Happy and Blessed Palm Sunday to you who read this. A glorious day, despite the fact that most of us spent it at home, only with our thoughts and memories of Palm Sundays past and perhaps a live streamed Liturgy. No communion in our mouths, but nevertheless the Lord is with us. Joy! Joy is the word for today. A day of joy as a prelude to the dark events of Christ’s passion. But the joy of Palm Sunday is going to colour even the dark days of this coming week.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice,” St Paul tells us in today’s Epistle reading from that most joyful of all his letters, the one he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, in northern Greece. “Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” That’s the key, isn’t it? The peace of God which is beyond human understanding, that peace will keep you in Christ and never let you go. A tremendous promise, which countless generations of Christians have witnessed the truth of.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.” What a fabulous conclusion to today’s Epistle reading. Don’t miss a single overtone of what Paul is saying. Don’t waste your time on things that are false and create ugliness rather than beauty. Concentrate instead on whatever is beautiful, whatever is true and genuine, whatever is just and honorable. These are the values of the Kingdom. If the Kingdom of God were established right now on earth, this is what our lives would be: beautiful, honorable, truthful, just, pure, gracious, and downright excellent!
Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king and he was proclaimed as a king. But his kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms. As Father Schmemann liked to say, this feast day is the feast of the Kingdom. Even though the people greeting him got the kingdoms all wrong, Jesus nevertheless gave them this brief experience of Kingdom joy. And for us too, joy sometimes is short-lived. We experience the Kingdom among us, within us, in a spirit-filled Liturgy or in a time of deep prayer or in a family gathering that celebrates the mystery of love and unity. But we always have to return to normal routine. And many people return to a life that is not all light and joy.
Why can’t we always live in joy? Because joy – true Kingdom joy – has to be cultivated in our lives; it has to be encouraged and supported, even, or especially, in the worst circumstances. That’s why Paul says, “Rejoice, and again I say, Rejoice!” He repeats it and repeats it again in this epistle to the Philippians. To the best of my quick calculation, he uses the word ‘joy’ five times in this short letter and the word ‘rejoice’ six times. Even in his longest letter, the one to Romans, which is 4 or 5 times longer than Philippians, he uses these words fewer times than he does in Philippians. In none of his other letters did Paul write ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’ as often as he did in Philippians. It is truly the Epistle of Joy.
So the Church was very wise to choose this Epistle reading for the Liturgy of Palm Sunday. It sets the stage for the dark events of Holy Week. And it speaks to us when we face darkness – as indeed we do this year! Most icons of Palm Sunday show Jesus facing in the direction of his movement or partly sideways. I chose the icon above because Jesus is completely facing us. He is blessing us as we gaze at him with loving eyes and loving hearts. We look at him and he looks at us. We are united in this moment of transfiguring grace. He looks at us, asking us whether we’re ready to follow him. He doesn’t expect us to join him in his suffering and crucifixion. But he is questioning us whether we can transform our sorrow into joy. Can we drive out self-pity from our souls and instead reach out to those who have no time for self-pity because they are too busy trying to survive? Can we stop being negative? Can we stop listening to voices that destroy decency and mock compassion? The Washington Post printed this morning nine short sermons for Easter Sunday by various pastors and priests; wonderful, beautiful words. Then I made the mistake of looking at some of the comments posted by readers. Many appreciative comments; but also much mockery, much ugliness. What gives people the right to mock words of faith and comfort, to destroy a gift to people of faith from one of American’s greatest newspapers?
Joy takes us out of ourselves and paradoxically opens us to the suffering of others. This pandemic that has become the narrative of our lives is also an opportunity to celebrate Holy Week with deeper understanding of what God has chosen to show as the answer to human suffering. Jesus looks at us out of so many icons, including the one above, with compassion and shared humanity. That’s the face that God has chosen to show to us. That’s the face of God. And in that face is all the suffering of all humanity. Do we let Jesus carry all our humanity by himself? He did, he carried it to the Cross, once and for all. But should he still carry it all alone? Can we not share his burden? Because it is after all our own humanity that stares at us from the face of Christ, the face of God. And it is our humanity that stares at us from every image of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While most of us cannot go out and be with the sick and the scared, we can support with our money and with our prayers and with our messages of comfort and encouragement. While this time might be the wrong time to say “Rejoice, and again I say, Rejoice,” to those who are feeling the crushing burden of sickness, loss of a loved one, loss of business income, or unemployment, we can take their burden on ourselves and allow the sorrow to be coloured by the joy of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. He entered Jerusalem. He enters our souls. He enters to set up a Kingdom that unites and not separates, that heals and not condemns, that opens doors and not closes them. If we can start sharing the task of Kingdom work, suffering will find its answer in the only place where it has an answer – in the face of Christ.
Let us pray today for those living with the coronavirus, and for those who have lost a loved one. Let us offer prayers of protection for doctors, nurses and first responders, as well as the truck drivers and farmers who provide us with food that we can share with those more needy than us. We feel the heartbreak and fears of the elderly, those in prison, and immigrants and refugees, and all people in all countries. Because humanity is one, and we are all one. The face of Christ is turned upon ALL humanity, because he IS all humanity. It is our face.
Rejoice! The Lord is in our midst. Have a blessed Holy Week. But HAPPY EASTER to those readers who are celebrating the Lord’s Resurrection today. And, of course, most Christian churches are celebrating Easter today. Only the Orthodox churches are a week later.