April 13 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Palm Sunday
Texts: [Liturgy of the Palms] Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29: [Liturgy of the Passion] Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66 (or Matthew 27:11-54)*
[*Note. Those responsible for shaping a service for Palm Sunday have some difficult choices to make here. I must confess that my practice has been to cut to the chase, omit the Liturgy of the Palms, omit the lesson and the psalms, omit the sermon, and have the full Passion narrative read in three or four distinct “blocks”, interspersed with periods of silence or suitably quiet music or hymns. Generally, people have found this helpful, and it does serve as a useful entree to Holy Week. But now I think this has gone too far. There is great value, I think, in the contrast between the razzmatazz of the Triumphal Entry and the agony of the Passion. And nowhere is that contrast brought out better than in the two psalms set for today. So while I’m not generally an advocate for the widespread use of the psalms in our worship services (except where they are to be sung or chanted), I’m inclined to think using both of them in a fairly short time span could be helpful this Sunday. The difficulty is to avoid burdening the service with yet more words, when our services are already rather wordy.
My suggested solution is as follows. Have the Liturgy of the Palms before the service, preferably with procession. If for any reason the procession is impracticable, I would still use the readings for that liturgy before the start of the service. When we get to the Proclamation, I would have someone read psalm 31:9-16, and then follow that with the full Passion narrative, either as a continuous reading, or in blocks. I would have no other readings, and no sermon. I am a strong advocate of the importance of preaching, but there is simply nothing to be said about the Passion. The story speaks for itself and anything a preacher might say is likely to detract from it. Of course, if for some reason (and I personally can’t think of a good enough one) the intention is to use the shorter gospel option it might be that the lessons, or even a short sermon, could be included.
Background. As regular readers of the ODT will already know, we had two visitors from York join us for our parish Eucharist three weeks or so ago at St Barnabas, Warrington. We didn’t know they were coming; they just turned up as visitors do from time to time. They had been invited by one of our younger members, who had met them over breakfast where they were staying in Dunedin. So it was that the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and his wife, Margaret joined our usual congregation for worship, and, of course, for a cuppa after the service. John was dressed in “civvies”, and Margaret in a dress. I must confess I can’t remember if she was also wearing a hat; but if she was we had not been given due warning so none of our women parishioners had been urged to do so. And for the same reason, there was no one at the service who had come to catch a glimpse of our distinguished visitors: all who were there were there to worship God.
It reminded me of an occasion some years ago when I attended Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington. As I came in I noticed a man in a smart suit sitting towards the front. I thought I knew him from somewhere so I gave him a slight nod and carried on. Part way through the service I suddenly realised who it was: it was the then Governor-General, Sir Michael Hardie-Boyes. What was he doing there? Nothing official; he was simply attending Evensong, as many Anglicans still do when given the opportunity. I have no idea whether protocol required advance notice to be given to the Dean, but there was certainly no advance publicity, no crowds, no indication that regular non-attenders had suddenly had an overwhelming desire to worship God in that place that evening.
Contrast that with what will happen at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin this Palm Sunday. It was reported that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had expressed a desire to attend an “ordinary” Palm Sunday service. What a pity they hadn’t expressed that desire to John Sentamu who could have recommended a nice little church just 20 minutes or so north of the city, where they could have shared in an ordinary service with committed worshippers and been assured of the same warm welcome we give to all our visitors. As it is they will attend a ticket-only service with a large number of people who (in most cases) have not attended a worship service for many years, or who usually attend ordinary services in their ordinary local churches, but have abandoned them this Sunday in the hope of catching a glimpse, not of the divine mystery at the heart of all our worship, but of the royal couple. Oh, and by the way, ladies a small hat or a fascinator, please - we wouldn’t want the Duchess to feel conspicuous, would we? (No, I haven’t made this up – it’s in the latest email from the Diocese: besides, I heard St Paul himself laughing uproariously at our sudden desire to adopt his teaching on head covering for women!)
Could there be a more wonderful modern parable for Palm Sunday? Look, your (future) king is coming to you...says Matthew the royal commentator quoting the prophet Zechariah. He also tells us that a very large crowd had gathered to welcome this celebrity as he came into their city. Who were they – what or who had they come to see? Part of the rent-a-crowd that assembles whenever they think something is going on? How many of them came to pay him homage, how many of them understood who he was or what he had come to do? How many cared? How many had any intention at all of listening to his message, much less following in his footsteps? One percent, do you think? Less than that, maybe? About the same percentage of those who will line the streets outside our cathedral?
