There are the crowds who have accompanied Jesus from Bethany, where he had been staying with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Bethany is not far from Jerusalem, and we can easily imagine that everything had rather ground to a halt in Bethany and the villages round about when Lazarus was raised from the dead. Now the villages were emptied of men and women, old and young, and everyone who could walk was making their way to Jerusalem with Jesus. Then it was suddenly there ahead of them as they crested the brow of a hill. The crowd starts to take up the messianic songs from the Old Testament, and excitement builds. Is this the day that the Messiah will be revealed in Jerusalem? Is this Jesus, the prophet and miracle worker the one they have been waiting for? Will the Kingdom of God be revealed right here and right now.
Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. What did these excited and enthusiastic people know? Was their enthusiasm enough to carry them through the trials that were to come? Many of them would gather again in a few days time and shout ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ They had seen a miracle and expected an earthly kingdom. When things didn’t turn out quite as they expected then they all too easily rejected our Lord. This had happened before, when the Lord had given some teaching that was especially hard to bear, the crowds who enjoyed the spectacle, the excitement, the miraculous food would all too easily drift away.
On Palm Sunday our Lord is approaching the time of his Passion. The most important event in the history of the whole universe is being made known again in our own lives and time. How are we engaged in our pilgrimage with Christ? Perhaps we are among those who go before him and behind him, strewing our cloaks and coats, and branches of palm on the road. But we will need more than enthusiasm. We have all met enthusiasts, not only in the church, but in all sorts of situations. They are the sort of person who goes overboard about something for a brief while. If it is gardening which takes their fancy then they might well go out to Homebase or B&Q and spend hundreds of pounds on tools and plants. But a couple of weeks later, it is likely that their garden will have just a few holes in it, perhaps with one or two rather wilted and sad looking plants in them, but the interest will have waned in proportion to the amount of physical effort which was required to actually make a difference in the garden.
It is all too easy for us to be enthusiasts, rather than enthusiastic. We might want to pray, so for a while we go overboard, collect books about prayer, insist to ourselves that we will follow the prayer rule of the most dedicated hermit. We know how it works because we have probably all experienced this temptation to one degree or another. And being motivated by enthusiasm alone we find that like the seed planted in stony soil, at the first sign of difficulties we give up and end up worse than we started. This was certainly the case for the crowds following Christ on the first Palm Sunday. Is it possible to imagine that some of those shouting, ‘Hosanna’, could also shout, ‘Crucify him!’ yet they did. Their enthusiasm was not enough, because enthusiasm is essentially rooted in our own emotions and our own self-will.
But there were others who were there that day. The disciples had been with our Lord through thick and thin, and though they were undoubtedly buoyed up by the crowds accompanying their Lord and Master to Jerusalem, I wonder if they were not a little wary. They had seen the crowds come and go before, and they were well aware that the Pharisees were determined to put Jesus to death if possible. Indeed we get a sense from the Gospels that the disciples spent much of their time not quite sure what was going on. On many occasions the Gospel writers say, ‘they had not understood’, in relation to some event which only came into focus after the death and resurrection of Christ. The disciples had come to some understanding that Jesus was the Christ, and so even more than the crowds they had reason to shout, Hosanna, as they approached the city of Jerusalem. But when Jesus was arrested, and then crucified they had even more reason to be devastated. Yet we know that in the midst of their despair they will find hope and renewal when the risen Christ comes to them. This is a joy which the great crowds who shout, Hosanna, and then shout, Crucify him, cannot experience.
The disciple has learned that things are not often easy. The disciple has learned that the Christian life must often be lived with a degree of confusion and ignorance of the way forward. The disciple often stands at the foot of the Cross, not sure what is happening and how it fits into God’s plan, but somehow holding on, through thick and thin, to a fundamental belief that God’s will be done in God’s way and in God’s time.
The disciples gathered around Christ as they approached Jerusalem, did not understand all that was happening. And this is often our own experience. We can be sure that the way ahead will cause us to be sometimes confused, sometimes even fearful and doubting, but this way of discipleship through endurance and perseverance is the only way to experience the joy of the risen Christ being mysteriously and suddenly present among us.
Those to whom Christ revealed himself at the first Easter were not those who shouted Hosanna the loudest on Palm Sunday, but those who entered the city with him, having a sense of foreboding and even dread in their hearts. He appeared to those who had remained faithful to him even when things had been darkest. It was to those who endured that he brought light and life.
