Palm Sunday

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Westminster Cathedral

As we begin this Holy Week and accompany the Lord in his suffering, death and resurrection, there is an image I would like you to keep in mind. It is a vivid image that comes to us from the journey of the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, a journey which represents our pilgrimage through life. 

A moment in that journey is described in these words:

'Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, 'Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?' And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod, twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle.' (Numbers 20)

This life-giving water came from the rock-face as a gift of God, a gift that not only saved the people and their cattle from the thirst that tormented them, but also gave them hope and promise for their entire journey.

In our lives we too come up against many rock-faces. These we will identify and explore during this Holy Week. And we shall also see how the promise of Jesus, through the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in the world, breaks open each solid rock that we face so that it becomes a spring of living water. This is the Easter mystery, the story of our salvation, which we are to enter, celebrate, enact, and receive again in this Holy Week.

Today, Palm Sunday we have heard the Gospel account, from St Luke, of the triumphant procession of Jesus and his disciples. We were told that they set off, from near the Mount of Olives, along the 'downward slope' to the city. Those of you who have been to the Holy Land know that it is a steep downward slope indeed.

Jesus is entering the city. At first it seems a moment of triumph. But we know that this quickly turns into a time of opposition, of ridicule, of antagonism, of arrest, torture and death.

In some ways the city is the solid rock, the obstacle that seems to stand, immobile, with its rules and its culture, directly in the path of the Lord and the proclamation of the Gospel.

We too encounter such a city. We too, as we try to live and proclaim our faith in our daily lives, find ourselves standing before what seems to be a solid rock of opposition. We often find ourselves up against a hard veneer of indifference to our religious and spiritual sensibilities. The air we breathe in so many places seems to be corrosive of trust, of goodness, of truth. We are pressed to be cynical about any claims of goodness, to join in an undercurrent of mockery of the things of faith.

Perhaps we recognise in our experience in this world something of the experience of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He talks of trying to speak to those who are weary of heart, of enduring insults and facing constant opposition. Perhaps we find the same in our daily lives too.

Yet this is a rock-face which Jesus comes to strike and from which he produces that stream of clear, refreshing water.

He entered the city. He faced the opposition. He bore the insults and the spittle. As St Paul tells us: 'He became as all men are and being as all men are he was humbler yet.'

Every unyielding rock-face that we encounter has already been faced by Our Lord. The Gospel tells us that he faced the betrayal of Judas, one of his chosen few, and the denial of Peter, whom he had appointed as their leader. This was heart-breaking, the kind of rock that can lay us low. But Jesus accepts it for he has the power to strike that rock and bring forth from it new and living water.

How is this done? What do we find in Jesus which transforms the harshness of our daily lives, of our city, into living water?

Today we listen to his words from the cross. There he is, at the centre of the harshest realities of life, with those who were his executioners and with those who had become rough and dangerous men, robbers and bandits. They represent the worst of our world. Yet they stand for us all. And what does Jesus say of them? 'Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.' And then, 'Today, I tell you, you shall be with me in paradise.'

In those words, the rod strikes the rock. At that moment we are asked to see all that is around us through new eyes. We are invited to look again at those whom we know and whom we think of as lost to the things of faith, coarsened by the habits of our city and far from the touch of grace. With these words of the Lord in our hearts we begin to see that the rocky landscape of our world is in fact full of the signs of the goodness of so many people, full of a desire to act justly and love tenderly, even if those desires do not always come to fruition. In our rocky world the water does not seem to flow. Yet it is there, way below that seemingly barren surface. The water of God's grace has gone underground, yet it still rises to give flower to human goodness, generosity and sacrifice in so many places.

As we attend to the Lord we can begin to see with his eyes, and judge with his insight, and respond with his tenderness and love. Then, the harshness of daily life is broken open and the gentle light of the ever-present Holy Spirit begins to shine through. Then our lives are transformed, for we see that even in the most unforgiving of landscapes there is still to be found the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which hovered over the original chaos to produce an ordered world. Then we begin to see our world as under the influence of the Holy Spirit, an influence which we Christ has come to re-establish and strengthen and which we can gently nurture and increase by our example and witness.

Today, Jesus enters our city. He comes into our secular world. His is a transforming presence. He strikes the rock and brings forth water. With him we begin to see how the work of God goes forward, flowing in the goodness of so many, in the worthiness of their efforts for others, in their generosity and self-sacrifice for good causes, in their desire to forgive and heal so that others may live again.

The work of striking this rock and bringing forth its water is a costly journey. It is this journey we are to follow this Holy Week and it will bring us face to face with the hardness of our own hearts and with the ultimate, unyielding rock of death itself. But today we sense and see the victory of Christ in his entry into the city.

Our calling is to sing 'Hosanna'. Our task is to raise our voices and to rejoice in all human goodness. By our words and actions we are to proclaim that this goodness is a reason for all people to praise God in prayer and for all people to come to thank God in Christ in the company of the Church. When we sing of the goodness of our world then we draw people to the Lord.

Praise to you O Christ. God has raised you up. You are the king of eternal glory. Praise to you O Christ. Amen


+Vincent Nichols

24 March 2013.