Sunday, April 9, 2017

Who is This?

Palm Sunday 2017

Entry into Jerusalem, Pietro Lorenzetti, c.1320
Liturgy and drama are closely linked.  In fact liturgy is religious theatre.  When we are caught up in the liturgy of this holy season, we are all players or actors in a familiar script that re-enacts the great story of our faith; making that story present not as a passive pageant but as a mystery, present and among us, that demands the entire engagement of our mind and body.  As actors in the mystery, we are changed.  The mystery takes charge of us: we are held within the story.  Everyone who has ever acted in a play will recall that extraordinary experience: that is what liturgical worship does as over this week we are held within the mystery, within its story.  Of course our ordinary lives and familiar rituals continue, but at this season they are held within the greater pattern of the mystery that begins on Maundy Thursday and continues to Easter Day.

This day, Palm Sunday, is our curtain raiser for this season.  The stage is set, some essential props are arranged (how else might we describe the instructions concerning the donkey and the colt) and the disciples appear as stage hands to the moment.   Even Jesus’ own actions now appear as part of a script – there is a prophecy to be fulfilled.

We notice the gospeller’s reference to the crowd – it is a reference that includes us.  The concept of the crowd introduces a rather modern feeling, or at least an urban feeling.  The notion of the crowd in history is inseparable from the idea of the city.  This is the place where people gather in large numbers and this is the place where the peculiar dynamics of crowd behaviour are encountered and the influence of the mob in history may be considered.  We hear of the mob in Rome; historians, sociologists and psychologists have speculated on the factor of the crowd in the French Revolution; so also and with more contemporary events – for instance, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Hong Kong Umbrella protests  – and today we would add to that the phenomenon of the crowd armed with smart phones and overlooked by the social media.

Crowd behaviour has been studied.   Early theorists suggest that the crowd is created by a shared racial or cultural unconscious that focuses the emotions and ideas that define and empower the crowd – and we may catch a sense of that as the gospeller records the crowd shouting: "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  In this moment the people catch a sense of “their moment”, their story, the essential thrust and defining hope of all their yearning – and it explodes onto the streets.  Even within the narrow scope of our gospel for the palms you can sense the energy and role of the crowd as its dynamics evolve: the element of uncertainty gives rise to the question ‘Who is this?’ and that in turn leads to the defining and deadly statement; "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

That of course is the statement that provokes the religious and political authorities to act and sets in motion the events of this week.  Here we also find ourselves among the crowd, asking “Who is this?”  

This is a question we never quite stop asking and our worship this week is the working out of something toward an answer.  The answer is never quite held in the frame of an intellectual concept, but always something more – something encountered most truly in worship, in a movement of the heart, in a stirring of the will, that is the encounter we seek this week.

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