Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion - Fr Damian Feeney

Given by Fr Damian Feeney at Evening Prayer on Palm Sunday

"Do not be afraid…." (John 12.15)

The words ‘do not be afraid’ occur 67 times in scripture. For example, in the Old Testament, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you’ (Gen 26.24) ‘Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there’. (Gen 46.33) ‘Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous’;(Joshua 10.25) ‘Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, (2 Kings 19.6) – gives us a flavour, although there are many more.

Then, in the New Testament…. ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’ (Matthew 1.20) ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2.10) ‘Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows’. (Matt. 10.31) ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’. (Luke 12.32). Then there is the one most relevant to today, from John’s Gospel: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’

Whether the words come from voices human, divine or angelic, they are words of divine re-assurance to God’s people, words designed to take away our fear – the fears, rational and irrational, which we carry with us as part of our everyday living. Morning by morning, we say the Benedictus, Zechariah’s spirit-filled outburst of praise, in which we are reminded that we are ‘free to worship him without fear’. Remove fear, and we experience a greater measure of freedom.

This week is in so many ways about not being afraid, about the abandonment of our fear. Images of fear will surround us, from the frail apostles to the political fear of Pilate, the fear of Herod in the face of the silent Christ, and the frightened desperation of the Sanhedrin, expressed in the manipulation of the truth. We will all arrive at Calvary by a slightly different route, as we encounter our own fears along the way. But throughout the week, perhaps divine re-assurance will be ours – the re-assurance that reminds us that the fear which holds us back is transient, whilst the glory which lies before us in permanent, indeed, eternal.

Different people react to Holy Week in different ways. We must acknowledge that the vast majority – even of those who consider themselves to be ‘Christian’ people – tend not to enter very fully into it. Maybe fear is a factor here, too. Some simply fear what they might find in this week, in themselves. They might come today, and then again on Easter Day, without marking the life and death moments in between. For others it is simply lost in the turmoil of life. For some – and perhaps you are among them - it is a genuinely engaging and emotional time, as we contemplate the extent of God’s love in the face of the deepest human dereliction. Such people have to follow the Way of the Cross; they have no choice in the matter. It is all too much for some, who go to pieces in the face of this terrible moment of the death of Jesus, the Crucified God. Those who find Holy Week unbearable have perhaps begun to enter in some strange way into the dreadful mystery of the passion. It can’t be understood if we are simply observers.

The cross is a sign of defilement for the onlooker: it is only a purifying and healing reality for those who share its terrible darkness. To know Christ and the power of his resurrection can only occur as a result of sharing his suffering and death, becoming like him in his death. In fact, I am quite reassured by the idea that going to pieces is an essential part of the Way of the Cross. To enter into the mystery of Christ’s dying is to experience a form of brokenness. It may feel that we are crumbling, but in truth, it is merely our defences, our delusions of self-sufficiency, which are crumbling . This is the beginning of true liberation. We do not simply watch the cross, but we absorb it.

Holy Week teaches us that we have to overcome our detachment which makes the cross a beautiful symbol but does not tremble and shake with fear at the horror of it all. It is only in anguish and brokenness of spirit that we can begin and continue this week’s journey.

Some who undertake this journey find that the truth is unbearable and move towards despair. Others receive the Word of the Cross with relief, even with joy and who see in this naked desolate figure the real symbol of their own liberation from the power of death, their freedom from fear. But unless we can identify with the fear of losing hope, we have not begun to understand Holy Week. Those who have encountered despair can best appreciate victory. Only the dead can appreciate resurrection, and all Christians must confront and experience the darkness as we move along the road to our own death.

To enter into the darkness with Christ is the very heart of faith and hope. When we enter the darkness we cannot see the way, save by relying on Christ who, in the darkness, becomes both presence and light.

If we are to be true to our calling as Christians, we cannot shy away from the dark places of our lives – and there is none darker than the death of the Jesus. We cannot be transformed or liberated other than at the foot of the Cross, and neither can those to whom we seek to show Christ. To ignore this week of all weeks is to collude with the tendency of the world to run away from pain and fear altogether. Let that never be said of us as we offer the Cross of Jesus again and again in the dark and harrowing places of people’s lives. Let is rather be said that we are people who truly know the power of this week to speak to overwhelming pain, and who recognise it as the only remedy for the disease of the world. Do not be afraid.