Matthew 21.1-6; Philippians 2:5-11; Psalm 31:9-16;
The news these past ten days brought into sharp relief once again the plight of those who are looking for a better life for themselves and their families, away from fear, persecution, poverty and death.
First a surprise announcement of a long-discussed deal between the Canadian and the US government over irregular migrations, whereby Canada would accept 15,000 migrants from the west in exchange for the closure of the Roxham Road. Roxham has been the way through which over 50,000 desperate people, men, women and children have been able to find safety in Canada in the past year, literally walking into our country – with a few doing the reverse journey to the US.
And then, in the past few days, the news of two families – one Indian, one Romanian – trying to cross from Canada to the US on the St Lawrence river – six adults and two children – found dead in Akzesasne, south west Quebec – a result of the tightening of immigration rules and the danger of trying to cross the border in the hands of people traffickers.
A moment of national soul searching is happening as we heard of this – similar to that which happened after the death of 2 ½ year old Alan Kurdy as the plastic dingy which was taking him and his family from war torn Syriah to Greece and relative safety capsized, leaving him, his brother and mother dead.
Today, on this Palm Sunday, we experience a few days in the life of Jesus which turned from the elation of the promise of walking into Jerusalem to a point where betrayal leads to torture and death.
In the palm Gospel which we read as we started our liturgy, we can feel the echo of the joy of seeing the anticipated City in the distance, and the promise of a donkey waiting to help with the rest of the journey.
It is the end of a long journey for Jesus, a journey of transformation and change for many he encountered, and there is much excitement and elation amongst the group of followers who are travelling with him.
No palm branches in the account by Matthew, but instead cloaks spread on the road like a red carpet set for the Oscars, branches cut and waved in the air. And the sound of Hosannah, which Christians have associated with joy, and yet which to a Jewish ear at the time would say: please save us.
A lot of hope and celebration, which will soon be dashed.
We have just listened to the full account of what we call the Passion of Jesus, the account of his last few days. In one way, the telling of this story on Palm Sunday pre-empts the liturgies that will be unfolding in the coming week – particularly on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday when we will be joining deeply in these important and tragic moments in the life of Jesus.
But it also helps us to set the tone for Holy Week, a week like no other, during which our souls will journey to the depths of despair as well as the heights of renewed hope, as we ourselves become participants in that history of salvation which is at the core of our faith.
A week during which we touch the abyss brought about by human behaviour against the one who was sent as God’s proof of unconditional love to humanity.
Because this is a week when Jesus, during the Passover meal, turns upside down the idea of divine leadership by forcing his friends to allow him to wash their feet. And it is the week during which he directs his friends to remember him by breaking bread and sharing wine, thus giving us a way to recognise his presence among us. It is also when he alludes to his imminent death which they still do neither understand or want to believe.
Because Jesus is so attuned to human nature, he knows of the imminent betrayal of the one who will hand him over to the authorities with a kiss, but also of the betrayal of his own friends too fearful for their lives to acknowledge that they even know him, too unaware that they can’t even fight against sleep and provide comfort in Jesus’s time of great distress.
A time when even Jesus, the son of God, shares deeply in our human anguish as he begs his Father to let him off the hook from what he is about to face, until he finally recognises that that destiny cannot be changed.
And the travesty of justice driven by human fear and greed for power takes its course, in a way that we can so easily recognise to this day.
Baying crowd, powerful lobbies that want to retain their privileges, leaders swayed by opinion and too weak to resist beyond the formalities.
And so a man is driven to a cruel death. But as we know, that is not the end.
During this Lenten period, I have been reconnecting with the writings of Thomas Merton, someone who started life as an overprivileged young man with a dissolute youth, who encountered God while at University and eventually grew in faith to such an extent that he became a Cistercian Monk, spending a life of silence and contemplation while also coming to international fame through his writings about his own inner life as a way to help others on their faith journey.
In his book ‘The courage for Truth’, he reminds us that Christ did not die on the cross so there might be devout Christians.
Jesus did not come to start a new organised religion, but instead to try and reconnect us with the God that we can know in the scriptures but also around us and within us, through our experience of the world and in our life of prayer – as we stop, silence the noise of our lives and listen deeply.
Jesus teaches us to recognise God’s presence by getting to terms with who we are in all our many imperfections and yet knowing that we are deeply loved and are ourselves part of the great divine Mystery, unfolded in his love.
And recognising that those around us are equally loved by God regardless of their imperfections and also part of that great divine plan.
During Holy Week, we are once again invited on an inward journey, a journey which is devastating, because it is a journey in which we are forced to recognise that as we watch Christ being crucified, we too bear a share of responsibility.
We recognise the actions of those who crucified the historic Jesus, and know that if we had been there, we may well have done the same. And we know that, even today, by our actions or our inaction, by our self-interest, our betrayals or by our sleepiness, we are part of systems that continue to crucify Christ over and over again, and men, women and children all over the world end up on the cross too, whether these crosses may be shaped like overfilled dinghys, sinking islands or places of devastation, war and terror, or even the many addictions that have the power to destroy us.
And yet, and this is the extraordinary and unsettling truth: from his cross, even as he is dying, Jesus looks at us and prays ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do’.
And to the one on a cross next to him, Jesus says: today, your place will be with me in paradise.
St Matthew’s account finishes with this terrifying image of the curtain of the Temple torn in two from top to bottom.
This is his fulfilment – that through his death, the world order is changed forever, and we can see God directly without human mediator. The ways of the old temple are gone, as we are called to be the new divine temples of God’s presence in the world.
May God bless you richly with self-knowledge, insight and vision on this spiritual journey in this most Holy Week.