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” At least they allowed him in. This Sunday he would need a ticket to enter our cathedral.
The Liturgy of the Palms. There is a carnival atmosphere about this celebration. Think bands, buskers, cameras and cell-phones, bewildered little children in Plunket-approved strollers and sunhats, waving little flags, and hoping for ice-creams, lollies, and other treats. And then there’s that dear little donkey – don’t you just love donkeys? Who cares who this guy is, or what he’s really up to! We need some excitement every now and then. And the verses from Psalm 118 capture the mood very well: this is a psalm of victory, over what we may not be too sure, but it feels good to shout and dance and let ourselves go for a time. (Maybe that’s what celebrity visits are for.) The people of Israel knew what tough times were like; and so when things went well for them it was worth celebrating.
Taking It Personally.
· Are you a natural crowd-joiner? Have you ever waited for hours to catch a glimpse of some important or famous person? Why? What did you go out to see? Was it a thrill or a disappointment?
· Who would you most like to see in person? Why?
· Are you good at celebrating the goodness of God? Is your local church good at celebrating the goodness of God?
· Read these verses from psalm 118 through slowly and prayerfully. Do they express your feelings, or are you aware of a “disconnect”?
· As you prepare for Holy Week, do a spiritual stock-take. How different from any other week will it be? Have you truly let Jesus into your life? Have you welcomed him joyfully?
· Are you now one who comes to others “in the name of the Lord”.
Isaiah and Psalm 31:9-16. The contrast is shocking, isn’t it? On the one hand, a rock-star welcome: on the other, verse 6 of this passage from Isaiah. Whether we are thinking of the welcome Jesus received on Palm Sunday, or of the welcome our royal visitors receive wherever they go, the words of this one verse are literally shocking. And the shock is made all the greater by the verses that preceded it, as we realise that the “Servant” is one of great faith, who starts each day by listening to God, learning from him, understanding that we cannot teach others until we ourselves have first learned. And it is all God’s doing; God has given him a teacher’s tongue, after opening his ear. His ability to listen to the word, and to teach it, is all the gift of God. And even though he suffers grievously for his ministry of proclamation, he knows that God will vindicate him in the end. Both these extreme are underlined in these well-chosen verses from psalm 31, which clash so violently with the victory chant from psalm 118. Now we have a personal lament of great torment (verses 11-13), followed by a staunch declaration of faith in the goodness of God. Both these passages, then, look forward to the horror of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Day.
Taking It Personally.
- How much of your daily quiet time is spent in listening rather than talking to God? Can your practice be best described as “morning by morning” or “occasional”?
- Do you know how to “sustain the weary with a word”? Can you recall an occasion in the last week or so when you felt that something you said to someone might have sustained them in that way?
- Can you recall an occasion in the last week or so when someone sustained you in your weariness? Have you thanked God for that?
- Have you been hurt, insulted or abused for your faith at any time? Do you tend to “keep your faith to yourself” for fear of a hurtful response?
- Read through this passage from psalm 31. Are there any points of contact between the experiences described by the psalmist and your own experiences? Call each such experience to mind, then close with a slow reading of verses 14-16. Make those words your own.
Philippians. I’m not sure that this reading “fits” on this day. It is, after all, a reflection on the Passion rather than an anticipation or a description of it. There are so many other days when it could be set down. Perhaps its value here is to emphasise the corporate nature of our faith. This is a plea to the whole body of believers to grow in unity with one another, to leave behind our own egos and agendas. It is not a plea to each one of us to follow Christ’s example of humility and self-sacrifice in a sort of one-to-one private arrangement with him: rather we are to seek with all our fellow believers to be of one mind with them and they with us. As we prepare to follow Christ to the cross this coming Holy Week perhaps that is the greatest challenge we face. Kneeling before the cross we might ask ourselves how we “measure up” in the light of verses 3 and 4 in particular.
Taking It Personally.
- So how do you measure up in the light of verses 3 and 4? Are you aware of anything you have done in your local church “from selfish ambition or conceit?”
- Do you honestly “regard (all) others as better than [yourself]”?
- Do you really “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”?
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Matthew.
Taking It Personally.
- Take a small section of the narrative each day in the week. Pray with your imagination, putting yourself in each scene. Monitor your feelings. Look at each of the people concerned. Do not judge them. Just observe them. Try to understand them. Which of them is most like you; which of them is least like you. What do you learn about yourself by the end of this exercise? Pray about it accordingly.