Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on Palm Sunday

Gospel: John 12:1-18

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers & sisters – Happy Feast!

At last then we come to the end of our 40 day Lenten Fast. Today the solemn Lenten vestments of purple are changed for Green or, at least, Greenish vestments for this holy feast of Palm Sunday. It is wonderful as well to see more people gathered today in the Holy Temple, some for the first time or after trips away during the Lenten season. A refrain that we heard many times over last night at Vespers is the following –

Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together, and we all take up Thy cross and say: Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest’.

‘Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together’. As those of those who were present at the reading of the Life of St Mary of Egypt just over a week ago, might remember that there was a strong tradition in the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts that after the monks had spent their Lent in solitary struggle, they would joyfully return to the sound of the Monastery bells in time for the Vigil of the Feast of Palm Sunday in order to celebrate the salvific services together of Holy Week. Part of the joy of today’s feast is therefore that, after this time of individual Spiritual Spring Cleaning, we are reunited together again to celebrate this Feast at the start of Holy Week.

As is our usual custom, to help us interpret our Gospel text from St John’s Gospel concerning the anointing of our Lord at Bethany followed by His Triumphal Procession into Jerusalem, let us turn to the 4th Century commentary of St Ephrem the Syrian.  

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.

Our Gospel reading starts by reminding us of the utterly extraordinary miracle which had taken place just the previous day. Our Lord’s dear friend, Lazarus who now sits quietly at the table, only a few hours earlier had been wrapped from head to foot in burial cloths a slowly decomposing, stinking corpse, but is now alive and risen from the dead. It is thus vital, dear ones, that we approach today’s feast, as well as these forthcoming, dread and great days of Holy Week aware of the great miracle, the wondrous Sign that our Lord wrought at Lazarus’ stone tomb in Bethany.

Giving us before Thy Passion an assurance of the general resurrection, Thou hast raised Lazarus from the dead, O Christ our God. Therefore, like the children, we also carry tokens of victory, and cry to Thee, the Conqueror of death: Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord’

This is why our Lord’s fateful and final ride into Jerusalem is not the climax of a tragedy. By raising Lazarus, we are able to see that the walk of death, the Via Dolorrosa, the Way of Sorrow is in actual fact the Way of Life, the Way of Victory, the Way of Resurrection. For our Lord has come and shown us that He is the Mighty Conqueror of Death.

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

As there are many Marys in the Gospel, just to avoid any confusion, this Mary is Mary the sister of Lazarus, and we see here how she echoes that most heartfelt and pure devotion of the ‘sinful woman’ in Simon the Pharisee’s house that we were meditating upon together last week: pouring costly ointment onto his feet, and with deep thanksgiving from the depths of her heart, wiping His feet with her hair. Whilst Martha took up her traditional practice of serving the Lord, Mary again engages in this wordless act of worship to the Word made Flesh. We can only imagine her joy and wonder at the resurrection of her brother as well as her gratitude to God.

Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.

Then, just as we heard last week, cutting across this pure act of love and devotion to Christ, there is this cold, distant and calculating judgment of a stony heart. Judus, just like Simon the Pharisee, did not have the love of Mary or the love of that nameless, sinful woman. Of course, as the Gospel says. Judus’ concern for the poor was not a genuine one, but born out of his avarice, his desire for money. In his commentary, St Ephrem makes an interesting observation about Judus –

Our Lord, because he saw that he was greedy for money, had placed him in charge of the money to satisfy him and prevent him becoming a traitor for the sake of money.

It is important that we see that Judus was in no way predetermined to betray Christ, that he was doomed and destined to do this, regardless of his will. No, this is not our balanced Orthodox understanding of the human will and agency. Instead, our Lord in His mercy, in his compassion and love towards Judus, still tries to encourage Him towards the Good, foreknowing that he had the will and the coldness of heart to betray Him. He hoped that by being able to dip his hand into the common purse, this would satisfy his desire for money without having to take the extra step of betraying our Lord for yet more money.

Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

Again, in the midst of this joyful supper of the four-day-dead Lazarus, our Lord turns us again to His now imminent death and burial. This juxtaposition of death and life, of joy and sadness will be an ongoing leitmotif of our Holy Week services.

Much people of the Jews therefore knew that he was there: and they came not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead. But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.

St Ephrem draws out the deep irony and paradox of the situation:

The Law prescribed that he who kills must be killed. But they were saying, ‘Let him be killed, because he has restored life’

As St Ephrem said, the Law said that those who kill should be killed. But who did Christ kill? Who did Christ hurt? Who did Christ punish? It is rather the opposite is the case. Far from killing He brings back to life those who were dead, even four-days-dead. Christ restores, heals, raises and make new. And yet, this is the One who they say should be killed. Here brothers and sisters, we should see what a dangerous passion envy is, how it can cause us to hate those that we should love and condemn Life itself to death.

On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt.

In his commentary, St Ephrem beautifully compares the start of Christ life with its ending some 33 years later –

He began with a manger and finished with a donkey, in Bethlehem with a manger, in Jerusalem with a donkey.  

We see in this the all-wondrous and consistent Humility of the Word of God that flowed from Him consistently from the womb to the tomb: from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond. His Life was one continual self-emptying, a continual outpouring of Sacrificial Love. Just as He is born in such humble surroundings, not even being granted a home or a hearth, but just a meagre manger – so too see with what humbleness, what simplicity the King of the Jews, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, comes into His Holy City. Not on a fearsome stallion, not on a war horse or chariot, but rather, on a small, friendly, domestic donkey. This is how our Lord approaches His city, and this is how He approaches each one of us, with meekness and lowliness of heart. This scene though of our Lord on the donkey, heralded by children, couldn’t be a better image for us, a better ikon for us of the God Who we worship. The One whose Wisdom turns the so-called wisdom of this world entirely on its head: the Lord, the Master Who will wash the feet of His servants.

St Ephrem finally turns his attention to the children, again linking the beginning of His Life with its End.

At his birth and at his death children were intertwined in the crown of his sufferings. The infant John jumped for joy within the womb on meeting him, and children were slain at his birth … It was also children who proclaimed his praise when the time of his death drew near. Jerusalem was in turmoil at his birth, just as it was in turmoil again and trembling the day that he entered into it.     

The innocent, the simple, the pure and guileless ones of this world, they can see Who has come. They can see the Infant and behold God Incarnate. They can see the One on the donkey and see the King, that the Prophet Zachariah foretold, riding into His holy city. It is the worldly-wise, those who are proud, those who consider themselves experts in the Law, those whose hearts are cold and stony, it is they that cannot see at all, Who miss God Himself when he walks pass them.

So, my dear father, brothers and sisters, let us hold our Palms aloft today as the Symbol of Victory in honour of our Meek and gentle Lord who comes to us in simplicity and humility. Let us marvel at this most strange Procession that we mystically witness today and with the Hebrew children, with the awe and thanksgiving of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, let us recognise Him as our Lord and God, the Servant King and cry out: ‘Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.’