Palm Sunday 2020: Contradictions, reversals and paradoxes Psalm118: 1-2, 19-29 and Matthew21:1-9
When Christine kindly asked me if I would offer a reflection for Palm Sunday, I said yes but only on the proviso that I could talk about poetry. She thankfully agreed to this – it may have been what she had in mind all along – so I’d like to talk about three poems which may help us to explore some of the contradictions, reversals and paradoxes of Palm Sunday in different ways. We can see these contradictions within our readings for this morning.
One is the obvious reversal of expectations when Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king, but riding a donkey a a sign of peace and humility. A second is the reversal in the behaviour of the crowds: the crowds who spread their cloaks and palm branches and go ahead of him shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” are the same crowds who only days later will shout “Crucify Him!”, a reversal picked up in one of the hymns we will sing this morning: Sometimes they strew His way, and His sweet praises sing; Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King: Then “Crucify!” is all their breath, And for His death they thirst and cry.
A third contradiction is found in the words of today’s psalm which contains the prophetic verse “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”, reminding us that Jesus’ kingship comes because rather than in spite of his suffering and rejection. The first poem I would like to share considers how the agony of Good Friday is already foreshadowed in the exuberance of Palm Sunday. In her poem, simply entitled “Palm Sunday”, Marie J Post, an American teacher, hymn writer and poet, invites us to accompany her to Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday and to look more closely at other details to see how the gruesome mechanics of Good Friday are already being set in motion even as Jesus is jubilantly welcomed into the city.
Palm Sunday by Marie J Post
Astride the colt and claimed as King that Sunday morning in the spring, he passed a thornbush flowering red that one would plait to crown his head. He passed a vineyard where the wine was grown for men of royal line and where the dregs were also brewed into a gall for Calvary’s rood. A purple robe was cast his way, then caught and kept until that day when, with its use, a trial would be profaned into a mockery. His entourage was forced to wait to let a timber through the gate, a shaft that all there might have known would be an altar and a throne.
Marie Post is employing a degree of poetic licence here – she is not making historical claims about what was present on Palm Sunday, but instead asking us to imagine what might have been there, and in so doing, enlarges our appreciation of this moment as we notice signs and portents of what is to come. But beyond the obvious observation that Palm Sunday was only a few days before Good Friday, what is she saying in this poem? To me the central theme of this poem is kingship. This poem operates by means of a series of juxtapositions: each stanza starts with a snapshot from Palm Sunday and then fast forwards five days to give us a glimpse of Jesus’ Passion on Good Friday. But if Jesus is being proclaimed king on Palm Sunday, he is no less a king on Good Friday; the mockery of the soldiers with the crown of thorns and purple robe unwittingly tells the truth that Jesus is indeed king. Marie Post hints at this early on in the poem when describing the thornbush plaited “to crown his head” and the dregs of wine “for men of royal line.”
But, as so often in poems, it is the final line that is most powerful: the cross on which Jesus dies is an “altar” on which he is offered up as a sacrifice – but also a “throne”: Jesus is enthroned as king at the moment he dies, so far from defeat, she presents this as a moment of victory. If Jesus is king, we might well ask the question of what sort of kingdom is he king of? The Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas, whose poems grapple honestly with the realities of faith and doubt, explores this in his poem ‘The Kingdom’.
The Kingdom by R.S. Thomas
It’s a long way off but inside it There are quite different things going on: Festivals at which the poor man Is king and the consumptive is Healed; mirrors in which the blind look At themselves and love looks at them Back; and industry is for mending The bent bones and the minds fractured By life. It’s a long way off, but to get There takes no time and admission Is free, if you will purge yourself Of desire, and present yourself with Your need only and the simple offering Of your faith, green as a leaf.
I first encountered this poem in a book called Etched by Silence edited by Jim Cotter, originally produced for visitors to the village and church of Aberdaron where Thomas was parish priest. This slightly unusual book contains 52 poems by Thomas, each accompanied by a short reflection in the bottom right-hand corner of each double-page spread with plenty of blank space to record your own thoughts if so minded. It offers an excellent introduction to Thomas’s poems: I have been reading a poem each day in Lent which I have realised will leave me with a few left over when Easter comes – it would have been better to read one poem per week for a year – but Thomas has been a wonderful companion through this season. Jim Cotter’s reflection on ‘The Kingdom’ reads as follows: A kingdom where ‘the poor man is king’. If so, either the man ceases to be poor or the organization known as a kingdom implodes for no worldly kingdom can operate from poverty at the centre.
