A sermon for the Palms and the Passion

At the beginning, the tempter had urged him to make bread, to bow down, to throw himself from the temple and be saved by the angels. In the end, the people would taunt him and tempt him to leave his cross of shame and show them all what he could really do. On the night that he endured as much stress as any one can handle, the knowledge that he was about to die, to leave his friends, his followers bereft, his legacy in tatters, smeared as a criminal, his mother in tears. In the garden, he wrestled with his own issues, wondering whether he could go through with it, whether he might take them up on it, either quietly, leaving them sleeping in the grass, or loudly, with legions of angels to cloud the air.

Instead, he stayed.

Despite the sting of the betrayer’s kiss, he stood still. Despite Peter’s denials, he would not deny himself. Despite their choice of another saviour, another Jesus, one who lived by the sword instead of by love, he loved them; he let them call him their king. Despite the taunting and the torment and the scourging, he would not leave his post.

Welcomed through one gate as with Hosannas, he was ushered out through another with hatred, yet he never turned his back on them.

God has never turned away from us.

Even in our deepest provocation, when we grieve the soul of God so deeply that the divine one can barely bear the cup of sorrows that we hold up, the gall and the bitterness; still God does not turn away. We see in the person of Jesus, in the Passion of Jesus, the endless endurance of a God who loves us, without reservation; who forgives us, without exception; who redeems us from the mouth of the grave, without counting the cost.

We see a God who stays with us.

What can we offer in return to one who gives us everything: in whom we live and move and have our being? What does he ask of us but this:

Sit here a while, and pray with me. Keep awake a while; stay with me.

It is so hard to stay still in a world that is constantly running around. It is harder still to sit with someone in their pain, their sorrow – our instinct is to turn away, to find something to do, to busy ourselves instead of listening, pull away rather than to draw closer. We fall asleep with the news on, begging us to pay attention to the need that surrounds us, the need for reconciliation, for justice, for peace. We fall asleep while the world pleads for our prayers.

This Holy Week, I would invite you to try to sit awhile with Jesus, to stay with him and pray, in this Sabbath of the Christian year, this seven-day set aside for the redemption of the world. Stay with Jesus, walk with him as he journeys the Way of the Cross. He has, after all, never left us lonely when we needed him; and the more deeply we can enter into his life, death and resurrection, the more keenly we will feel his presence in our own.

If you can bear to hear it, Dom Denys Prideaux OSB put it this way:

‘The Cross is the only key to prayer. You will never pray well unless you take the hammer and the nails, and the spear and the thorns, and the hyssop dipped in vinegar, and go to Golgotha stripped and bare, and in physical agony as well as agony of mind and soul, re-enact the Crucifixion in your own members, making up what is behind of the sufferings of Christ. You can only plead through Lips that were once parched and cracked and stained with blood – your prayer can only be heard if it is joined to that stream of intercession that pours forth unceasingly in Heaven from One who once was “slain.” Impassible though He be now, He is not unfeeling, and His very memories of Good Friday wing your prayers.’[1]

It is hard to find time, in a world run wild, to sit and to pray. And yet it is so little that Jesus asks of us, really, when all is said and done, and he asks of us nothing that he has not already done for us. All he asks is for us to stay with him a while.

The church will be open each day of the coming week, and each evening, one way or another. Services are offered Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, culminating in the Eve of the Resurrection, a foretaste of the Feast to follow, on Saturday night.

Sit here a while, and pray with me. Keep awake a little while longer; stay with me. Because if we sleep through Holy Week, the empty tomb makes no sense, the Easter bells ring hollow. But if we stay, we discover piece by piece, as Edward Bouverie Pusey wrote, to whom I’ll give the final word:

‘He wept, that we might weep no more; but God should be “very gracious to us at the voice of our cry.” … By that Cry did He, with His Own Blessed Spirit, commend our spirits also to the Father. For us, “though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered;” that “being made perfect,” He might become “the Author of Eternal Salvation to all them that obey Him.” His Shame is our glory; His Blood our ransom; His Sweat our refreshment; the Streams from His Side our Sacraments; His Wounded Side our hiding-place from our own sins, and Satan’s wrath; His Death our life.’[2]

 

[1] Dom Denys Prideaux OSB, ‘Prayer and Contemplation’ in Laudate (Quarterly Review), Nashdom Abbey, December 1944, quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, complied by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; paperback 2003), 547

[2] Edward Bouverie Pusey, Sermons during the season from Advent to Whitsuntide, Oxford, 1848, pp. 120-3, quoted in Rowell et al., 398

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