Those with good memories will have noticed that this image has been used before on iBenedictines. There is something about the donkey’s mild eye and switching ears that, for me, captures the strangeness of this moment. Jesus enters Jerusalem to the hosannas of those who will soon be shouting ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ He does so on the the back of a beast of burden, yet is he who carries our sins, he who bears the heaviest load of all. He does so gladly, just as Giotto’s donkey seems to rejoice that he carries our Saviour.
Today, wherever we are, we are one with those on the road into Jerusalem. We, too, are cutting down green boughs and spreading our cloaks before Jesus, even if only metaphorically. We sing our hosannas, knowing that we also could change to hostile cries and jeers in an instant. We do that every time we fail to recognize Christ in others, every time we set ourselves up to be judge, jury and executioner over the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, anyone to whom we are antagonistic or hostile, for whatever reason. But we also know that if we allow Jesus into our hearts, we won’t do that. The choice before us is therefore stark. Will we make a way for him into our hearts or not? Will we let him trample down everything that is inconsistent with his lordship? Will we be his Jerusalem?
If Lent seems to have passed you by in a blur of good intentions you meant to get round to but never actually did; if you feel your prayer has been non-existent, your fasting a failure, your almsgiving embarrassing by its absence, do not despair. It is not too late to turn to the Lord and make a good Holy Week.
What do I mean by a good Holy Week? First and foremost, I’d say it is one in which we try to follow in the footsteps of Christ as best we can and in union with the whole Church. Some people do so by an imaginative entry into the events we recall in the major celebrations of this week, beginning with Palm Sunday. I have to admit that has never been my way. For me, it will be a slow, meditative reading of the scriptures the Church places before us that will be my point of entry, so to say — above all the reading of the Last Discourse that takes place just before Compline. Our monastic liturgy reverts to a very ancient form this week. We chant almost everything on a plaintive monotone, and our domestic liturgy, the fasting and the ceremonies we enact in the refectory, take on a peculiarly solemn cast. A secular counterpart might be very plain meals, not to deprive ourselves of good things but to impress on us that this is a special time, the Great Week of the Year; and any money saved should most certainly be given to the poor. Above all, taking part in all the great celebrations if we can — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil — is the best way we can make this a good Holy Week in union with the whole Church.
At a personal level, I think we make a good Holy Week by confessing our sins, making reparation where we can and resolving, with God’s grace, to do better in the future. If there is anyone we have wronged, we must try to put it right. One area everyone reading this might examine is their online conduct. Have we commented unkindly or used Social Media to condemn or belittle others? Have we imputed base motives to others or assumed we knew, and were in a position to judge, their motivation? That is certainly relevant when there is a General Election in the offing: we can sin against politicians just as we can sin against anyone else! But we must not let such an examination of our own conduct make us focus on ourselves. This is a week when we look only to Jesus. He is our Saviour. Let us keep our eyes on him and follow wherever he leads.
With Holy Week just around the corner, I have been thinking about suffering and redemption, especially in the light of my recent experience of acute pancreatitis. In case you don’t know about that, I was suddenly struck down and spent days vomiting and voiding uncontrollably — very hard for a clean boy like me — and even had to endure exile in the Vettery, where I was prodded and poked and had needles stuck into me and all kinds of horrors inflicted on me. I was a limp bundle of misery from nose to tail. But it set me thinking. I’m not sure if my thoughts are orthodox or not, but I offer them all the same.
One of the problems with religious people is that they get all misty-eyed about suffering. ‘It is redemptive,’ they say, as they put on a nice smile and edge away from the afflicted one. ‘It is just our Cross,’ they add, if one dares to demur, ‘a heaven-sent opportunity to exercise patience and show our love for God.’ I don’t know about that. I think nine times out of ten that kind of talk is just pious rot. People probably mean it, but it’s easier to mean it when one is not in agony as I was. There was nothing redemptive about my pancreatitis. It didn’t change the world. It didn’t make me a better dog, just a grumpier one. And I don’t believe God made me ill in order to test my love for him; he already knows I think he is the most wonderful being there is, much more wonderful than They are (but don’t let on I said that). No, I was sick, and I suffered; and I found it very difficult to do anything other than concentrate on my suffering. I think it’s probably the same for most humans most of the time. A few saints have probably managed to offer their sufferings up with a beatific smile, but I don’t know anyone like that. I ‘spect they wouldn’t be good with the messy bits, anyway.
