the fact he is riding the donkey, and yet, he is so clearly the focus of all this. What I think is curious too is that none of the figures are smiling. This is not really a scene of great joy. It’s not the sort of ticker tape parade that you might see when a football team returns home with the World Cup. But is nonetheless clearly a triumphant entry into Jerusalem. 

Triumphant is the key word here. Jesus is coming to Jerusalem triumphantly. He is the Son of David, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, none other than the Son of God coming to the place where, for the Jewish people, God lived in the Temple. Jesus comes triumphantly into Jerusalem to fulfil his mission, to do the only thing he was born on earth to do, which was to die. Die for the sake of the crowd who had some to lay their cloaks before him. Die for the soldiers who, for now at least, stand by helplessly watching. Die for our sins, so that we may triumphantly enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 

In his Gospel, Matthew points out that despite this being a triumphant entry, ‘the whole city was in turmoil’. I think Swanson’s painting does well at portraying that – the day to day life of the city has clearly paused as people point, question, shout and follow. The idea of things not being as they normally are, and this triumphant entry, go hand in hand. Which is just as well for us in these tumultuous days. The world is, clearly, in a great deal of turmoil. As COVID-19, in the words of the Health Secretary on Friday, continues its grim march, we hear more and more stories of pain, grief and sacrifice. The virus has reached the African continent, where, in general, healthcare systems are far less resourced than in Europe. We are, clearly, a world that is going to be in turmoil in this for many weeks and months to come. And yet, Jesus’ entry is triumphant. Triumphant is not the same as joyful. Triumphant is not the same has happy. Triumphant is the one who, despite the fact this world is in so much turmoil and pain, still comes to Jerusalem to enact his saving work. And though we do not enter with him into our churches this Holy Week, Jesus does enter triumphantly into your homes instead. We can join with him through these last few days of his earthly life just as profoundly and fully from our homes. 

I will be putting more resources on our website and on this YouTube channel over the next few days to help you to walk with Jesus through this Holy Week. But for now, let Christ enter triumphantly into your home, and whilst the world is in so much turmoil, and while this will be such a different Holy Week, Christ will rise on Easter day.