Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass Palm Sunday 2015

Mark 11:1-10
Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Mark 14 & 15

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” So Shakespeare makes King Richard III say at the battle of Bosworth Field. The rest, of course, is history, even if that history had a strange coda this week as the long dead king was finally buried.
Why a horse? Because horses, from ancient times, could be trained for battle. Indeed right up to the first world war the war horse was a standard feature of the military scene.
But not donkeys. Donkeys are peaceable animals, if a bit daft. Think Eyore. They can’t be battle trained. So in the ancient world, and certainly in the tradition of Israel, a King riding on a horse meant war, but a king riding on a donkey was showing that he came in peace.
This is what Solomon did, for example, when he was acclaimed King during an attempted coup. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, to show that he was coming to take up his kingdom, but in peace.
So when Jesus gets on a colt, which in this context is a young donkey, the crowds recognise immediately the Royal claim that is being made. Here is their king, coming to take up his kingdom. But he comes in peace, like Solomon of old.
As we would expect from Mark’s Gospel, that isn’t the only Old Testament reference packed into this passage. Apart from King Solomon, there is the prophecy in Zechariah:
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.
So, riding a colt is a sign of kingship; but we see immediately that it is a strange kind of kingship, one marked by humility. It is a sign which both proclaims kingship and subverts the idea of domination based on power and strength. Zechariah says that this King will “put away the warhorse from Jerusalem” to bring an end to violence and instigate the reign of God’s peace.
There’s more. Mark’s account tells us that the colt was tied up. Of course, it would have been anyway, to stop it wandering off, so why does Mark go to the trouble of mentioning it? Well, at the end of the Book of Genesis, as Jacob lies dying, he utters mysterious prophecies about his descendents, the twelve tribes of Israel. Of Judah he says:
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the peoples is his.
Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine.
So a tied up colt is a reference to the Messianic King who will descend from Judah in the line of David. Even in that little detail Mark is underlining who Jesus is claiming to be.
Also, we are told that the crowd spread their clothes before Jesus. And in the Second Book of Kings the same thing happened after Elisha anointed Jehu as King of Israel following the disastrous reign of Ahab and Jezebel. So Jesus is proclaimed as the alternative to the corrupt and violent rulers currently in charge of Jerusalem.
Even the way that Jesus gets hold of the colt tells us something. It isn’t given to him; he requisitions it. “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.” In the ancient world, requisitioning means of transport was a royal prerogative, and the mere fact of doing it was making a royal claim.
And the crowd respond with joyful cries: “Hosanna”, which was originally a word of prayer, meaning “save now!”, and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”, from Psalm 118, originally a blessing uttered by the priests over pilgrims on their arrival in the temple.
But by the time of Jesus both of these had acquired Messianic overtones. They were greetings, not just for anyone, but for the long awaited Messiah.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t hold back on making the point. In his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is being acclaimed as King and Messiah, the long awaited ruler who will bring in God’s Kingdom of justice and peace.
And so Holy Week opens. And it is the key to understanding the whole of what happens in Holy Week. From the Last Supper, through Good Friday, to the resurrection, Jesus is King and Messiah, and is showing what that means. “Hosanna!”, cry the crowds, “save now!”. And Holy Week is the answer to that cry, as Jesus comes to them in the name of the Lord.
The one who can save his people is King, but without violence, a King revealed in humility and service, the King of Peace. He is the Lord’s anointed ruler, the Messiah – but anointed with ointment for his burial. Anointed as the Priest who will put an end to sacrifice by his offering of himself. And he is the King who will conquer death by his own death, and reveal his kingdom through the resurrection.
And this is conveyed mostly by what Jesus does, rather than by what he says. This is true in fact for all the gospel readings in Holy Week. What Jesus does is central. In the modern world in the West we have become very cerebral, focussed on words and ideas. But images and actions are just as important.
As a Church, we meet to perform a liturgy, rather than just to exchange high ideas. That is in itself a corrective to our modern tendency to focus everything on our minds. The sacraments are not lectures, they are things done, and by doing them God brings about what they signify.
By participation in the liturgy the story of salvation becomes interwoven with the story of our lives. Our Baptism sets the pattern of the whole, and our weekly sharing in the Eucharist transforms and binds us more and more to Christ’s offering of himself for us.
The liturgies of Holy Week are particularly and intensely dramatic. As we have seen today. Sure enough, you’ve had a sermon on the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, but the fact that we’ve enacted it will probably have a more abiding impact.
It will be the same throughout this week. The liturgies of Holy Week are a once a year opportunity to weave the Gospel more thoroughly into our lives by enacting what we believe.
In the washing of feet on Thursday we will be in the upper room, at the procession to the altar of repose we follow the disciples to the garden of Gethsemane, we watch with them into the night. On Friday we approach and venerate the cross and stand in solemn prayer with the whole Church. On Saturday night we greet the new light rising in darkness, we walk with that light to the font of rebirth, and then gather at the altar facing East as the risen Lord comes to us under the forms of bread and wine.

These liturgies have a power of their own, through what is done as much as what is said. They open us more fully for Christ to come alive in us and be formed in us. Through them we are offered every year a fresh experience of the risen Lord as the heart and meaning of our lives. And there is nothing that can be more important than that.

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