Why do humans always link suffering and redemption and make the mistake of putting themselves at the centre of everything? If only they could think more like dogs! Jesus has to be centre stage; we have to be at his side. It is Jesus’ sufferings that are redemptive, and it is our job to try to keep close to him — go walkies with God, if you’ll allow me to put it like that. That doesn’t mean pretending. In fact, it means the reverse, being as honest as possible. Our little Lenten sacrifices, all the sufferings that come our way in the normal course of things, can unite us with him, but they don’t automatically do so. For a dog, that is all pretty plain. It’s humans who seem to enjoy looking at themselves being ‘good’ — and very often, being good according to their own notions rather than God’s. I give glory to God by being a dog and being the best dog I can. That means that at times I have to exercise self-restraint (not every McDonald’s in the hedgerow is good for doggy tummies, alas), and I have to be prepared to fail. What matters is my intention to follow the Master through thick and thin. He sees my heart and knows what is in it. He can turn everything to my good — and usually does, without my making any fuss about it.
Holy Week can be very demanding. We will all fail often. But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can’t go wrong. He suffered and died for us on the Cross. He has redeemed us. All we have to do is to trust him.
The imagery of the Crucifixion has become so familiar it no longer shocks. We look at our crucifixes and see the twisted body, hanging bloodied and bowed, pierced through with nails, crowned with thorns, and barely register the suffering. The historically-minded will tell you that the crown of thorns was added only in the thirteenth century, that the poignant twist of the body is not found before the ninth-century cross of Lothair, but these are mere details. It takes a Julian of Norwich, with her account of the drying of Christ’s flesh on Calvary, or his drops of blood the size of herring-scales, to make us connect our theology and our feelings.
It was not always so. Anyone who reads ‘The Dream of the Rood’ or some of the lovely Harley lyrics on the Crucifixion will know the depth of personal tenderness the Passion and Death of Christ evoked among our Anglo-Saxon forebears. I myself have always loved the prayers in the Book of the Nunnaminster — some of the earliest, if not the earliest, written for and possibly by women in the Benedictine community at Winchester in the late ninth/early tenth century. Here is the one on the Crown of Thorns, always a painful subject for a Benedictine, for our peace is found only within its saving circle — a reminder that Jesus is, as the Song of Songs proclaims, ‘a lily among thorns,’ our saviour from despair, our own true love who forgives our most grievous sins:
Merciful God, my only help, you did not refuse to wear on your wise and lovely head a crown of cruel thorns. I thank you and ask that whatever sins I myself have committed through misuse of my own wicked and senseless head you will forgive, for I am pierced by the sharpness of all my wrongdoing, as if by thorns, unless protected by your help, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Spy Wednesday is sometimes treated with an almost frivolous disregard of the betrayal it signifies. We don’t like remembering that Judas played an essential part in our redemption, that sin and betrayal are at the heart of the Christian story every bit as much as grace and forgiveness. We should think again, for we all have something of Judas in us. We all share in his shabbiness — or rather, we all share in his capacity for getting things wrong.
One of the striking things about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is that I think he thought he was doing the right thing. He was hoping for a Messiah who would free Israel from Rome and usher in a Jewish kingdom of righteousness and peace. He wanted to force the issue and make Jesus take a stand. We know he was wrong, but good people are often seduced by apparently good things. Judas failed to take account of the fact that Jesus wasn’t interested in political power, and therein lies his tragedy. Catherine of Siena worried about Judas’s fate but was reassured by the Lord that there was the prospect of mercy even for him. Perhaps today we might pray for all who have betrayed or been betrayed, for ourselves and for others. We might pray also for Judas, and for mercy on his soul.
During Holy Week there are are so many words, so many actions freighted with meaning. Paradoxically, we can feel drained by the sheer richness of the liturgy. Spending a few minutes just looking at an image or listening to some music can help us enter depths of meaning and significance from which we tend to shy away as unbearable. This painting by Marco d’Oggiono shows us a youthful Christ, with strong, workman-like hands, bearing the sin of the world — your sin and mine. That’s worth pondering, isn’t it?
