In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
This is one of the Sundays, when Sunday is not liturgically a Sunday: we do not read one of the Resurrection Gospels at Mattins, nor does the blessing at the end of the services begin, ‘May he who rose from the dead, Christ our true God…’, but ‘May he who accepted for our salvation to be seated on the foal of an ass, Christ our true God…’. We skip the Sunday (or more truly, we celebrated it yesterday, on Lazarus Saturday), for today we focus on the Lord who is coming… who is coming to the Holy City, Jerusalem. ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who is coming in the name of the Lord’, and John quotes the verse from the Prophet: ‘Don’t be afraid, daughter of Sion; behold your king is coming, seated on the foal of an ass.’ He is coming! Who? a king, sitting on an ass (or a donkey), not some magnificent horse, but a little donkey. So who is this king? Not a king in any ordinary human sense. Nevertheless he creates a kind of sensation, a sense of occasion. In the Mattins Gospel, we read that the chief-priests and the scribes—the religious leaders—are indignant at the people crying out to Jesus as the king who is coming to his people, and say to Jesus: ‘Don’t you hear what they are saying?’ Jesus, you will recall, replies by saying, ‘Haven’t you ever read that “out of the mouth of babes and sucklings I have perfected praise?”’ The simple people—babies compared with the learned and powerful—have got it right, and Jesus will not shut them up. So he is a king, coming to his people. But again, what kind of a king? He doesn’t look like a king; it is all very makeshift, this triumphal procession, a lot of cheering from ordinary people, a donkey, clothes and palm branches instead a red carpet, as it were. Nevertheless, the authorities are rattled: this demonstration will come to no good. Why, if he is a king, then what will the political authorities—not the chief-priests and lawyers—but the Romans who have made of Palestine a Roman province: what will they make of it? A few days later these religious authorities will say to Pilate, the Roman prefect, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’ So, again, what kind of a king? One who will say, again to Pilate, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’.
Holy Week is when we try to meet, to greet, to acknowledge, to worship our Lord Jesus, as the one who is coming to us as a king. It is as one to reign over us that we want to recognize him and accept him: we want to belong to him, to be ruled by him. But what does that mean? It is both something intangible: Jesus is going to upset any ideas we have about what kind of a king he is; he is certainly not one who wields what we in our human way regard as power. And yet at the same time, if we acknowledge him as king, as one who is to rule over our lives, it will make a difference—it will demand of us radical change. This week, more than any other week in the liturgical year, we have a chance to find out what it means to be his disciple, one, who as Jesus made clear in the Gospel for the Veneration of the Cross, is going to take up his or her cross and follow Jesus, follow Jesus to the place of execution, follow him as a condemned criminal—for it was only criminals, and worst and lowest of criminals at that, who in the Roman world carried their cross to the place of execution.
The account we have just heard in John’s Gospel is an account where Jesus is surrounded by the friends and his disciples (his disciples to whom, later this week, Jesus is to say, ‘You are my friends… no longer do I call you servants [the Greek really means ‘slave’], for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for everything that I have heard from the Father I have made known to you’: John 15: 14–15). Lazarus is there. As is his sister Mary, who extravagantly anoints Jesus’ feet with ‘very precious ointment’ (νάρδου…πολυτίμου), and wipes his feet with her hair, so that the whole house is filled with its fragrance. Judas Iscariot is there, too, who mocks at the extravagance—a thief and a traitor, as John sees him. And a crowd of people, too, attracted just as much by Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead, as by Jesus. The next day the crowd will welcome Jesus as he makes his way, on a donkey, into Jerusalem.
Where are we in all this? With his friends and disciples? With those looking on askance? Judas and the authorities to whom Judas will betray Jesus? But as the week progresses, we see that nearly everyone betrays Jesus: the disciples flee at Jesus’ arrest; Peter who had protested so urgently his willingness to die with Jesus, will not even admit who he is to a servant-girl, who could hardly have done anything to harm him. The women stay—helpless, anguished: they are there at the foot of the cross; they are there on the third day, early in the morning, at the tomb. Luke tells us that there was one who spoke up for Jesus—the man crucified beside him, to whom Jesus promised paradise!
On Thursday we shall be more than half-way through the week. And then we shall gather with the disciples at the mystical supper (as we Orthodox call it, not the ‘last supper’, as if it were just a meal in the past, but rather that meal to which we are always invited, to be with the One who will give us his sacred body and his precious blood for food). Then, as at every Eucharist or Divine Liturgy we shall come to the One who is coming to us: ‘Blessed is He who is coming…’ And we shall pray—urgently, putting aside the Cherubic Hymn, on this one day in the year, as we replace it with a prayer for Holy Communion:
At this mystical supper, Son of God, today receive me as a communicant, for I shall not betray the mystery to your enemies, nor give you a kiss like Judas, but like the thief, I shall confess you, ‘Remember me, O Lord, in your kingdom’.
It is not, as I see it, a bold assertion of our faith in Christ; it is as much a prayer, a prayer that we shall not betray Christ, not approach him with a kiss like Judas, but turn to him like the thief. ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’
For most of us, this year, we shall not be able to approach Him in church, alongside our fellow Christians, and that is a terrible loss. But we can approach Him in our hearts, we can still search our hearts to see in what ways we, perhaps, do not really want to receive Him, still long to welcome in our hearts the One who is coming, our King, who is to rule in our hearts, not with the outward show of human power, but with the inwardness of divine love. Amen.