Homily given by Cardinal Vincent Nichols on Palm Sunday, 14th April 2019, at Westminster Cathedral
Today we relive the entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. Those who have been to the Holy Land can readily visualise the steep path down from the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley and up to the Golden Gate of the Temple. This is the path of the victorious procession of Jesus, with waving palms and shouts of acclaim. Yet, as we know and have just heard, it was a procession leading to condemnation, torture and death.
This procession brings to mind the prophecy of Isaiah when he said: ‘See, my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights’ (Isaiah 52:13). At one level these words speak directly of this entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, for it was always understood in the Jewish faith that the long awaited Messiah would enter by this very route.
Yet in our Christian faith we read that prophecy in a different light.
Yes, Jesus is exalted by the crowds. Yes, he is lifted up onto the back of a donkey so that he may be seen by all. Yes, in this moment he does appear to prosper. But we know what is to come.
Jesus will be lifted up, but on a cross of shame and suffering. Yes, he will prosper, but in an entirely different way: in being raised from the dead, prospering in a victory over death. Yes, he will rise to great heights, to be seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Yes, he will be exalted: by the voice of the faithful raised in praise and thanksgiving, even as we do this morning.
So, here are questions that face each one of us: What is the praise that we seek? Whose acclaim is crucially important to us? What are the heights to which we aspire?
These days of Holy Week, starting today, are the moments in which we can recalibrate our ambitions.
As we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we are invited to see in him the embodiment of the ultimate aim of life. I once heard a couple who were about to get married say that their deepest desire was to help each other get to heaven. Such was their faith that they could see beyond the successes of this world to another dimension of life and hope.
The painful path of Jesus, in which we follow, takes us away from clinging to ambitions which can bring only temporary praise and reward. His path helps us to see beyond this life to the summoning of a life beyond death.
The pain suffered by Jesus is neither random nor pointless. Rather it is a stripping away of all that would obstruct the ultimate will of the Father; that in his Beloved Son, death would be showed up for what it is: a fear and a darkness that blind us to the horizons beyond this world. It is the Father’s will that such fear and darkness be banished and that we should know, beyond doubt, that a greater life and love await us, if we are free to be embraced by them.
If the suffering of Jesus, which we contemplate today, is neither random nor pointless, neither is the suffering that comes our way. Far from simply robbing us of independence, making us rely on others, far from simply inflicting pain and distress, our own share of suffering, whatever it may be, can prepare us to receive far greater gifts than those we lose. When we follow in the footsteps of Jesus our eyes are opened to see beyond the grave and to live in the light of that far greater hope of eternal life and the glory of God. This is the ‘lifting up’ which matches our deepest longing. This is the purpose for which we have been created. This ‘lifting up’ is higher than the back of a donkey, higher than the driving seat of an SUV, higher than fleeting fame, higher even than a solid and rewarding family life.
This is the hope we embrace again during this Holy Week. We ask the Lord to fill our hearts with the assurances of a strong faith in him, by which we shoulder our burdens and challenges with quiet perseverance just as he did. With this faith we can have a keen eye for the limitations of all that this world offers and not permit its attractions and joys to blind us to the true and lasting hope he alone can offer.
Let us walk this week together, with our faces always turned to the Father; and with Jesus his beloved Son, who shows us the way, who is with us in every dark valley, who carries us in the weight of his cross and frees us by the shedding of his blood. He is with us. Let us go with him. Amen.