Holy Week in Wilton
The Rt Revd Richard Chartres
HOLY Week begins with cheering crowds on Palm Sunday, but the applause soon turns to cries of “Crucify him!”. As the week goes on, Jesus is betrayed by a friend and deserted by the community which he had gathered around him. Finally, he faces Pilate – alone, but not entirely alone. The Passion story shows him all the time closely in touch in prayer with God his Father, until that last haunting cry from the Cross at the ninth hour, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?”
There are so many resonances in the story of Holy Week as many of us experience a compulsory retreat. Looking at the story of our own lives and reflecting on the story of Jesus Christ can uncover some of those questions about the meaning and direction of our lives which we are usually “too busy” to face.
There is much to encourage us, even in a time of real crisis. We are rightly encouraged by the upsurge of volunteering. Those who just think of looking after Number One shrink. As Jesus said, “whosoever will save his life will lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake will find it”. Holy Week takes us to the profound depths of this truth, which makes sense of our lives and which animates the universe.
ON Palm Sunday, Jesus the prophet of Nazareth in Galilee, makes his entry into Jerusalem. Salvation comes from the provinces, but the final act of the drama is played out in the capital. It is as the prophet Zechariah foretold, “Shout O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold thy king cometh unto thee, righteous and victorious and riding upon a colt, the foal of a donkey” [Zechariah 9.9].
Even in the present crisis, people cry out for a saviour and are savagely disappointed when the quick fix does not materialise. Then the blame game begins.
The prophet Zechariah expected that the appearance of the “king” would bring about the rout of Israel’s enemies. “I will stir up thy sons O Zion against thy sons O Greece and will make thee as the sword of a mighty man” [Zechariah 9.13].
The crowds in Jerusalem hail Jesus as a liberator. “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” Using a phrase from the Psalms [Psalm 118], they look back to the glory days of King David and the monarchy; days when Israel was strong and defeated her enemies. Such memories made a painful contrast with the situation of Jerusalem in the days of Jesus: an occupied city, with a garrison of Roman soldiers in a fortress overlooking the temple. No wonder, as the gospel says, “all the city was stirred”.
The crowds were, however, soon disillusioned. The triumphal entry to Jerusalem is described in chapter 21 of St Matthew’s Gospel, but already by chapter 22 we are shown a scene which explains why the crowds were disappointed. Some of the learned élite, hoping to collect evidence to convict Jesus as a threat to the imperial government, show him a coin and ask whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The coin in question probably bore the image of the Emperor Tiberius with the legend “Son of the divine Augustus”. Jewish ultra-nationalists refused to handle such coins, but Jesus took the coin and said, “Render to Caesar the thing that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
In the ancient world, Caesar was treated as divine; but Jesus refuses to identify the Imperial Regime – or, in our case, the Government — with the will of God. He does, however, acknowledge a proper place for the government of Caesar. There is a secular sphere in which people of different beliefs can co-operate under the rule of law without putting into question our ultimate loyalty — as Christians — to God, as we see him in Jesus Christ. The Christian faith does not make God into Caesar, and we can with a good conscience pay our taxes and follow government instructions as the crisis unfolds.
But the crowds with their memories of the warrior King David were expecting a rather different kind of liberator, and their hosannas were short-lived. By the end of the week the hosannas had turned into a chant of “Crucify him!”
As we view these events from the other side of the Cross and Resurrection, we can hail him as the true king for whom the human race is longing. As he comes on an ordinary beast of burden, we can see him as king of a new style of kingdom. By welcoming his advent, we are called to responsibility for building this kingdom, and for building together the church as a foretaste of the kingdom; a community of trust and celebration which can be seen and experienced as an authentic vision of the realm of King Jesus. This responsibility is still one to be exercised in our restricted circumstances.
Our cries of Hosanna, and our recognition of Jesus as the King who comes in the name of the Lord, commit us to praying down this kingdom and to living it out in the here and now: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”
THERE are many ways of describing what the kingdom would look like if it arrived in Wilton. Here are just three themes especially relevant to our current crisis.
