HOMILY FOR PALM SUNDAY, 2019
Dear Brothers and sisters! Today our spiritual and physical atmosphere has changed, hasn’t it? We are standing in a new reality, a new location. We are standing on the Mount of Olives. It is warm, it is Springtime. The winter darkness, the clouds, and the rain of the Great Fast are behind us. The time for repentance, ascesis, and self-reflection is over. If we are prepared, good! It means that we have become disciples, good and faithful servants, and we are invited to be with Christ and to accompany Him down the mountain, into the Holy City, and into the Temple. If we are not prepared, then we will find ourselves outside of the bridal chamber of Holy Week and Pascha. The Bridegroom will be there, inside, but we will not. The Bride, the Church, will be there, but we will remain outside, by our own choice, by our own inattention, bereft of the oil of the virtues, and bereft of grace. The past six weeks we have called “Lent.” It’s an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to lengthen” or “to make longer.” The days of Spring, the days of Lent, grow longer, and the sun grows warmer. On the Feast of the Forty Holy Martyrs we remembered that the skylarks return to Russia at this time because the earth grows warmer, and in Northern California the lizards emerge from their winter repose. Nature awakens from its cold sleep, and hopefully our hearts, too, have thawed and come back to life. We need to be alive, awake, and alert, full of the warmth of faith and full of the Holy Spirit because now we go to be with Christ, to drink from the cup that He drinks from, and to be baptized in the baptism with which He will be baptized; the cup of suffering and the baptism into death (See Mark 10:38).
Yesterday and this morning we sang, "Like the children with the palms of victory, we cry out to Thee O vanquisher of death: Hosanna in the Highest, blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!” What are these palms? What are these branches, these pussy willows? They are symbols, they are signs. Signs of what? Signs of victory. What victory? The victory of Life over death, of resurrection over corruption, of Christ over the grave. The palms symbolize the People of God, and the pussy willows symbolize Spring and the rebirth of Creation. We wave them because we believe in the promises that they symbolize. I pray that all of us, young and old, rich and poor, great and small, become childlike in innocence, that God may empower us also to make such a bold demonstration of our faith!
The Feast of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, is a feast of joy – joy in the Promises of God, as I said before. But it is the joy that comes just before the most fearsome tribulations – the Betrayal, the arrest, the fake trial, the mocking, spitting and scourging. It comes before the scattering of the disciples, the jabbing crown of thorns (the relic of which was recently and courageously rescued from the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris), the excruciating pain of the nails, more humiliations, and eventual voluntary death. But do you know what? These were God’s promises too, weren’t they? Jesus predicted everything that would happen to Him, much of it already alluded to in the Prophets. In many ways, Palm Sunday, Passion Week, and Pascha are a reflection of the life of every Christian.
Are we up to the task of walking with Christ this Holy Week? Fr. Theophan Whitfield has suggested Ten Things for us to do, in order to fully acquire the great grace that is there for the taking in Holy Week. You can read the full text on the OCA website, but here they are in brief: (1) Go to as many services as you can. If you can’t go to every service, set aside time to read prayerfully through through the ones you cannot attend. Holy Week is a single, unbroken Liturgy that invites us to participate in the saving love of Jesus Christ, not just to remember some events from long ago. The love which Jesus shows is real, it is now, and we are invited through worship to receive it. (2) Intensify your fasting. During Holy Week, each of us should increase the intensity of our fasting, to the best of our ability. (3) Create silence. Disconnect entirely from your cell phone, e-mail, internet usage and especially social media. Avoid TV, and the radio. Cancel all lessons, sports, and social activities. It’s only for one week. The world will still be there after Pascha. When we create silence in this way, we give ourselves the space and opportunity to be drawn by Christ more deeply into His words and actions during Holy Week. (4) Create an atmosphere of prayer at home. Turn on some church music. Light some incense. In particular, listen to the hymns of Holy Week. Doing so, we allow the prayer of the Church to envelope us, embrace us, filling the hours of our ‘everyday life’ and sanctifying them.
(5) Be still. Set aside time each day to sit quietly in front of your icon corner or an icon of Christ, about 20-30 minutes if you can. Light a candle, say a short prayer, and then simply wait in silence for the Lord to speak a word, or to bestow a deeper sense of His presence. (6) Always be with Christ. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, occupy your mind as often as you can with a short prayer. If you do not already have the habit of praying the Jesus Prayer, Holy Week is a great time to begin: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” This prayer increases our awareness of the nearness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It reminds us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. (7) Read the Gospel. Set aside time each day to read several chapters from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke. (We’ll save John for after Pascha!) And remember that in the Gospels, we do not find words about Christ, we find words from Christ. Each verse of Holy Scripture is a word spoken directly to you by the raised and glorified Lord. Each word is a word for now, each word is a new word that you have never received before. Enjoy the gift! Jesus wants to give it to you! (8) Seek forgiveness and healing. Chances are, each of us still has at least a small handful of relationships in need of healing. During Holy Week, work for that healing. (9) Call someone who is sick or lonely. Visit them if you can. Share yourself with someone who needs you. Our world is filled with people who are dying of loneliness and isolation. Extend yourself and give them the gift of your presence. One of the great themes of Holy Week is abandonment — how our Lord was abandoned by just about everyone. As we seek to unite ourselves to Christ through prayer and worship during Holy Week, let’s do our best not to abandon those who need us. And finally, (10) Think about Bright Week and beyond! With Pascha comes the true light that enlightens and sanctifies the whole world and each person in it. As we unite ourselves to Christ, the radiance of the Resurrection changes everything. Pascha Week is truly a Bright Week — the Resurrection colors everything and everyone with brilliance and beauty. Nothing should ever be the same. Let this Holy Week be a launching pad into the rest of our year, and indeed, the rest of our life. Amen.