Homily for Palm Sunday

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Today is too much for us really, more than we can take in.

There is the entry into Jerusalem: so positive, so promising. Here’s the Messiah entering Jerusalem, hailed as the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Then comes ‘the hour of darkness’ and in the end Jesus sealed in a stone cold tomb, wrapped up and left on a limestone shelf in a quarry turned into a cemetery.

Perhaps it helps to think of the Passion account of St Luke as a play. Around the Chief Character there’s a whole cast, named and unnamed, from Judas to Joseph of Arimathea, from high priests to Roman soldiers. There is a crowing cock and off stage a veil is torn. Crowds howl, women wail, there’s a place called the Skull and the sky goes dark. Break down what we’ve heard and you find an Act with seven scenes: the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Jesus’ Arrest, the trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, the trial before the Roman Governor, the Crucifixion and Death, the Burial.  There’s the feel of a procession, movement through space: a room, a garden, houses, courtyard, place of execution and finally a tomb.  There’s measurement of time: an evening, a night, a daybreak, a sixth hour, a ninth hour, a Sabbath approaching. There’s rhythmic repetition: three times Peter denies him. Three times Jesus is mocked. Three times Pilate appeals to the crowd. Three crosses are raised on Golgotha. Three times Jesus speaks from the Cross.

The Passion lends itself to the metaphor of a play. After the original reality, come the performances of the Gospels and the Liturgy. We know how the medievals loved to recreate it in Mystery plays, how cities in the south still hold Holy Week Processions. We know about Mel Gibson and Oberammergau. And what does the play do? We sense it has huge significance. Surely, it creates an ache in the heart, an ache to understand, to get it, to feel it. Listening, I feel like someone stretching out their arms to something they can’t quite grasp. Or, I think of a domestic animal who knows there’s food on the family table, knows it can’t jump up, but sits there, looking up, pleading, hoping for something to fall or be given.  Do we long, shouldn’t we long for this drama – which isn’t just past, which has power now – at least to touch us, grab us, shake us, drop something in our soul? A cousin of mine watching a play of Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, was so affected that, at the end, she couldn’t move and just sat there sobbing as the theatre emptied around her. I saw the same in the Belmont in the winter when the British premiere of the film Sobibor was shown. At the end, again, someone broke down and couldn’t leave their seat, a few friends comforting them. Mary isn’t mentioned directly in St Luke’s account, but was there, we know. Stabat Mater. What did it mean to watch her flogged and crucified son dying, as ‘darkness came over the land’? She, the immaculate, the mother, pure sensitivity. Talk of trauma! What was done to her that Friday? What changed in her? What happened to her heart and her face? What kind of memory did she carry for the rest of her life? What did everything, everyone else look like ever after?

Strikingly St Luke calls the Passion a “spectacle”, a theoria, that is, something you watch, a ‘show’. He writes, ‘when the people who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had happened they went home, beating their breasts.’ They didn’t just see and forget. They saw and were changed. ‘When the centurion saw what had taken place, he gave praise to God and said, “This was a righteous man.”’ And Jesus’ frightened friends and the women disciples, ‘saw all this happen.’ And the latter followed Joseph of Arimathea, and they ‘saw’ the tomb and the body’s positioning. All this seeing happens as the strange divine darkness, the eclipse, that had shrouded Jesus for the last three hours of his life must have been lifting. It happens as candles were being lit for the Sabbath. It subtly suggests a resurrection.

These were different seeings from those of the Sanhedrin or the people who called out ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Different seeings from Herod and his cronies, making fun of Jesus, or the guards who blindfolded him and were the blind ones themselves. When Jesus turned and looked at Peter after his denial, Peter ‘went outside and wept bitterly’. Those tears washed the eyes of his soul.

What is this Passion about? What can it do for us? How did Pilate sleep that night? What went through the centurion as he lay on his bed in his barracks? Who did Peter talk to? Did anyone put an arm around his hunched shoulders? Did Mary? What does the Passion do for us? Leave us praising or sobbing or beating our breasts or resting and waiting, or just numb? What difference does it make to have seen this play, to see it year after year? Do we see differently now? Have we seen something that can change our seeing of everything and everyone forever?

Lord, that I may see!

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 14 April 2019)