On Palm Sunday Christians celebrate and remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In many places palm branches and palm crosses get blessed and there is a procession, just as 2,000 years ago Jesus rode on a humble donkey and was greeted with shouts of “Hosanna!” — “Save now!” — by the pilgrim crowds.
A Spanish nun, Egeria, who visited the Holy Land around the year 380 describes the bishop and people processing from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, carrying palms and olive branches and “the babies and the ones too young to walk” being carried on their parents’ shoulders. It is a deep human instinct to identify with historical moments of profound significance by re-enacting them in dramatic ways. So the story of Palm Sunday becomes our story, our journey with Jesus to the city where He is to meet his death.
One of the popular traditional hymns for Palm Sunday was written by Henry Milman, a Victorian dean of St Paul’s. He wrote dramatic poems and romantic verse dramas, as well as some of the first studies of biblical history to root Scripture in the culture of its day (he gave offence by describing Abraham as “a nomad sheikh”). In his Palm Sunday hymn, Ride on, Ride on in Majesty, he sees the Palm Sunday procession as a poignant, funeral procession — “in lowly pomp ride on to die”. Indeed, that is how this Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday, unfolds.
If there was an expectation among the Palm Sunday crowds that this was the beginning of a revolution in which Jesus would drive out the oppressive Roman occupiers, it was not to be. The week that begins with Palm Sunday moves inexorably through ever darker moments: the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (the garden of the pressing out of the olives), betrayal, arrest, torture, mocking, scourging and a trial that shows both religious and political leaders as utterly unconcerned with truth (as Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asks dismissively, “what is truth?”).
So on Good Friday Jesus is nailed to the cross of a criminal in the agony of crucifixion, a scarecrow figure hung between two thieves. That agony ends with a cry from the psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the darkness of this dying a Roman soldier points to this tortured figure and echoes the words first heard at Jesus’s Baptism: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
It is the powerful paradox of the Christian gospel that in this dreadful dying what men and women have seen and known is a God who does not stand aside but who comes down to the lowest part of our need. Matthias Grünewald could paint this tortured figure in that most powerful of medieval religious paintings, the Isenheim altarpiece, showing the figure of Jesus with scabrous marks of the same skin disease from which the patients in the hospital in Colmar in which it was displayed suffered. Here is a God whose love reaches out in its fullness to prison cells and torture chambers, to sufferers from Aids, and the victims of natural disaster, to the dying which must come — in whatever ways it comes — to each one of us, and to the lesser deaths that mark the pattern of our human lives.
Death mocks at the hollowness of our human achievements — we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it — so our worth is measured not by what we do but by what we are. It is not “I do, therefore I am,” but “I am, therefore I do”. And what am I? It is one made in the image of the love of God, who freely gives, and loves us unconditionally with a love that will not let us down and will not let us go. It is the victory of that love at Easter, which breaks into the world surprising us with the joy of a new creation. Easter does not undo Good Friday; it is not, as a Christian thinker once put it, “a descent from the cross postponed for 36 hours for reason of effect”. It is a new life that is born in the grave, in the darkness and nothingness of death, which makes of our dying “the gate of life immortal”. As this week Christians walk the way of the Cross it is to be renewed in that faith, and in that love — in the God whose love will never let us down and will never let us go.
The Right Rev Geoffrey Rowell is Bishop of Gibraltar. The Times