Homily for Palm Sunday

‘We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.’

Today, 72 years ago, 9 April 1945, a German Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was put to death in Flossenburg Concentration Camp, for his resistance to Nazi tyranny. On the eve of his execution he left a message for a friend in England. ‘The victory is certain.’ The war was almost over and it was obvious the allies would win. Bonhoeffer meant much more than that.

‘The victory is certain.’ That is the message of everything ahead of us this week. ‘We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you…’ The Cross and the Resurrection are the victory over sin and death, over everything that diminishes us. The victory over the powers of evil that imprison the world. The victory of true love and real life.

‘The victory is certain.’

‘Like a sapling he grew up in front of us’, says Isaiah: a beautiful, fresh, already fruit-bearing tree. ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit’, though, they say. ‘Let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more’ (Jeremiah 11:19). Listening to the Gospel we’ve just heard, no image strikes me more than that of a tree. And as the story moves from episode to episode, it’s as if the tree is stripped of its leaves by a howling, bitter wind. Then the axe-men approach, lopping its branches. Finally comes the blow to the root, and with a great cry the tree falls to the ground. Jesus is stripped of the loyalty of his friends, betrayed by one, denied by another, deserted by all of them. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he yields up his natural desire to live. In his arrest, he loses his physical freedom. In the trials before the Sanhedrin and then before Pilate, he’s deprived of elementary justice, of the truth, the protection of the law, the right to defend himself. In the many mockings, he’s stripped of his dignity. He loses the favour of the people, the religious and secular authorities, the soldiers, the passers-by, even the criminals. He’s stripped of respect and reputation. He’s thrown into a fire of pain. ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’ He seems to lose even the felt sense of his Father’s closeness. Our whole effort in life is to add to ourselves, to know more, have more, be more: experiences, achievements, relationships, money, reputation and all the rest. Jesus, on the contrary, undergoes a process of subtraction, diminishment, reduction. He’s stripped, plucked, filleted, filed down and finally felled. He’s reduced to zero, or minus. ‘Many dogs have surrounded me, a band of the wicked beset me. They tear holes in my hands and my feet. I can count everyone of my bones’ (Ps 21). The tree is reduced to a stump. The God-man dies with a great cry. But ‘the victory is certain.’ And a pagan soldier sees it, ‘This man was Son of God’.

That cry was the cry of the Son of God. It included all our cries and tears and longings, and it was heard by the Father. And that bond of Father and Son, that unbreakable love, that stump in the ground, all that’s left, is enough. It is a rock, and sin and death and all the negativities are shattered on it. It’s our foundation. It’s what makes the Resurrection possible. It’s what gives everything back better. It means that, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and all the saints and martyrs, we can ‘always and everywhere’ say: ‘the victory is certain’.

‘We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.’

(St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 9 April 2017)


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122