Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday 2021

A letter to our parish family marking the start of Holy Week 2021

I must admit to having been a bit worried right up until this morning about the effect on our Palm Sunday Mass of having to scale it down. All parishes have had to do it as part of adapting the Church’s traditional Holy Week ceremonies to the present Covid rules and precautions. (I also thought that changing to daylight saving time today would have a negative impact on our attendance. But that was NOT the case at All Saints' Benhilton. Neither did anyone arrive an hour late!)

In the end, what a great Mass we had. I was glad to see so many in church together, especially the small children. Thanks to Linda and the singers who recommenced their vital role in our worship today, and also to Harry and Aiden who were crucifer and thurifer. 


So, today we began the holiest week of the Church’s year.  And although we couldn’t have the Procession of Palms, we did hear the Passion Reading from S. Mark’s Gospel - the account of the hours leading up to the death of Jesus.  

The procession, of course, is one of the ways that the Church helps us to insert ourselves into the story of Jesus. As Holy Week unfolds, there are other special ceremonies that do the same thing. They nurture our union with Jesus and help us respond to his love. Some of these, such as the Maundy Thursday foot washing, the Good Friday kissing of the Crucifix, and the Easter Vigil passing of candlelight one to another are not able to happen this year. 

But we still trudge the Calvary road with Jesus, supported by our meditation on Holy Scripture and our companionship with one another as brothers and sisters in him. We are with him as he is stripped of his garments, beaten, flogged, and nailed to the cross. We gather as a little community of faith and love with Mother Mary, the other women and the apostle John at the foot of the cross, allowing its reconciling and healing love to flow upon us and make us whole. At Easter we emerge with the original disciples in the power and newness of our Lord’s victory over sin and death.

This happened in real history. Father Marcus Donovan, Vicar of All Saints’ Benhilton from 1945 to 1961, wrote a book while he was here called Faith and Practice. I quote his summary of what Jesus embraced for you and for me:

There are only two names beside that of our Lord mentioned in the Creed. One is ‘the Virgin Mary’, the other is ‘Pontius Pilate.’

This marks the Crucifixion as an event in history, at a particular date when a man named Pilate was governor of Judaea. The events which took place are known as ‘the Passion’’. They began with the Agony in the garden. The garden was called Gethsemane. After the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday night, our Lord went out with the Apostles (all but Judas, who had left the Upper Room and gone to guide the people who came to make the arrest). In the garden Jesus knelt down some way from the Apostles and endured his agony. “Agony” means a struggle: it was the conflict between his natural shrinking and his determination to do his Father’s will. He was perfectly obedient and went on to the fate awaiting him.

Other features in the Passion were the scourging and the crowning with thorns. The scourging was at the High Priest’s house (Mt. 26. 67), the crowning with thorns was at the Praetorium, i.e. the fortified residence of Pilate: perhaps the soldiers found some thorn-bushes in the courtyard and from them made a garland such as the winners in public games used to wear. The carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion are the remaining features of the Passion. There were many other insults, e.g. spitting and bowing down before him in mockery.

Our Lord hung for three hours on the Cross and then ‘gave up the ghost’. His body was taken down and laid in the tomb and his soul went down to Hades.

We must remind ourselves about the Passion, by which we mean the sufferings of our Lord which ended in his death. There is one special time when we do this . . .  Holy Week. There are several services which help us to see the events. Every Friday is a reminder of Good Friday. 

It is specially important to remember that our Lord is still offering the sacrifice of himself to the Father in heaven and we are still gaining its benefit. What is that benefit? It is that we are ‘reconciled to God’. We were separated from God by sin, but the Cross has taken away the barrier and we are made friends of God. (pp. 51-52)



Last week I wrote about the amazing love God has for us, and the transformation that begins within us as we surrender to that love. Of course, such a surrender has its difficult moments and involves real struggle, especially if we have stubborn wills, or have lacked any real experience of unconditional love in our upbringing and relationships. 

Indeed, it is surprisingly  common for us to push God away, when we ought to be following the best of our primordial instincts and open our hearts to his goodness and love. If we manage to do that, we prove in our own experience the reality of  Jesus’ saying, ‘... if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36).

God’s commitment to us has no limit. That’s the real message of Holy Week. 

Our redemption cost Jesus - God in human flesh - everything. You and I know that, because whenever we come into All Saints’ Church we find ourselves confronted by the large medieval-style carved crucifix on the rood screen.

A stunningly beautiful work of art, dating back to 1911, it is also terrifying in its realism: Jesus himself, towering over us, with Mary and John by the cross, the arms of Jesus painfully fixed to the wood with chunky nails, but also outstretched in a kind of cosmic embrace, drawing you and me more deeply into his love. The first time I saw that crucifix the beginning of the familiar hymn by John Bowring (1792-1872) came to mind:

‘In the Cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o’er the wrecks of time . . .’


We walk with Jesus, step by step to the Cross this Holy Week. He merges his story with ours, and ours with his. This merging of our stories is how he gives our lives meaning and purpose. In the process of doing so he promises us his gifts of grace for when we suffer and for our pain. Sometimes we miss this aspect of Holy Week because we don’t spend enough time musing on chapters thirteen to seventeen of S. John’s Gospel. These chapters deal not just with the Last Supper, but also with the teaching and encouragement Jesus gives about the resources he provides for his people seeking to live for him in this world.

Each of the Gospel writers wants to show us that, his inner struggle notwithstanding, Jesus is calm in the midst of the storm gathering around him, unlike the disciples. He is laying his life down, he knows that!  He understands he will be betrayed and will suffer. He’s praying in the Garden so as to draw strength from his Father’s love. At the same time, he’s trying to help the disciples cope with it all. And he says to them:

‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I go away, and I will come to you” . . .  I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe.’ (John 14:27-29)  

This peace - the same peace that S. Paul says ‘passes all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7) is a gift from the Lord on which  you and I can draw in our own lives if we stay close to him. It is a Holy Week gift. It is not the result of circumstances being favourable to us; nor is it the result of any courage or ‘positive thinking’ on our part. It is - to use another of S. Paul’s phrases - a ‘fruit of the Holy Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22). And it is certainly something on which we should be actively drawing right now as we begin the rebuilding of our lives, families, workplaces and church community in the wake of Covid-19.  


The secret police are on their way to get Jesus. There he stands on the hill, most likely silhouetted against the Passover full moon. A lone figure . . . perhaps even a pathetic one. Certainly no match for his persecutors. Yet while his disciples are fearful and worried he is able to say to them: 

‘The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.‘ (John 16:32-33)

Following on from this, I think it is significant that when he rises from the dead and appears to his disciples, Jesus’ first greeting to them is ‘Peace be with you’ (John 20:19). That’s how serious he is about our being able to draw on his gift of supernatural peace for our own times of turmoil and fear. 

May we have the good sense to do just that, and to trust him more in our everyday lives.


Post a Comment