Here we stand on Palm Sunday at the start of the week we call Holy. There is expectation in the air as Jesus enters Jerusalem and the crowds flock to see him with cries of Hosanna. Here we stand at the end of Lent as we look towards the Friday we call Good and the Easter celebration of life over death, light over darkness, and love over hate: there is hope on the horizon.
Here we stand one year on from the first Covid lockdown after a Lent which seems to me to have gone on for that whole year. Lent is traditionally a wilderness experience in the life of faith and the Church’s year, and this has been a wilderness experience, in which we have shared far beyond the Christian community with all our neighbours. And there is expectation in the air: there is hope on the horizon.
The hopes of Palm Sunday were soon to be dashed as the king coming to his throne upon a donkey was betrayed, mocked, judged and executed. His throne was to be the cross of Calvary, his resting place a borrowed tomb, just as his place of birth had been a borrowed room. Hopes dashed, and yet Easter comes.
For many this year theirs has been a truly Good Friday experience of pain and loneliness, fear and hurt, and tragically death. After the grand entrance of Palm Sunday things went quickly downhill. You could be forgiven for asking, ‘where on earth is God in the midst of all this?’ I expect some have asked that very question this past year too.
The Christian response has always been this: God is there right in the middle of it. The events of Holy Week show us Jesus walking the way of suffering as he goes the way of the Cross. We see our God in the heart of human weakness and need.
Although it might seem that Jesus is the victim of events at the mercy of the powerful religious and political elite, you can’t help getting the feeling that in the midst of all this tragedy he is the only one in control. Pilate and Herod with all their power don’t really know what to do – we’ve seen powerful men of politics looking pretty weak this past year too. Jesus is the calm powerful presence in the midst of human chaos. So maybe the crowds on Palm Sunday got it absolutely right when they acclaimed Jesus as King with their shouts of Hosanna.
This king was to go on and have that Last Supper with his disciples, at which he took off his robes and put on the towel of the lowly servant in order to wash their feet. It is the only time in the Gospels that he calls himself Lord when he is washing his disciples’ feet. Here we see a glimpse of true kingship, real greatness, served up to us in someone who kneels in front of us to look up into our eyes. This is hallowed ground – no wonder we call the week Holy.
I’ve been struck this year with how important eyes have become as a means of communication. There’s not much else to see when a face is masked. We’ve seen doctors and nurses masked up the eyeballs looking into the eyes of their patients, who sometimes have had to wear oxygen masks. This too is hallowed ground.
I think what I’m trying to say is that Holy Week which begins today is not essentially a liturgical or theological nicety for people who like that sort of thing. It is every bit about human life and experience. It’s all there - wilderness and emptiness, power and weakness, friendship and betrayal, life and death, service and selfishness. It’s all there, and this is precisely where God himself is found.
Love is present in the midst of all this human weakness and strength. Love is present in the women, amongst them Jesus own mother Mary, who don’t abandon him, who watch and wait with him as so many people have this year watched and waited with their loved ones. God’s love is present where human beings mirror and reflect that love.
In a way Holy Week is all about love, and maybe this past year has shown us that the heart of everything we are, everything we do and all that we yearn for is exactly that – love, giving love and being loved. For us Christians, God’s love is expressed at its most powerful upon the cross, yes, right bang in the middle of weakness.
The miracle of Easter Day is just as down-to-earth as well. Those women who stood by the cross, those frightened disciples who ran away from it, become bearers of good news, namely that death does not have the last word, rather it is love which has the last word. And many of us have been there this year as well, as we have seen the triumph of love.
As we enter into Holy Week may it resource us for the times ahead as we emerge out of lockdown. Our faith gives no easy answers to life’s challenges, nor do we peddle some kind of cheap grace. It tells simply of a Christ who is with us in all of our human experiences from the best to the worst, our Good Fridays and our Easter Days. As we journey our God comes with us, ahead of us, alongside us – keep up the hosannas.