Palm Sunday Liturgy of the Palms
Matthew 21.1-11 Liturgy of the Passion
Matthew 26.14-end of 27
I loved the Netflicks series, The Crown. It brought to life so many of my mother’s reminiscences of being in The Mall, for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947 and for the coronation in 1953. With pride and the benefit of her years, my mother loves being able to say, “I was there!”
I’ve started wondering what it’s like to be able to say, “I was there”. In terms of Christian experience, the formative experiences of Holy Week make possible a leap of imagination, so that one can almost imagine being in Jerusalem. The experience of going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land builds on, and enriches, that liturgical experience in a remarkable way.
When I was a Team Vicar in Leicester the Palm Sunday procession used to make its way between two churches in our parish. We walked behind a battered old car from which loud speakers played hymn tunes. The route took us along narrow streets of corner shops, pubs and red brick terraced houses which had become home to a large and thriving Hindu community.
These people understood the significance of public religion. They watched us pass with a reverence that is now largely unfamiliar in our secularised western habits. The most moving expression of their respect was when we were given petals as a sign of prayer and blessing.
This experience of re-living the journey into Jerusalem with Jesus of Nazareth tells us something about the power of liturgy. It enables us to say that in some sense, by the power of the imagination, “I was there.” There is no substitute for that. Watching on television, seeing the event through a mobile phone video or on youtube is simply not the same.
Reading Matthew’s account of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is an experience that is now heavily annotated by the recollected images of my own Palm Sunday memories; it is coloured by particular times and places. That helps us to understand how the event itself must have evoked a range of recollections and associated images for the disciples who witnessed it.
One of the key things about Palm Sunday is the significance of Jerusalem. In Leicester, the fact that the community through which we walked was characterised by a distinctly non-western culture, helped us to shift in our imagination from the back streets of a midlands town to an altogether different place.
By contrast, in the City of London, the congregation of St Paul’s Cathedral gathered outside the old Temple Bar – a gate, not a pub! Their procession into “Jerusalem” was through a real gateway. This was located in the context of the exercise of finance as a world power, a force as pervasive as that of the Roman imperium of the first century.
Matthew’s account, like Mark’s, of the entry into Jerusalem pricks our attention with references to King David and a different sort of power struggle. When Matthew tells us that the city is moved, (Matthew 21.10) he means that it is shaken, as though by the tremor of an earthquake. The entry of David into Jerusalem is like this on at least two occasions.
The first is when he enters Jerusalem as the anointed one whom God has chosen to liberate his people from the fear of their hostile neighbours, the Philistines. David, not clad in royal armour but with the simplicity of his own skill, has killed Goliath, the enemy’s champion, and is acclaimed by songs that breed jealousy and fear in Saul (1 Samuel 18.9).
At the end of Matthew’s account we are told that the chief priests and scribes were “sore displeased” (Matthew 21.15KJV) because even in the temple children were singing the song, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” addressing it to Jesus. Luke goes further and asserts that the authorities “sought to destroy him [Jesus]” (Luke 19.47KJV), as King Saul sought to destroy David.
David’s identity as the chosen and anointed one whose vulnerability is the expression of his greatness and trust in God is a symbol of the vocation to which Jesus is obedient. Jesus is also acclaimed as a king, but his kingship cannot be described in terms of worldly power. Instead he will reveal the sovereignty of mercy and self-sacrificing love. There is an allusion to this in another occasion when David enters Jerusalem.
When David brings the ark of the covenant into the holy city we find a comparison that tells us something about who Jesus is and why the moment of this particular entry into Jerusalem is so significant.
For the people of Israel this is a profound moment in history, articulating the presence of God in their midst, the focus of healing and glory. David enters Jerusalem as the minister of those encounters with God: he is king and also priest, indicated by being “girded with a linen ephod” and offering sacrifices (2 Samuel 6.14,17).
The Old Testament themes of the Palm Sunday procession offer us layers of association that prepare for what we shall experience on Good Friday and Easter Day. The theme of kingship will continue to hover around Jesus in the processes of his execution. That self-offering is an act of priestly sacrifice that prompts the author of the letter to the Hebrews to describe Jesus as our great high priest.
Do not stay at home this week. Witnessing our redemption through participation in the liturgy is life-changing. It will enable you to say, “I was there.”