Given on Palm Sunday, 20 March 2016, at Westminster Cathedral.
Today we enter Holy Week and I welcome you to this solemn celebration of Palm Sunday. I welcome especially the staff and seminarians from Allen Hall. Please pray for them, our future priests.
Today we join the Lord on his entry to Jerusalem. In faith we recognise him as ‘our King whose cause is won, his victory gained’ (Zech 9.9) and we follow him with joy.
All this week Jesus is held before us, lifted up before us for all to see. Indeed this is the theme for the next days, for this Holy Week. I ask you to keep in mind, as a refrain, these words of our Blessed Lord: ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (Jn 3.14).
Today Jesus is lifted up before us, first onto a donkey and then, at the end of his journey, onto a cross.
Today, in his entry into Jerusalem, we see him heralded, praised, welcomed, and acclaimed by his disciples and the crowd. And in our procession we have identified ourselves with them.
Today, then, we learn from these events about discipleship, about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.
The first thing we learn is that the crowds do not understand too much about Jesus or what it means to follow him. We too recognise how much we have to learn, to absorb each day about the true depth and implications of being a disciple. So we take our lesson from the words of Isaiah that we have just heard: I ‘wake each day with a disciple’s ear.’ This is what we are to do: to start each day by giving our full attention to the Lord, in listening deeply for his presence and his prompts for us and by offering him our first thoughts and prayers.
The second lesson we learn today, as we follow the events of this Palm Sunday, is how easy it is for discipleship to be put aside. Disciples, we learn, are fickle, easily distracted. The disciples fall asleep out of weariness; they erupt into arguments and jealousy; Judas betrays Jesus to his face; Peter denies he has ever known him.
This is our story, too. Sometimes our discipleship is only skin deep. We too get weary with the whole enterprise; we too lapse into argument about who is to do what; we too hide our faith for convenience or comfort’s sake. This we can learn and reflect upon today.
Yet there are pictures here of great faithfulness, too: Joseph of Arithamaea comes in all hesitancy and fear to claim the body of Jesus; the women return to care for his body, anointing it with oil and with their love. That is how we too try to be.
As we face these truths of our discipleship we need not be afraid, neither of our failures, nor of our Lord. Today, and every day this week, as the Lord is held before us, whether on a donkey or on a Cross, he is the face of the Father’s mercy. Within the embrace of this mercy we can truly renew and deepen our discipleship, step by step becoming true friends of Jesus.
There is for us in today’s Gospel a portrait of mercy which is so helpful. It is focused on Simon and his conversation with Jesus. Simon is told by Jesus, ‘you will be sifted like wheat’. Yes, Simon will be tested by all that is about to happen. We know that Simon will deny all knowledge of Jesus.
We too let go of the Lord when tested or sorely tried by circumstances. We too let go of him and turn to other sources of hope.
But here we must listen to the next words of Jesus. He says, ‘I have prayed for you, Simon that your faith may not fail’.
Yes, this applies to us too. Jesus says to each one of us, especially at the moments which we find most difficult: ‘I have prayed for you, Vincent, Helen, Robert, Marie, Peter … that your faith may not fail’.
Then, Jesus says to Simon: ‘Simon, once you have recovered you must strengthen your brethren’.
God’s mercy is given not only to forgive and comfort us, but also to set us more fully on the road of service towards one another. Here is the true purpose of the loving mercy of God.
During this Holy Week, let us embrace this mercy, the gift of him who is lifted up before us that we may see and follow him more closely, day by day.