Scripture – Matthew 21
1 When they came near to Jerusalem and came to Bethsphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village that is opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and immediately he will send them.” 4 All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, behold, your King comes to you, humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus commanded them, 7 and brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them; and he sat on them. 8 A very great multitude spread their clothes on the road. Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The multitudes who went in front of him, and those who followed, kept shouting, “Hosanna† to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 When he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 The multitudes said, “This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” 12 Jesus entered into the temple of God and drove out all of those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the money changers’ tables and the seats of those who sold the doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers!” 14 The lame and the blind came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children who were crying in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes. Did you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of children and nursing babies, you have perfected praise?’” 17 He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and camped there. 18 Now in the morning, as he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he came to it and found nothing on it but leaves. He said to it, “Let there be no fruit from you forever!” Immediately the fig tree withered away. 20 When the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, “How did the fig tree immediately wither away?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you told this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it would be done. 22 All things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” 23 When he had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, which if you tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” They reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all hold John as a prophet.” 27 They answered Jesus, and said, “We don’t know.” He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. 28 But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind, and went. 30 He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I’m going, sir,’ but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into God’s Kingdom before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him. 33 “Hear another parable. There was a man who was a master of a household who planted a vineyard, set a hedge about it, dug a wine press in it, built a tower, leased it out to farmers, and went into another country. 34 When the season for the fruit came near, he sent his servants to the farmers to receive his fruit. 35 The farmers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again, he sent other servants more than the first; and they treated them the same way. 37 But afterward he sent to them his son, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But the farmers, when they saw the son, said amongst themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and seize his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard, then killed him. 40 When therefore the lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?” 41 They told him, “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will lease out the vineyard to other farmers who will give him the fruit in its season.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected was made the head of the corner. This was from the Lord. It is marvellous in our eyes’? 43 “Therefore I tell you, God’s Kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a nation producing its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it will fall, it will scatter him as dust.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he spoke about them. 46 When they sought to seize him, they feared the multitudes, because they considered him to be a prophet.
From the Fathers
Severus of Antioch (465-538 A.D.)
And the crowd that went ahead of him and those that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ ” This phrase (namely, “Hosanna to the Son of David”), in passing from the Hebrew language to the Greek language, is translated as “praise, or a psalm, to the Son of David.” As for Jesus, it does not suit a man to be honored or praised by a psalm. But such does suit him alone who is by nature God, as it is said: “He has placed in my mouth a new song, praise to our God” and “I will sing to my God, as long as I live.
[Throughout the Gospels we find things said of Jesus which are inappropriate of a mere man. We can see this when John the Baptist points him out to his own disciples. Here, as he enters Jerusalem, the crowd offer him praises which are more than those proper even to an earthly king. St Severus shows that since Jesus Christ is God by nature, become man, it is proper that he should receive these praises and every praise. ]
Now we will turn to a series of passages from another ancient writer on the Orthodox spiritual Tradition, Evagrius of Pontikos, who lived between 345-399 A.D. He writes,
Keep to a sparse and plain diet, not seeking a variety of tempting dishes. Should the thought come to you of getting extravagant foods in order to give hospitality, dismiss it, do not be deceived by it: for in it the enemy lies in ambush, waiting to tear you away from stillness. … If you have only bread, salt or water, you can still meet the dues of hospitality. Even if you do not have these, but make the stranger welcome and say something helpful, you will not be failing in hospitality; for ‘is not a word better than a gift?’ (Eccles. 18:17). This is the view you should take of hospitality. Be careful, then, and do not desire wealth for giving to the poor. For this is another trick of the evil one, who often arouses self-esteem and fills your intellect with worry and restlessness. Think of the widow mentioned in the Gospel by our Lord: with two mites she surpassed the generous gifts of the wealthy. For He says: ‘They cast into the treasury out of their abundance; but she . . . cast in all her livelihood’ (Mark 12:44).
There are two aspects of Orthodox spirituality which we find here. In the first place, we should not imagine that we cannot entirely do God’s will because we are not wealthy, or because we do not have more possessions or wealth. It is enough to give all that we have, and we should certainly not try to gain more things as if this would make us a better Disciple. The more we have, the more we will worry about. In the second place, we should deliberately seek to live a more simple life. What that means will be different for each of us, but to be satisfied with a simple life and with what we have is a necessary lesson for us to learn if we wish to follow Christ. As soon as we find that we are wanting more, even if we cloth our thoughts in a wish to do good, then we will find ourselves distracted and deceived.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. Prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
6. Pray Psalm 134 again in the evening.
7. In the Coptic Orthodox daily prayers we pray Psalm 51. Add this to your daily devotions in either the morning or the evening.
8. Reflect on how well you are participating in all these activities. What have you recorded in your notebook as words from God? Do you need to renew your effort in some aspects? Make a fresh commitment.
