Rev Canon David Stranack
In the next seven days of Holy Week and Easter our Christian journey takes us through a real contrast of emotions. Today Palm Sunday we celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem amid the cheering and excited crowds as they were arriving for the great Passover festival. Jesus was arriving with the hundreds of pilgrims coming in from the towns and countryside. It was expected that every year thousands would attend the Passover festival, many staying in local villages such as Bethany where Jesus and his disciples stayed with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And there would be many coming from the Galilee district who would have heard Jesus tell of the love and mercy of God and would have seen him showing love and compassion and healing to those who were ill or suffering.
As they approached Jerusalem the crowds welcomed Jesus with such joy and shouting ‘hosanna’, which means ‘Praise to God’, as he rode, not on a horse (the sign of power) but on a donkey, the sign of peace and humility as foretold by Zechariah the Prophet (9.9) ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
Then when Jesus arrived at the Temple he began to cast out those who were not only treating it as a market place but were cheating on the pilgrims with the connivance of the temple authorities for whom it was a great source of income. During the following days Jesus was continually challenged by the temple authorities, by their attempts at trick questioning but they failed to get the better of him. They would liked to have arrested him then but did not dare because of the crowds. Then later in the week, on what we call Maundy Thursday, Jesus with the twelve disciples gathered in the Upper Room for their Passover meal which would be the Last Supper that they would share before the horror of Christ’s rejection, crucifixion and death on the cross on Good Friday.
Traditionally the Passover was a time when Jews recalled and celebrated the Israelites delivery by God from slavery in Egypt. But also at that meal the participants looked forward to the time as foretold by Moses and the Prophets when God would once more intervene as the Messiah, the Christ, to rescue his people once again.
This ‘looking forward’ was symbolized by the action of the person who was presiding at the meal who would early in the meal take a piece of unleavened bread, or matzos, and wrap it in a napkin and set it aside. When children were present it would be hidden somewhere in the house for them to search for it towards the end of the meal. This piece of bread was called the ‘afickomen’ and represented the
long-hoped-for Messiah and they were reminded to look out for his arrival. So at the end of the meal it would have been this bread, the ‘afickomen’, that Jesus would have revealed and announced to his disciples, saying, ‘this is my body which will be given for you’, thereby showing to them that he was that long-hoped-for Messiah. Then he added, ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Our Lord’s giving of himself at the Last Supper prefigured the giving of himself later, on the Friday, when he died on the cross. Every time at our Eucharist we recall Christ’s words over the bread and wine so that when we receive the bread in
communion we are in a spiritual way receiving Christ himself and welcoming him into our hearts and lives.
After that meal Jesus went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. He prayed earnestly, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup (that was the cup of suffering), remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ (Mark 14.36) I often think how crucial that moment was. How easy it would have been for Jesus to run away amongst the shadows of the olive trees to escape arrest. I am sure I would have done just that. But for Jesus, if he had run away we would probably never have even heard of him. His message of the Good News about our God of love, compassion and forgiveness would never have been heard and we ourselves would be lost with no hope of divine salvation. We would have been left at most with the belief that God was a God of judgement and condemnation. We would have been without hope indeed. But Jesus did not let us down. He stayed with his message to the very end, whatever the cost to himself, so that through him we might be saved form the powers of sin and death.
How easily humanity forgets the significance of what Jesus went through and achieved for us all. As easily as those who nailed him to the cross. And yet even at that terrible moment he did not retaliate but prayed, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. St Mark tells us that it was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. (Mark 15.25) this means that the trials before Pilate were very early in the morning, long before the pilgrims that knew and loved Jesus in Galilee would have arrived in the city. (Many commentators and some of our hymns suggest it was the same crowd that had shouted ‘Hosanna’ which condemned him in the early hours of Friday but that could not have been so) Then the Gospels tell us that, ‘When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon (Mark 15.33) and after moistening his lips with the sour wine that was offered to him, all the Gospels record that ‘Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last’. (Mk v37)
St John however who stood at the foot of the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus recorded what that great cry was. As Jesus came to the closing moments of his life on the cross he summed up his remaining strength to cry out ‘tetelestai’: ‘it is accomplished’. So often that word is translated ‘it is finished’ but the Greek word used is more accurately translated ‘it is accomplished’. Jesus acknowledged, with his final
breath, that he had achieved the commission that his Father God had given him and he had been ‘obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross’. And that is why what seemed to be a terrible defeat was shown to be a glorious victory for the salvation of mankind. That is why the Friday of Holy Week is called ‘Good’ Friday. That is why the cross is now a symbol of his victory over sin and death. And that is why the cross is for ever a sign of God’s love for you and for me. And the palm crosses which we hold today are a reminder for us of Christ’s sacrifice of love.
Next Sunday Easter Day Christ’s victory is affirmed when we come together to celebrate the glorious Resurrection for the dead. But in our preparation for that great day let us this week make time to follow those sacred events by our services of worship and our own reading of the Gospel accounts. When we are able to do that, then our Easter celebrations will be all the more real and wonderful. Amen.