Palm Sunday 2014

On a previous Palm Sunday I wrote:

Today, wherever our Palm Sunday celebration takes place, we are in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. One question we might ask ourselves is, where do we stand? Are we with the crowd following Jesus and singing hosannas; with the bystanders, looking on from a safe distance; or with those indoors, dismissing what is taking place as just another riotous assembly it is better to keep clear of? Our answer can tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we see the unfolding of Holy Week.

Holy Week is quite brutal in the way in which it demands choice from us. If, during the rest of the year, we are rather unremarkable Christians, regular in our church-going and dutiful in giving to good causes, but keen to avoid drawing attention to ourselves and definitely not the stuff of which martyrs are made, this week reminds us that in following Christ we have made the most radical choice imaginable, one we must live to the end. We cannot simply bumble along the way; we must deliberately choose to follow wherever Christ leads.

I think today I would want to nuance that a little. This is the first time I’ve been unable to take part in the Palm Sunday Mass and Procession; so this year I am not among the followers singing hosannas but among the bystanders who look on from afar. Does that mean I am any less involved? Surely not.

There are many ways of following; many ways of being close to the Lord. One of the hardest is to feel we have no choice, are unable to follow in the way we would wish. It is important to remember, however, that the essence of discipleship is to follow as the Lord chooses. We must all accompany Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem, to Calvary and beyond. How we get there, when we get there, doesn’t matter. We can trust him to show us the way. ‘I would be at Jerusalem,’ says the Pilgrim in Hilton’s Scale of Perfection. That is all that matters.

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On Being an Outcast

Has it ever occurred to you how many of the women mentioned in the Gospels are outcasts — people who do not conform to the norms of polite Jewish society but are, in some sense, rule-breakers? Even the Lord’s own mother came dangerously close to being ‘put away’ for the sin, as it might appear, of unchastity. The household at Bethany was unusual, to say the least, with Mary daring to sit at the feet of Jesus among the men, and Martha taking charge of rather more than the dinner arrangements. Then there is Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons had been cast out; Joanna and the other women who broke with the usual social norms to follow Jesus and his disciples and provided for them out of their own resources; the woman with the issue of blood, who broke the rules of cultic purity; the notorious sinner who washed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee; the woman taken in adultery; the Syro-Phoenician who dared to ask a favour of a Jewish rabbi; and the Samaritan of today’s gospel, who has done more for our faith than many who led lives of blameless orthodoxy.

One could argue that the presentation of women in the Gospels merely reflects the prejudices of the men who wrote them, but I find it interesting that so many of the women are portrayed as courageous, insightful and much more attuned to Jesus’ message than many of his male disciples. There is a challenge here for the whole Church. It has nothing to do with questions of ordination or non-ordination; nothing to do with power or ecclesiastical politics, but everything to do with discipleship, how we follow Christ. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to go to Jesus ‘outside the camp’. I think we could all usefully reflect on what going outside the camp might mean for us today. To be an outcast, to be outside the conventionally respectable limits of society or Church, may not be what we thought discipleship would mean. Reading through the gospel passages where these women feature would be a very good way of asking ourselves how we measure up to the Lord’s command, ‘Follow me!’ For isn’t following Jesus what Lent is all about?

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How to Be a Good Leader

We usually think about SS Maurus and Placid in terms of discipleship and obedience. In previous years I have commented on the way in which they are presented as near- perfect and the problem that poses for those of us who are imperfect (see here and here). But we live in a world where being a disciple, a follower, isn’t much favoured. We all want to be leaders now. Even applications to join the monastery often read like a pitch to become CEO of a major corporation! I think it is time, therefore, to take the story of Maurus and Placid as told in book II of Gregory’s Dialogues and see what it tells us about leadership rather than discipleship.

Gregory tells us Placid went to fetch water from the lake. Placid fell in but Benedict, being made aware of the situation by God’s grace, sent Maurus to rescue the youngster. Maurus, having received the abbot’s blessing, walked upon the water and rescued Placid. Later, St Benedict attributed the miracle to Maurus’ obedience; Maurus attributed it to St Benedict. It was Placid who settled the matter: ‘When you pulled me out of the water,’ he said,’ I saw over my head Father Abbot’s hood, and I saw that it was he who pulled me from the water.’

The first thing to note is that this is hagiography, not history. It expresses a spiritual truth: the value of obedience in conforming us to Christ. But there is an interesting dynamic at work. Both Maurus and Placid were unhesitatingly obedient to their abbot. Were they simpletons, doing what they were told because they hadn’t the brains or individuality to think for themselves? Was Benedict an overbearing taskmaster whom they feared to disobey, or a charismatic looney of the kind we see in some cults, demanding that his followers do silly or dangerous things? I think the answer is neither. Both Maurus and Placid obeyed Benedict because they trusted him.

Trust tends to get a bad press these days. How many people feel they can trust anyone? Distrust has become our default position. It affects family life; business life; Church life. Leaders may be ‘thrusting’ ‘dynamic’ and all the other buzz words we find bandied around, but are they trustworthy?

The quality which set Benedict apart as a leader was precisely that: trustworthiness. As presented by Gregory in the Dialogues, and even more as we see him in his Rule, Benedict comes across as a true man of God, one who ‘lived as he wrote’; who prayed, worked, served and did not shirk responsibility. He was painfully aware that one day he would have to answer to God for the souls of all those committed to his care, including, in some measure, those who had gone astray. That sense of responsibility affected every decision concerning those over whom he had any authority. It made people trust him, knowing they could rely on him. That is, or should be, true of every religious leader today. I would suggest it should also be true, mutatis mutandis, of every good leader, whatever their sphere.

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Palm Sunday 2012

Today, wherever our Palm Sunday celebration takes place, we are in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. One question we might ask ourselves is, where do we stand? Are we with the crowd following Jesus and singing hosannas; with the bystanders, looking on from a safe distance; or with those indoors, dismissing what is taking place as just another riotous assembly it is better to keep clear of? Our answer can tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we see the unfolding of Holy Week.

Holy Week is quite brutal in the way in which it demands choice from us. If, during the rest of the year, we are rather unremarkable Christians, regular in our church-going and dutiful in giving to good causes, but keen to avoid drawing attention to ourselves and definitely not the stuff of which martyrs are made, this week reminds us that in following Christ we have made the most radical choice imaginable, one we must live to the end. We cannot simply bumble along the way; we must deliberately choose to follow wherever Christ leads.

Today we begin our following with rejoicing, but a rejoicing which already has a hint of menace. On Good Friday we shall see where that menace will take us. For now, we  focus on Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem where we know he will be rejected. Nevertheless, we stand with him every inch of the way. It is a choice we make every day of our lives, not just during Holy Week.

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Palm Sunday 2011

Palm Sunday: Jesus enters JerusalemOur procession takes us to the dusty streets of Jerusalem two thousand years ago and the fickleness of popular acclaim. Even here, in the midst of a lovely English spring, there is a hint of menace. We know that all is not right, that those who are now shouting ‘hosanna’ will very soon be shouting ‘crucify him, crucify him’. The Passion narrative is one we must enter into, not merely hear with our ears. For each of us it will be different; for each of us it will be new. Do not be surprised if this week you are tired or a little less calm than usual. Holy Week makes demands on the believer at every level. We cannot truly celebrate the Resurrection if we have not accompanied the Lord Jesus along every step of the way beforehand. May God bless your Holy Week and make it fruitful. Pray for us, as we pray for you.

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