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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Homily for Palm Sunday; Fr Mark Woodruff, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London

Palm Sunday, 12 April/30 March 2014

In the Kontakion for today, we sing:
Mounted on the throne in heaven, O Christ God, and on a colt here on earth, You accepted the praise of the angels, and the hymn of the children who cried to You: Blessed are You, Who have come to call back Adam. 
Even though this was written by St Romanos the Melodist a millennium and a half ago, it goes straight to our persistent mistake when considering Christ’s “work on earth” (St Thomas Aquinas, Verbum supernum prodiens). A familiar English Christmas carol – which as a whole stands as a beacon of faith in the Lord’s incarnation – has one line that reinforces our misunderstanding - “He came down to earth from heaven. ” We forget that the hymn goes on to say, “For that Child so dear and gentle is Our Lord in heaven above.” (Mrs C. F. Alexander, Once in Royal David’s city).Thus, as St Thomas Aquinas writes in a hymn of his, Christ is “The Word of God, proceeding forth, yet leaving not His Father’s side”; and, as St Romanos sings, Christ God is at one and the same time, “mounted on the throne in heaven, … and on a colt on earth.”

If we lose our grasp on what reality is, at one and the same time – heavenly and earthbound, God in man, “dying yet behold living”, sinner but forgiven, human and divine – we tend to think of Jesus as an occasional visitor; a super-man from another world; or like Zeus, who descends to the world of mortals concealed in mortal guise, exercises his intentions, performs his acts, works his wonders and then withdraws to the Olympian heights. But this is not the Christian faith. With Christ there are no departures from one state, no separate destinations in another. It is all one.

 The entire purpose of Christ our God, as Christ the Man, is not to leave things behind as he moves ever on, but to unite all things in heaven and all things in the world. Thus the Child in the Manger, as another hymn puts it, is “The great God of heaven, … The Ancient of Days … an hour or two old”. (Henry Ramsden Bramley). Thus, too, the “Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour .. risen, ascended, glorified”, is the Lord on the Cross, whose offering ... “in its fullness undiminished shall for evermore remain … cleansing souls from every stain.” (G. H. Bourne). It is all the One Lord God the Son, the One Lord Son of Man.

 So, when we throng with the crowds today and cry out “Hosanna”, we are not congratulating an earthly liberator, just before things turn ugly for him and we make ourselves pretend we never said it, and cover it up with a new cry of “Crucify Him”. Far from it; we are crying out, “Hosanna in the highest.” This Master of ours, on his colt on earth, we are likewise addressing as God on his throne in heaven. We recognise Him Who has come in the Name of the Lord – which means that he bears the Name of the Lord. Our Holy Name for Him is Jesus, “Yeshua”, and this means “the God who saves”. In other words, “Jesus” is first a title to describe Him and His work, before it is a personal name for him. His own personal Name is the Name that can never be uttered, because it is so sacred and so intimate to His very Being that we know it simply as “the Name of the Lord”. And this is how the children of the Hebrews blessed “God who saves” - with His Name, “The Lord”. They greeted Him with shouts of joy. But they did not praise Him, by saying “Alleluia”, as you might expect. Instead, in their expectation and exultation, they called him their Saviour, shouting, “Hosanna”: “rescue us.”
 I have always found it striking that in response to this clamour, Jesus, who had carefully planned the entrance into Jerusalem in fine detail, says nothing. Why does He show no emotion? His disciples are confused. But we need to remember that this is not just an earthly event. It is an action of God – the Lord on his colt here on earth saying not a word is the same Lord who is mounted on the throne in heaven. In other words, the Son of Man, Jesus, is revealing the nature of God the Son of heaven. And this is the God who makes Himself known to us - through suffering, as Servant of the divine purpose for the salvation of humanity. He said nothing, because (Isaiah 53.7):
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
Here, once more, St Romanos sums it up:
Blessed are You, who have come to call back Adam -
For it is in silence that His appeal is resounding. The actions speak louder than words. Adam, all humanity, is called back to God through watching what he is doing. He has been anointed by Mary the sister of Lazarus, and Jesus observes that it is the only burial anointing He will get. From this moment on, he “sets His Face to Jerusalem”: to the confrontation in the Temple, to His trials, to the gathering of darkness, to being lifted up on the Cross and to the vital importance of believing and keeping in the Light of God. All this is what charges His intent, as He gets up on a donkey to work His way through and beyond the crowds. Did He much acknowledge them, did he give much of His thinking away as he rode past, single-mindedly concentrating on what lay ahead of Him?
Thirty years ago last September, I was living in Jerusalem. Walking in the Kidron Valley near the Tomb of Mary, I saw a procession of local Christians all in white, waving palms. It was a funeral procession to the cave-shrine where the Mother of God had first been laid to rest before her Assumption. It occurred to me forcefully that the Lord’s Entrance to Jerusalem was not just the triumphant entry of a Saviour for a Kingdom not of this world, but, along with the anointing, the only funeral rites the Lord would receive.

His silence as he goes is deafening; for it is from the throne in heaven that the Saviour on His colt on earth calls back Adam to God. His action is a marvel to behold; and we must guard ourselves from being caught up in the exuberant reception, so as to be still, to watch what is actually happening:
The Word of God, proceeding forth yet leaving not His Father’s side…
 .. is going ahead into the darkness of the old city, to be blamed, to be tried, to be condemned, to be lifted up. Yet, as he enters the Golden Gate leading to the Temple, he remains the Light that shines in that darkness, the Light that the darkness cannot comprehend. And we are witnesses to the Light that enlightens everyone (John 1), for we watched as He went His way in silence, and we saw
The Saving Victim, opening wide the gate of heaven to man below (St Thomas Aquinas)
(not “man below”, but the opening to man of “heaven … below”!) For today’s mystery is this: Just as Christ God on a colt on earth is mounted on the throne in heaven, so Adam and the world of humanity, even in the midst of our wanderings, are “called back” to enter the new Jerusalem and dwell even now in the immortality of the Kingdom.

Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ.

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