Amidst the Palm Branches

Who is this Jesus?  Who is this Jesus the one who is called the Christ?

In an exhibition in London’s National Gallery two years ago the question was set before the people of England in the bringing together of paintings, and icons and images from around the world.  Visitors were confronted by the many different interpretations of his life, in the faces which were portrayed and the scenes which were represented.

Who is this Jesus?   It was in testimony to the answer to this very question that the Church in which we sit was built.  It is in response to this question that we gather this morning to worship.  This Holy Week we cannot escape it.

At the very start of our Christian year, in the readings appointed for the first Sunday in Advent (back in November) we were reminded of the event which we commemorate together again today.  That day on which Our Lord rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, that day on which the crowds thronged the streets to greet him, laying out their garments, waving palm branches as banners, and singing songs of praise: the very same song that Christians have sung together each time they have met to celebrate the Eucharistic meal: “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest!”

That question must have been at the forefront of the minds of the crowd, as we know it was in the minds of the disciples.  Who was Jesus?  Why was he coming to Jerusalem?  What was he going to do?

The writers of the Gospels provide us with a rich tapestry of the experiences of the last days of Jesus’ life.  Not one of these accounts is a complete testimony to the events of that first Holy Week.  Each is like one of those different portraits in the National Gallery, confronting this question of who Jesus was, and indeed who he is, and emphasising different things from his life in an attempt to provide an answer.

It is important for us to remember that the Gospels were written some time after Jesus’ life on earth; and they were written because his life and his death were not the end.  The Saintly writers knew the end of the story, as we do.  They knew that Christ had risen, and they knew that he had ascended.  Inspired by the Holy Ghost, they wrote accounts of the last days of Jesus’ life precisely because those days had a new significance in the light of his resurrection on that first Easter Sunday.

We are confronted this morning by the account of St Matthew who remembers Our Lord being brought before the Chief Priests after they had plotted to kill him.  And St Matthew provides us with much detail about how all of this came to be.  He reminds us of the events which led to the Passion (in the preceding chapters): the washing of Jesus’ feet by the woman with a jar of perfume; the plotting of the Chief Priests; the Last Supper; the betrayal by Judas Iscariot; all of this in the context of Jesus’ continued teaching of the people in Bethany and the Galilee, about the coming of the Kingdom of God, in parables and by many miracles.  And this question is always anticipated: Who is Jesus?  What is the significance of his message?

Today in our Gospel reading, we are confronted by a story which begins with the tragedy of plotting and betrayal; and then the horror of a crowd who reject Our Lord in place of a political criminal which leads to the sentence of death.  And we see this question being asked of Jesus by the Chief Priests, and by Pilate, and by the soldiers, and by the onlookers – who are you?

Throughout St Matthew’s account we are alerted to the links between the events of these few days and the prophesies of old.  For the early Church were assured by Christ’s resurrection that he was indeed the fulfilment of all of the hopes of the Jewish people; and all of the hopes of the Gentiles too.   And St Matthew wants to underline this fact: that each of the small details of the Passion point to this fulfilment which has been so long awaited.

In our act of remembering this morning, just like that first Palm Sunday, a procession will take place as we come forward in small groups to the Holy Table, and we shall proclaim the Benedictus Hymn of Praise in our liturgy.  But the palm branches which we hold have been moulded by members of our Congregation into palm crosses.  In a very real way our celebrations, and particularly the Supper which we shall celebrate in today has become cross-centred.  At the beginning of Holy Week we anticipate the events which follow at the end, and we hold them together in tension.  And our whole lives strive to be formed into the ever-present reality of the Cross; for the throne of Christ, from which springs our hope of salvation is this very Cross. Christ our king is crowned with a crown of thorns, enthroned on harsh wood, bound their by the nails of our sin.  Above him reads the sign, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  And all the while the evil of the world is manifest in the gambling of the soldiers below him, and the mocking of the thieves who surround him on the other crosses.

St Matthew remembers the great cry of Jesus before his death, the cry of dereliction. “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” and the groaning of Jesus is mirrored after his death in the groaning of all creation, as darkness falls, as the earth quakes and rocks are rent asunder.  But the Saintly writer anticipates too the celebration which is to come, for the moment of the pure sacrifice of the Christ is followed by the resurrection of the Saints, who endorse by their rising, all that he has achieved.

The Prophets point to him; the yearning of Creation points to him; the broken veil in the Temple points to him; the rising of the Saints points to him: and finally those standing at the foot of the cross point to him too.  Who is this Jesus? By faith they exclaim: “Truly this was the Son of God.”

The world around us will care very little about our Holy Week observance.  They will find our question about who Jesus is of little importance amidst the busy-ness of their lives.  And so we must pray this week, praying more earnestly than ever before, for those who do not know the good news of God’s love; or who know it but have not responded to its call.

The Gospel writers were inspired by the Holy Ghost to draw attention to particular aspects of Jesus’ life, this they each do faithfully, but differently.  May I humbly encourage each of us to spend some time each day this week following the four different accounts; and as we read again the good news of the fulfilling of the prophecies in the work of Our Lord, let us look back in our own lives and remember the ways in which God has fulfilled the promises which he has made to each of us.  For our own lives as Christians, interpreted in the good news of the Cross, through his grace, speak of that good news of Jesus Christ too.  Our lives point to him, our lives will begin the questioning in others of who this Jesus is.

As we begin again this year’s contemplation of the week of Our Lord’s crucifixion and death, let us contemplate afresh his suffering on the Cross for our redemption.   Let us strive together for a renewal of our faithfulness, that we may walk in obedience; that we may love as he loves; that we may be mindful of our sins; and that we may turn and call upon his name for forgiveness.

And as we come to the Holy Table this morning, to receive the symbols of Christ’s commitment to us who “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” let us meditate on that holy death made once for the sins of all, and affirm in our hearts (as we feed on him) that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.