Only once in the last 40 years have I taken leave during Holy Week. It was a time when I had Long Service Leave and went overseas on holiday. It was good to be part of a congregation and to experience Holy Week from a different perspective. On Palm Sunday we went to Westminster Abbey. I remember it well because the church was packed with people and we shuffled around the Church for at least half an hour if not more singing, ‘All glory, praise, and honour to you Redeemer King…’ The music was exquisite but the experience of shuffling around the church felt a bit like being in the middle of a tin of sardines squashed together, not at all like the carefree crowd I imagine on the Mount of Olives accompanying Jesus down into the Kidron Valley singing their praise and waving their palms. On that occasion I imagine children in the crowd running free and not really knowing what was going on, but enjoying the festive atmosphere, the colour of the cloaks strewn across the path to create a kind of red carpet of welcome for Jesus’ donkey to ride on.
Have you ever been in that kind of crowd – festive, joyful, and jubilant? It’s a crowd with high expectations, and a vibrant – almost palpable – hope. It’s the kind of crowd I imagine that would have greeted returning soldiers and nurses from the first and second world war – so relieved that war was over – so thankful that peace has come at last.
However, the account of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a story laden with hidden messages that only those who know the scriptures well are able to pick up. On the surface it’s a story with a carnival atmosphere, but the storyteller weaves into this story the promise given by God of a Redeemer, an anointed king coming to set things right. That’s where the donkey comes in – a donkey that has never been ridden. The prophets of old spoke of God’s anointed one coming into Jerusalem not in a stretch limo or in a great show of power and strength as would happen if the king rode on a fine war horse. On the contrary people would recognise God’s anointed one if he came as ‘one-of-us’, not in fine robes, not with signs of wealth and power, but on a humble donkey – the work horse of the poor.
The stories of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel emphasise that he was born among the poor and visited first by shepherds. And throughout his life we see Jesus reaching out to those on the margins, giving them hope, healing their diseases, drawing them back into the centre of life, and welcoming them into the loving care of God. Jesus was a ‘giver’ not a ‘taker’ and on this day as he rides down into the Kidron Valley and through the gates of Jerusalem he knows that this coming week will involve giving everything, even his life.
Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist interned in Auschwitz by the Nazis, wrote: We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way. His words could well describe Jesus and the choices that he made, to give not counting the cost to himself. And Paul, reflecting on this urges us to choose the same when he writes: let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself…
I look forward to seeing you through Holy Week as we mark the love of God given to us so freely in Jesus Christ.