On Palm Sunday 2020
Some years ago, in preparation to lead a guided reading class, I read through hundreds of letters from both victims and survivors of the Shoah, the Holocaust. The point of the class was to discuss how the interior life of individuals – their connection to the Divine – somehow not only survived during that devastating period, but – in some cases – flourished. So, in addition to writers like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer I chose some excerpts from letters of ordinary people who were simply trying to make sense of what was monstrously senseless.
Although I ultimately only chose letters from adults, feeling that the interiority we were looking for was perhaps more evident in their writing, I came across letters from children as well. One such letter I found was from a young boy of twelve named Moshe, from a family of Hungarian Jews. Though he and his immediate family would eventually perish at Auschwitz, Moshe had an aunt and uncle in the United States, and he wrote to them about the experiences which would eventually lead to him and his family being taken away. Life is generally simpler for children, and Moshe's letter did not address the fear and anxiety that adults were writing about at the time, as I imagine that his parents sought to shield him from that which they, of course, could not ignore. Moshe wrote instead about the confusion he was experiencing regarding his interaction with others in his town. People with whom he had grown up, who knew him, who tousled his hair and smiled at him; other children who played football with him, who laughed and carried on as children will do; these people, seemingly from one day to the next, were different. The smiles and the playing and the laughing stopped, and Moshe entered into a world where it seemed he was invisible, a ghost shackled by the silence of others. His confusion was overwhelming, and writing to his aunt and uncle, Moshe put on paper a question which reached further than that town in Hungary, or even that camp in Poland where he would breathe his last, a question into the complexities of human nature itself: He wrote: “What made them change so quickly?” “What made them change so quickly?”
Why is it, do you think, that the Church gives us not one but TWO complete versions of Jesus' Passion in the course of five days' time? Of course, it can be said that the Passion of Jesus Christ is the central story of our faith, so it makes sense that we should hear it as much as possible, but this is not why the Church remembers it twice in such a short span of time. Today's proclamation of the Passion is given to us not solely to reflect on the horror of the event, but to hear it in light of the other Gospel of this morning, that of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Our service began with a that, with thanks to God for our Messiah. Here in such a space it would be too difficult, but if we were in church I'd be dressed in a cope – a symbol of celebration – and be heading off in a procession through our city from one of our churches to another. And who – well, who of my ilk, I guess I should clarify – doesn't love a good procession? They're solemn and significant and wonderful, processions, uniting our hearts and our feet as we walk towards something grand, the journey itself an avenue of insight and grace.
No solemn and joyful procession for us today, of course. But, lest we get too caught up in the fact that we're not processing, not waving palms in each others' company, the fact remains: even if we had been able to celebrate in church as I'm sure we all wish we could, our journey, our procession would lead us to the same place: to the death of the Saviour, and we who just minutes before sang our hosannas and our glory laud and honours have just said Crucify him! And we find, if we pay attention to the ancient rituals we observe this day, that more than the entry into Jerusalem and more than the death of the Saviour, what the Church celebrates this day is how easily we seem to be able to move between one and the other. What the Church celebrates today is, in essence, a reflection on Moshe's question: “What made them change so quickly?”
We could, of course, vociferously deny any such change in us. We could, of course, say that had we been around in Jesus' day we would not have been so fickle, we would have stuck with him to the end, as did his Blessed Mother. And I'd like to think I would have, would like to think we all would have.
But I must admit that though I would like to imagine myself in that crucifixion tableau next to the Mother of Jesus and the disciple whom he loved, I know that the very real possibility exists that I would be like Peter, cowering in fear. I know it, because I have seen what effect sin can have on me – on all of us. I know it, because I have seen the destructive horrors of putting other things or people before God, of judging others, of falsehood, of not loving as we ought to love. We know, if we're really honest with ourselves, that that which made them change so quickly can still, sadly, be among us, and this day encourages us to look at our lives, at – though no one likes to hear the word – our sinfulness, in the shadow of the cross. Only by its power can we be strengthened; only by its power can we become, more and more, people of love and not hate; only by its power can we become, more and more, people of generosity and not selfishness; only by its power can we become, more and more, people of hope and not despair; only by its power can we become, more and more, people of light and not of darkness; only by its power can we become, more and more, people of life and not of death.
Maybe you'd like to return to the joy of the procession-that-never-was. Good grief – a sinful vicar's talking about sin! Where's the Good News, you might ask?
Well, the good news is that this is just the beginning of the story. We've got this whole week to go over it all, to walk through the hope, the betrayal, the suffering and the death once again. But the good news is that that which makes people change so quickly can itself be changed, just as quickly. And what could possibly make people change back again?
Well, spoiler alert: we'll find out next Sunday.