There is nothing wrong with loving one’s own country, but the backward-looking vision of the crowd on the first Palm Sunday had divided the world into “us” and “our enemies”. In Jesus Christ, however, there is no East or West. “In one Spirit we were all baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free: and were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
We are called to build a kingdom in which there is a wider and wider “us”. That is even relevant for a community like Wilton. I pray that the upsurge of neighbourliness which we have witnessed may deepen the channels of communication and increase mutual respect as we grow together as members of one body. As Christians, we must be at work day by day extending the boundaries of the kingdom by loving and serving our neighbours indefatigably, and especially — like the Good Samaritan — when our neighbour does not belong to our tribe and has no way of repaying us.
A wider “us” but also a deeper “now”. The crowds were looking back to the glory days of the independent kingdom. Their memories were of triumph and conquest. The arrival of the king, not on a white horse but on a donkey, like a magnet draws out of the biblical narrative a different pattern of memories. Humility and self-giving involve sacrifice and suffering, but in the light of Christ’s cross and resurrection we can see them as the way to build the kingdom that endures. The kingdoms and empires of the earth are established in blood taken. The coming kingdom of heaven is founded on blood given. It will be a kingdom of justice and well-being for all, which does not depend on the violent domination of one group by another, and which does not lead to the unequal exploitation of the fruits of the earth by the rich.
Sometimes it feels as if we are too busy looking back with nostalgia to a remembered golden age to look forward with any expectancy. Any church in which the Spirit of Jesus Christ is lively always has a sense of the coming kingdom. We are not called to drop out into some other “spiritual” world. We are not called to be at ease in this passing dispensation. We are to anticipate the world to come.
The Christian “now” is nourished by remembering the Cross and the suffering of Jesus Christ at the beginning of this week of his Passion, but our “now” is also marked by a longing for the kingdom of God of such intensity that our expectancy exerts a gravitational pull on the present. Ours is not a fantasy faith. Holy Week reveals the cost of entry into the kingdom, but its climax is in the joy and new life of the Day of Resurrection. If we want to experience that joy then every day we must seek to pattern our own life on the life of God, “who so loved the world that He was generous and gave Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ”. Jesus embodies God’s plan for the spiritual evolution of the whole human race.
A wider “us”, a deeper “now”, and, lastly, a better “good life”. Jesus Christ borrowed the donkey on which he made his entry into Jerusalem. He ate his last supper with his friends in a borrowed room. As it says in scripture, “foxes have holes but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.
We all need food, clothing and shelter. One of the most promising things about own time is the way in which millions of people have been lifted out of poverty (as defined by the UN in the Millennium Development Goals). But, beyond a certain point, we are being sold the idea that having things is the recipe for happiness. At every turn we are presented with alluring pictures of the good life that will be ours if we have more things to live with. I remember a witty trader inviting me to step into his shop with the words “Come in and buy what you know you don’t need”.
Some people are compelled to live a simple life. I remember a Church Army sister who had devoted her life to the service of homeless women. She didn’t see the point of Lent because she lived lean all the time, but for some of us the present restrictions are an opportunity to review our pattern of consumption.
The open secret of the good life is not more and more things to live with but more and more to live for. As a priest, I have often had the privilege of accompanying people as they die. Very few are full of regret that they did not spend more time in the office. The regrets are most often about neglected and broken relationships. The Christian vision of the good life is not having more but being more.
In Holy Week, as Jesus Christ hands over his life to the Father; as he prays for his enemies and says “Father forgive them”; as he commends his mother to the protection of the Beloved Disciple, he offers us a pattern of life which is a blessing to others. It is a life which contains the promise which Jesus holds out to us in the gospel of St John, of “life in all its fullness”.
A wider “us”; a deeper “now”; a better “good life”: aspects of the kingdom which Jesus Christ this day rode into Jerusalem to inaugurate. Our hosannas hail his advent as king, but we know that his is a throne which is not occupied until he suffers death upon the Cross. Please pray for me as I pray for you as, together, we look again at our lives through the glass of his Passion.