A deceptively simple poem, full of the paradoxes that are at the heart of the Gospel. Cotter’s point that no worldly kingdom can operate like Thomas’s kingdom is an important one, but this poem perhaps asks us to scrutinise our own worldly kingdoms as much as the kingdom he is describing. Healing for the sick, compassion for the blind and mending of bent bones and fractured minds should not be as controversial and unfamiliar as they are made to seem here, reminding us how easy it is for our perspectives to be skewed towards the mighty and powerful. The real paradoxes, however, come in the second half of the poem. Thomas repeats the phrase “it’s a long way off” but then adds that “to get there takes no time and admission is free.” In what sense is this kingdom “a long way off”? In time, space or another dimension? I am very grateful here to Andrew Taylor, who over several years in a homegroup together, has helped me to understand that “the kingdom of God” does not just have to refer to a kingdom in heaven, in the future, but can describe here and now.
So perhaps this kingdom is “a long way off” in terms of the attitudes and values of our world, our tendency to put ourselves first, to consolidate the earth’s resources for ourselves rather than sharing them with others. And yet how easily Thomas says we can change this through “the simple offering of [our] faith, green as a leaf”. It’s not easy at all, of course, and there are no easy answers in RS Thomas. I’m not sure why he describes faith as “green as a leaf” – perhaps it is meant to suggest child-like innocence, echoing Jesus’ words when blessing the children that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” – but it seems to suggest that it is through simple acts of faith, kindness and compassion that we build the kingdom of God. At our present time, we might be seeing more of these green shoots and leaves of this kingdom. Our sense of what a kingdom is seems to be imploding just as Cotter described as our society learns to value those who serve rather than those who have power, and seeks to prioritise the needs of the vulnerable above all. We might want to ask ourselves where we are seeing these green leaves of the kingdom around us and how we can be part of it.
The last poem I wanted to share comes from Malcolm Guite’s fantastic collection Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year. Malcolm Guite is a contemporary poet, priest and rock musician, and in this sonnet sequence he follows the rhythms, moods and narratives of the church year to tell our story in language which is both densely packed with allusion and meaning whilst also communicating with real simplicity and clarity. In his sonnet for Palm Sunday, Guite sees Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as representing a journey into the human heart:
Palm Sunday by Malcolm Guite
Now to the gate of my Jerusalem, The seething holy city of my heart, The saviour comes. But will I welcome him? Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start; They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing, And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find The challenge, the reversal he is bringing Changes their tune. I know what lies behind The surface flourish that so quickly fades; Self-interest, and fearful guardedness, The hardness of the heart, its barricades, And at the core, the dreadful emptiness Of a perverted temple. Jesus come Break my resistance and make me your home.
This is a poem which invites us to locate the drama of Palm Sunday inside ourselves, acknowledging that we are all capable of the same inconstancy as the crowds in Jerusalem; that the “easy feelings” of initial enthusiasm can quickly be threatened by “self-interest, and fearful guardedness”. Guite, like Marie Post and RS Thomas, recognises “the challenge, the reversal he is bringing” – a world where might is not always right and where the strong may be forced to switch places with the weak. But whilst honest about our fickleness, the poem ends with a hopeful prayer, reminding us that this story doesn’t have to unfold within our hearts in the same way that it did in Holy Week: the final couplet simply asks “Jesus come, / Break my resistance and make me your home”, a prayer we may wish to adopt as our own this week.
I’d like to finish by reading Malcolm Guite’s own words about this poem, and then re-reading the poem itself as a prayer. What would it really mean to welcome Jesus as King into the Zion of one’s own heart? How is the city already occupied and governed? Who is in charge now and how is power divided? Is there an uneasy compromise in my own inner Jerusalem, such as there was in the outer Jerusalem of Jesus’ time? Is there a grand-looking temple where lots of time- worn rituals can be repeated as long as it makes no trouble for the secular administration?
And that secular administration – the bit of me that makes the day-to-day financial decisions, about who should have my time, for how long and for how much, the administration that decides what to buy and what to sell, what to acquire and what to lose – for whom is it really working? Am I in charge there? Or is my governing ego, like Pontius Pilate, really and fearfully beholden to another power structure? Are the big corporations and their advertisers actually running the show, manipulating my sense of what I need? Perhaps the Pilate of our little ego is in fact working for their empire. And what about the general population of my heart?
The crowds of feelings and memories and thoughts, caught between the temple and the court, swaying this way and that, are not sure who to follow, or where their true loyalty lies. Can I invite Jesus into all of that? And if I do, what will happen? (Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness, p.154)
Palm Sunday by Malcolm Guite
Now to the gate of my Jerusalem, The seething holy city of my heart, The saviour comes. But will I welcome him? Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start; They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing, And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find The challenge, the reversal he is bringing Changes their tune. I know what lies behind The surface flourish that so quickly fades; Self-interest, and fearful guardedness, The hardness of the heart, its barricades, And at the core, the dreadful emptiness Of a perverted temple. Jesus come Break my resistance and make me your home