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by Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.

Readings: Zechariah 9.9-10;  Psalm 24; Philippians 2.5-11; Luke 10.28-40.

Rejoice, rejoice, rejo-o-o-o-oice greatly!

That’s a theme from Handel’s Messiah that we tend to associate with Christmas but of course Messiah is also a beloved oratorio in Holy Week. We tend to talk about the “Christmas portion” and the “Holy Week portion” but of course Handel’s Messiah is really about the Incarnation, which encompasses the great part of the church year from Advent through Pentecost. Easter represents the fulfillment of creation, and Palm Sunday is a kind of prelude to the final movement in Jesus’ earthly life which in turn leads to the Resurrection.

So it’s not really surprising that we find many of the themes of Christmas reprised in Holy Week. “Rejoice” is one of those and it is reflected in the word we take from Hebrew, “Hosanna.” The same passage that we read this morning from Isaiah is a key passage in Advent: “rejoice greatly O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look, your king comes to you.”

The notion of the Messiah as king is another of those themes, and it’s interesting to note the terror that the infant Messiah-king engenders in Herod, just as the adult Messiah-king creates fear and uncertainty in the heart of Herod Antipas and Pilate.

Another theme both of Christmas and Holy Week is the humility of the Messiah as prophesied in Isaiah: “Look your king is coming to you, humble and riding on donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In other words it wasn’t just a donkey but a donkey colt.

In the typical poetic language of the Hebrew scripture, a phrase is often repeated twice in slightly different words to clarify or enhance the meaning, and here the young colt emphasizes even more than an adult donkey the concept of humility and innocence. At Christmas Jesus also rode a donkey, though still in Mary’s womb, and the humility of the baby Messiah was also underlined in his birth in a stable.

The passage we just heard from Philippians, also used at Christmas, is about the humility of God, the emptying of God (or kenosis in Greek) to come to us as a human baby and to die as a tortured man.

All three of these themes are at the heart of Palm Sunday, just as at Christmas – rejoicing, the meaning of kingship, and the humility of God – and of course they are all at the heart of the gospel this morning. This gospel is so familiar to us that we sometimes don’t actually hear what is read unless we spend time in prayer with it, in lectio divina. So I thought this morning, and on the other major days in Holy Week, I would offer us a visual form of lectio divina – visio divina – and explore a painting that illuminates the gospel in a fresh way.

Look closely at this painting,  from a Malaysian artist, Hanna Varghese, who captured the feeling of Palm Sunday when she was a student at Yale. The painting now hangs in the Overseas Ministries Study Center near the Yale campus in New Haven.

The painting, with its bright greens and yellows, expresses the joy and celebration associated with spring and new life. However at the same time the corners of the painting, much darker green, suggest the possibility of a storm coming, as does the red on the clothes of the people which resemble both branches of the tree and also the possibility of snakes, suggesting that the same crowd cheering Jesus will in a few days ask for his blood. But the main focus is on Jesus dressed in a pale yellow robe, almost blending into the yellow behind him – the colour of sun, and symbolic of hope.

There are important hints here that Jesus has come for more than us human beings – he is the Saviour of the Cosmos, just as the Word that spoke creation into being, the Logos, is also the Word made flesh. All of creation is celebrating here, and the people seem to grow out of the branches, just as Jesus himself blends into the background of the creation.

Another fascinating thing about this painting is its amazing energy. I showed this painting at a retreat for the Toronto Christian meditation community early in Lent on the subject of visio divina – I had just discovered this painting for the first time while I was preparing for that retreat. S Malaysian woman was present who said that this is exactly what it’s like to be in a Malaysian church on Easter Sunday. No little palm crosses or pussy willows or a couple leaves of a palm branch – no – each person came with large fronds, and waved them almost in an energetic dance during the Palm Sunday service. She said being in the congregation was like being part of an organic body where the energy of the waving palm branches was much more like the wild enthusiasm of the people as Jesus entered Jerusalem than western processions like ours, even when we sing so beautiful a hymn as “All Glory Laud and Honour”!

Now look more closely at Jesus and the donkey. Many paintings of the Palm Sunday Triumphal Entry show Jesus and the donkey in profile, but here they are coming straight at us – almost as though we are part of that celebratory crowd cheering Jesus on and hailing him as King. Or more probably we are the people inside the gate to Jerusalem, on the other side of that multi-coloured path leading toward us. The donkey seems to be quite focussed on his task of carrying Jesus to his destination, while Jesus himself seems more relaxed, sitting side-saddle and waving to the crowd – not riding astride a war-horse and brandishing a sword. He comes with his hand up, not only a greeting but a sign of peace.

Straight ahead of him is the road into Jerusalem, with yellow, green, and red garments lining the path. The people with the palm branches become a womb, with Jesus about to be born into the final mission of his earthly life. Or think of the crowd with the palm branches as an archway, or an arbor – the entrance from one stage of Jesus’ life to another, from one mood of the crowd to another. It reminds me of the words that Jesus spoke to the disciples just prior to going up to Jerusalem, as recorded in John’s gospel

I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide with me you will bear much fruit but those who do not abide in me are like branches that are cut down and thrown into the fire.

In this case it is Jesus who seems to be the branch that is cut off, thrown down and burned as we read in another place in Isaiah, but then he goes to his death on behalf of us and the whole creation. Jesus still has a long road ahead of him in this coming week. There will be some beautiful moment and some terrible moments, and the challenge for us as we go through this journey with Jesus is to remember – a word that will have a special importance on Maundy Thursday – to remember that we are branches of that vine as members of his body, and that we are called to imitate him in our own Christian journeys. To go back to the passage from Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

May we all, during this Holy Week, share both the beautiful, tender, intimate moments with Jesus and his friends, and also be strengthened to travel the rough road to the cross, just as he travelled, in Mary’s body, the rough road to Bethlehem. In that connection, it’s good to remember the collect for the Annunciation, which we say three times a day at the Angelus. May we pray it with courage during Holy Week:

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection. Amen.