The priest turns to the congregation and hearing the words, Depart in peace, the people are released into the world after the service of another Liturgy. But was that the Liturgy, and had it ended as the agape meal began?
The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitourgia, which had the sense of a public service. Liturgists in the Greek world were those, usually wealthy, individuals who took on the responsibility, as a service to the wider society, of organising one of the community religious events. But we find it used in the New Testament as well, where it takes on a richer meaning.
In the Gospel of St Luke we find the account of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and we learn that after he had spoken with the angel in the Temple, and had been struck dumb, he returned to his home, when the days of his leitourgia, or public service, were complete. We find here that sense of leitourgia as being more than just a particular religious service, but as a service to others on behalf of the community.
St Paul also uses this word in several places in his letters. In 2 Corinthians he speaks about the leitourgia, but not in the context of any service of worship. When he is encouraging the Corinthians to make sure that they fulfill their promise to give generously to the suffering people of Judea, he says…
“For this leitourgia you perform not only meets the needs of God’s people, but also produces an outpouring of gratitude to God”.
The liturgy being spoken of here is not one of prayer, or praise, but of practical service which meets the needs of the community of faith. Elsewhere, in the letter to the Philippians, he speaks of the sacrifice and leitourgia of their faith, expressing the idea that their faith had been worked out as practical service, and he talks of St Timothy, his colleague, who had supplied at great cost, and through his leitourgia, for the needs of St Paul. And then finally in the letter to the Hebrews, St Paul speaks of Christ as having received a greater leitourgia than that of Moses.
Of course our services in Church are an aspect of this leitourgia, but they do not exhaust what is meant, indeed the early Fathers of the Church speak of the gathering of the Church as the Eucharist or Thanksgiving rather than Liturgy.
Among the great Fathers, St John Chrysostom speaks of a duality of service, or liturgy. There is, he says, the altar of stone at which the priest stands, and where the Body of Christ is manifested. But there is also that holy and fleshly altar, made up of the hearts and lives of those who belong to Christ, who are already the Body of Christ, offering by the service of their lives, and especially to those in need, the same sacrifice. The Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Liturgy of the Life of Service are the same, he says.
This seems to me to represent that earliest understanding of the meaning of liturgy, of leitourgia. It is not one service among many, the Eucharist itself. Nor even does it essentially consist of all of the services of prayer and praise in the life of the Church. It is the service we offer to God in both the prayers of the Church and in living the life of the Church. In receiving Christ in the Eucharist we are not completing our own liturgy, rather we are being nourished and prepared to continue this same liturgy, this same service, in the world, and especially among those who are in even greater and more desperate need of the presence of Christ.
Our whole life is, and must become, liturgy, the freely given service of our hearts and lives to God and to the world. What meaning do our prayers in the Church on Sunday have, if they do not transform our lives on every other day, so that we are manifesting the life of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist? The prayers of our daily spirituality, must also express this same continuity of liturgical life. They are an expression of the same liturgy, the same offering of service, which transforms and transfigures. We cannot say that the liturgy begins here and ends here. Our whole life is liturgical. Everything is Liturgy.
This is why it is not appropriate to sing the songs of non-Orthodox communities, or read their teachings, or watch their videos. It is not from some sense that we are better people than others. We know that this is not the case. But we are those who are participating in the liturgy of Christ, who is the minister of this new leitourgia in the Holy Spirit. We have no authority to introduce into the liturgy any strange and alien elements. There can be no sense in which we say that this spirituality is liturgical and this is non-liturgical, just as we cannot say that this service is liturgical and this is non-liturgical.
Everything is Liturgy. Everything, on the one hand, is the gift and grace of Christ in the communion of the Church, the Body of Christ. Everything, on the other hand, is our service to God, in the Church and the world, by the power of that grace. The spirituality of the Church, in the services and in our private devotions in the cell of our heart, are one liturgy. The service of the Church, in the altar, in the various ministries, and in the giving of ourselves to those in the world, is one liturgy.
We can never isolate or separate ourselves, or any of our activities, from this one liturgy of the Church in Christ. This is why, even when we gather together as two or three, we use the prayers of the Church to form and sustain our own devotions. We are always the Church, the Body of Christ, offering the liturgy, the leitourgia, of the Church. When we are sharing the love and life of Christ with those in need we remain the Church, the Body of Christ, offering the same liturgy of the Church. This moulds and gives structure and order to how we live, and pray and serve. All that we are and all that we do is an expression of our participation in the Church, the Body of Christ. It is one Liturgy because everything we are and everything we do, every prayer, every song, every act of kindness and service, springs from the same source, and serves Christ, the minister of the new leitourgia in which we share.