The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Palm Sunday Morning Service at Home      5th April 2020
Standing out from the crowd
Jim Walters

We all know that this is an extraordinary Holy Week. Since the Fourth Century, Christian celebrations of Easter have focused on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the church that marks the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Holy Week it would normally be packed solid with pilgrims every day. But this year that church is closed for the first time since the Black Death in 1349. So we are in, if not historically unprecedented, then extremely unusual times. Not just in Jerusalem, but all around the world, we cannot have our palm processions, we cannot wash one another’s feet, we cannot strip our altars, we cannot gather together at the foot of the cross. And that feels extremely difficult and sad.
But it also raises some really searching questions for all of us. Because if Holy Week this year isn’t about the familiarity of ritual, the beauty of music, the companionship of Christian community, then what is it about? Holy Week need not be special this year. You need not watch these films; no one will know. You might feel you’re just going to skip it all for once. Because Holy Week is only going to be meaningful this year if you find that meaning within yourself. The Church is still here. We are still in solidarity with one another and providing these virtual devotions. But more than ever, the onus is on you to make the events of Holy Week real for you and ask what meaning they truly have in your life, this year and every year.
So it’s ironic we begin the Holy Week story with what is currently impossible for us – what St Matthew describes as “a very large crowd”. You get the sense that it was an excited energising crowd. They’re shouting hosanna which is one of the few Hebrew words we find in the New Testament, and it means “Liberate us”. So this is a crowd full of hope and joy. Just the kind of positive collective experience many of us are really missing right now.
But the crowd in the Holy Week story, just like most crowds, is ambivalent, even fickle. By the end of the week the crowd is calling for Jesus’s execution. There’s a darkness in the crowd, a groupthink that can manipulate the emotions and bring out the worst as well as the best. And that rings true in our own time too. As this crisis has escalated we’ve seen everybody coming together, standing at their doors and windows to applaud the courage of our NHS workers. But we’ve also seen people fighting over supplies in supermarkets, stockpiling food with no thought for the elderly and vulnerable.
How we as individuals relate to crowds depends on what’s going on inside ourselves. Do we have the strength of character, the wisdom to be part of the crowd when it’s good but to stand out from the crowd when it turns towards vengeance and egotism? The great shame of St Peter in the story of Holy Week was his realisation that he didn’t, but Jesus forgives him anyway.
Being a person who can engage thoughtfully with the crowd but stand apart from it when necessary has a lot to do with the cultivation of inner life. And that, for a Christian, is about the deepening of our identity as a redeemed child of God through prayer. Part of the reason our current circumstances are so challenging is that prayer is more countercultural than ever before in today’s world because ours is a world that neglects the interior life. We have become progressively accustomed to externalizing our thoughts and emotions on social media. Virtue becomes virtue signalling. Ethics is not about being good but being seen to be good. Little attention is given to the cultivation of private character, the tending of the garden of the heart that we share with God alone.
But it should be said that prayer has always been difficult. “We do not know how we ought to pray” says St Paul to the Christians in Rome. And by that he does not mean, we haven’t yet mastered it, or we need to try harder. He means that finding this depth of the redeemed self, finding the intensity of God in the extensity of our lives and the extensity of our culture: that is hard and always will be. It requires time and attention. And as our world has slowed down, perhaps we now have that opportunity.
I often wonder what Jesus was thinking as he rode through the crowd on this donkey. He must have known they did not fully understand him. Perhaps he knew they would betray him. But he is calm and determined. He has set his face towards Jerusalem and he knows the mission the Father has given him, even though it weighs heavy on him in the Garden of Gethsemane. We know that this deeply assured sense of identity and purpose was sustained by prayer. Jesus gave time to prayer; he was in perfect communion with the Father. The extensity of his human life is perfectly married to the intensity of the life of God. And so he shows how all of us can deepen our humanity by becoming closer to God in prayer.
So I want to suggest that this Holy Week is a time to really reflect on our interior life, to deepen our practices of prayer and to explore, through them, what meaning the death and resurrection of Jesus have in our own lives. Every day this week I’m going to be using the Holy Week stories to reflect on different aspects of private prayer in the hope that it helps to make this week meaningful for you. None of us are alone; the community of faith is still connected through technology like this. But more than that, we are never alone because Christ is present to comfort us, and if we let him, to redeem us, to liberate us. Hosanna in the highest!

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