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.
Re-reading RB 58, On the Procedure for Admitting Brethren, as we are at the moment, is an excellent preparation for Holy Week. The text reminds us why we came to the monastery in the first place and examines our conscience on how we have used (and sadly misused) the opportunities given us. It is not a negative process, or at least, I don’t find it so. Instead, it is an encouragement to focus again on the great simplicities of monastic life, to recover something of our initial fervour. I like to think of it as a back to basics programme enlightened by self-knowledge and practical experience.
Holy Week is also an encouragement to refocus on what really matters. The liturgy of the next few days reverts to a more ancient form, the drama and intensity of which shocks us out of our usual complacency. People sometimes ask how to make the most of Holy Week and think they must do more — more reading, more praying, more fasting, etc. My own advice would be to forget about doing extra: just give yourself as fully as possible to the liturgy and allow it to do its work in you. Yes, of course, prepare by reading through the prayers and readings of the day and, if you can, by spending a few moments in prayer before the great celebrations of Holy Week begin; but there shouldn’t be any strain or sense of compulsion. Holy Week will stretch you, make you plunge depths of thought and feeling you did not know existed, leaving you numb or raw by turns. You can trust the Holy Spirit to do his work in you. Like the novice setting out on the monastic way, all you have to do is eat, sleep and give yourself up to this work of transformation.
Most of us spend most of our lives trying to avoid pain, with good reason. Suffering is not necessarily redemptive, nor is experiencing discomfort or loss in itself admirable. Acceptance of pain is another matter, and as Holy Week approaches it may be useful to consider where we are on our Lenten journey. Pain is our friend, because it reveals to us truths we might otherwise reject or never even come to know. It opens us up to that which is above and beyond our power to control; and Lent is very much about ceding control over our lives to God in ways that we don’t dare at other times of year.
If our prayer isn’t making us feel the pain of God’s absence — and even more, the agony of his presence — are we still too focused on ourselves, on what we do/say in prayer, rather than stretching out to embrace the mystery of God’s silence? If our fasting isn’t making us feel hunger, are we playing at sacrifice — giving up little things in order to avoid the greater surrender of self which can seem so daunting? If our almsgiving doesn’t hurt, is it because we are limiting our giving to what we think we can comfortably manage, rather than letting God determine what the measure of our giving should be?
The trouble about asking these questions is that it can induce guilt or scrupulosity, but that is not my intention. I think Holy Week is so intense, so full of Christ’s pain, that it can be overwhelming. We can be numbed at second-hand, as it were, and perhaps miss the point. It is not Christ’s death that redeems us; it is his obedient acceptance of that death. In these few days before Palm Sunday, it would be good to reflect on the difference. I still say that pain is our friend, but only because Christ has made it so by first embracing it himself as a necessary part of his loving obedience to the Father.
We read Matthew’s account of the betrayal today, but it is set in context by being linked with Isaiah 50. Jesus is not a victim in the sense that we usually use that word. He gives his life; it is not taken from him. But Matthew is harder on Judas than John is. Instead of a last, intimate dialogue which could have led to a different outcome, we have a brazen Judas defying Jesus, almost goading him to unmask him.
Here is the shame of Holy Week, when Truth stands before all our lies and half-lies. There is no confrontation, no attempt to challenge the falsity. The shabbiness of betrayal and deceit is shown up for what it is, but Jesus’ response to Judas is one of anguish, not condemnation. The medieval poets understood this better than most. They move from voice to voice, from Christ to the onlooker and back again, their lines marked with a huge compassion simply expressed. Christ is the noble lord betrayed by his beloved . . . ‘Lovely tear from lovely eye, why dost thou look so sore?’ . . . The believer can only mourn the wrong which results from that betrayal:
With sadness in my song
And grief at what I see
I sigh and mourn the wrong
Upon the gallows-tree.
We are very close to the Sacred Triduum now. Today is a day for confession of sins and a firm purpose of amendment. Sometimes the only way of dealing with shame is to acknowledge the source of it and allow God’s healing grace to flood the soul.