Sunday, March 29, 2015

Holy Week begins - The final showdown

Father Alexander Tefft is the priest at the Antiochian Orthodox Parish of Saint Botolph, London, U.K., as well as Chaplain and Tutor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge. Here is the sermon he preached for Palm Sunday 2010. 

Like the children with the palms of victory, 
we cry out to Thee, 
O Vanquisher of Death … 
(Troparion of the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem) 

We are at war: so choose your sides, now! No one is neutral. No one stands idly by and says: This war has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with you! Do you know what is at stake? Your home, your freedom. Your family and all your loved ones. All that you have, or ever had, or ever will have. Everything you treasure is at stake. The enemy is everywhere, there is nowhere to hide. Wherever you flee, you run straight into his line of fire. His bombs are planted where you least expect; his landmines, wherever you set your foot. His gun is pointed at your gut.

This enemy wants more than victory. He wants to watch you whimper, to see you crawl on all fours and plead for your life. He prolongs your agony until you curse the hour you were born. You can never buy him off – you can never frighten him away. Try to negotiate with him: you will only hand over the ones that you love, straight into his hands. The only question is: Will you collaborate? Or will you resist? In this fight, there are no neutrals: whoever is not with us, is against us. So form ranks, now! The oldest war you have ever fought, you are engaged in; the oldest enemy you have ever known is at your throat. You have been fighting this enemy from the hour that you were conceived in the womb. 

The enemy … is death

How can you recognise him? A masked figure in a black cape, lined with scarlet? Death is subtler than that. He creeps up behind, like an assassin. He infiltrates all your lines of defence. He stirs up a panic. He strikes and retreats, wears you down until you lose the strength to resist. Worst of all, he places his allies all around you. Biologists, professors of the public understanding of science tell you: ‘Death is natural. Your heart stops, that’s is it’. Professional atheists, sipping port in the members’ common room, saying: ‘When you die, you decay. No harps, no angels, no nothing. So stop bothering our high society with your fairy tales about life after death’. So-called bishops in stiff clerical collars join in and tell you: ‘Jesus never rose again in his body. His Resurrection means that his moral teachings live on forever’. The allies and accomplices of death never need to form ranks at all. Young atheists are too full of themselves to think about death; old atheists are too full of irony to notice, they are dead already. But make no mistake. Whoever denies the Resurrection is the accomplice of death: above all, if he (or she?) wears a clerical collar.

He collaborates: he negotiates to hand over your loved ones to the enemy. He holds the door open to death and says: ‘Come on in!’ ‘Sell all the candles, the robes and the ritual ointment’, the atheist shouts. ‘Give it to the poor!’ That is what Christianity is about, not fairy tales about rising from the dead. 

But, if you have ever watched a loved one die, you know death isn’t natural. Death does not begin when your heart stops. Death begins as soon as you give him the victory. The enemy, the obscene, unnatural monster, yawns in front of you. He opens the black pit of his throat, until you give him the last word. Today, we deny him the last word. 

This day, Palm Sunday, we declare war on death. Death in all his forms. Your baby, too weak to move in his incubator. Your husband or wife, your father or mother, wasting and confused: a mind demented, a body darkened with sores, slipping like sand out of your hands. A child left to bleed in the street. The black pit of death opens up before us – and Christ, the enemy of death, stands at the pit and calls inside. His voice echoes in the pit, in the dark. Yesterday, he stood at the mouth of the cave and called out: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ Now, his friend Lazarus sits at table with him. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anoints his feet with the most costly ointment. Already, the accomplices of death complain: ‘Sell the ointment, give it to the poor’. But the ointment is for more than anointing the dead. It is the oil of a wrestler, preparing for combat. ‘Kill Lazarus!’ cry the accomplices of death. On account of him, the crowds begin to see why Jesus has come. This is no carpenter’s son, teaching morals on a mountain top. This is the final Vanquisher of Death. He does not ride into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. He rides out into the field of battle. This is the final showdown. This is the conquest of death. 

The crowds that surround him throw branches of palm trees on his path. They shout out ‘Hosanna to the Liberator! Hosanna to the King of Israel!’ They await his final showdown – but they mistake the enemy. This is no freedom fighter, seated on horseback to meet the Romans face to face. He wears no armour, no helmet or breastplate. He rides on to victory; but it is no ordinary victory, in no ordinary war. If the enemy is everywhere, so is he; if the enemy is ruthless, he is more ruthless; if the enemy prolongs your anguish, he absorbs that anguish into himself. This day, he rides right into the line of fire. Yesterday, he stood at the mouth of the cave and called Lazarus forth; in five days, he will ride into mouth of hell. He will plunge into the throat of death. He will stand firm, like the stubborn colt of a donkey that he rides into Jerusalem today. He will stand his ground – and the fire of his divine being will burn out the enemy from inside. Death will groan in agony: ‘What was this flesh I swallowed up? A mangled, tortured body, a body abandoned by his friends: I swallowed it, and met God face to face! I took what I saw and crumbled at what I could not see. Now, I surrender all the dead’. This Sunday, death opens its throat to swallow us live – and Christ rides in, on an ass’s colt. By the eve of Friday, he will cut death open from inside. On Saturday, he will burn out the chambers of hell. On Sunday, death will vomit him out; and, with him, all the dead will arise. 

Brothers and Sisters in Christ: this is not a piece of folk art in my hand. It is a weapon. A token of the worst that death can do. Two bars of wood, hoisted up from the ground in a desolate place. A victim, stripped naked, his hands and feet nailed into the wood; then, exposed to sun and wind, flies and birds – left to die a slow, obscene death. But every death is obscene. Every death is an insult to a creature made in the image of God. But see! This cross is not made of wood. It is woven from palm branches, strewn on the streets of the Holy City. Branches, trampled under the foot of a donkey; just as the One who rides on that donkey, will trample down death by death. Everyone here who has lost someone he or she loved; everyone here, whom death has robbed: let him go forth into the battle this day. This is the final showdown. Christ enters the Holy City, on his way to win back your loved ones. He rides down the throat of the monster. This day, carrying palms of victory, we cry out ‘Hosanna!’ to the Vanquisher of Death.

Palm Sunday High Mass, All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, 2003


Alice C. Linsley said...

Very inspiring! Breathes truth and grounded hope.

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