A cloudless sky

It was a beautiful spring morning, not a cloud in the sky and Mary was about her normal tasks, helping her mother, Anne, to look after the home whilst her father, Joachim, went about his business.  There was one well in Nazareth and so that was where everyone gathered – or at least the women did – at various times in the day.  It was Mary’s task to go early, to get water so that the work of the day around the house could begin.  So, empty water jar in hand, she made the journey from their house to the place where the well had been dug.  There was not a cloud in the sky and Mary’s heart thrilled as she looked up and saw the deep blue of a spring morning in Palestine.

There were not many women at the well when she arrived, it was still early, and so Mary took a moment to sit and to pray.  Her mother had taught her about the great matriarchs of the faith Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Ruth amongst others, and how they had lived out their faith in hard times when the children of Israel were moving from place to place, seeking a homeland.  Mary had herself moved, but she had been too young to really remember it.  She was born in Jerusalem, the capital city, the focal point of her religion, the place of the Temple and the place where God abided with his people.  She was born close to the Pools of Bethesda, close to the Lion Gate in the city wall and on the edge of the Mount of Olives.  Her mother had relatives just over those hills in Bethany.  But the need to find work had forced her family to move and Mary, as a child in her mother’s arms, had been taken from Judea to Galilee, from Jerusalem to Nazareth, a well trodden path.

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Mary at the well from the mosaics in St Mark’s Venice

She had a vague memory of those pools and those hills as she rose to draw water from the well.  There was not a cloud in the sky but all of a sudden she felt, overshadowed, there was no other word for it.  She had not felt empty but now she felt filled; she had not felt dead but now she felt alive.  She knew without doubt that she was to bear a son, a special son, that she was to be a mother to a child like no other.  There was no cloud to overshadow her but she felt overshadowed.  There was no doubt, just faith that what God had whispered to her would be fulfilled.

Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1.28)

Pilgrims to the Holy Land will visit the Church of St Anne, a most beautiful crusader building by the remains of the Pools of Bethesda and near to a less visited church which just says outside ‘The Birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary’. They will also travel to Nazareth and perhaps their coach driver will drop them off just a mile of so from the Basilica of the Annunciation, at Mary’s Well, where they will be told by their guide that for the Orthodox community this is the place of the annunciation and not where most pilgrims remember it.  I love the idea that it happened outside by living water, perhaps under that cloudless sky, Mary, like her predecessors and like the woman at Jacob’s Well in St John’s Gospel, having significant encounters where water was drawn.

Susie MacMurray’s installation ‘Doubt’ has been part of our Lenten journey this year, overshadowing the choir of Southwark Cathedral, a dark cloud.  But Mary’s overshadowing that Luke refers to in his gospel was different.  Not the shadow of dark clouds but of gentle wings as she received the angelic message.

It was a beautiful spring morning, not a cloud in the sky and people were about their normal tasks. But the stillness was broken by the sound of voices, the sound of singing, even the rocks on the hillside seemed to vibrate with the sound.  Then the crowd came over the crown of the hill and the full force of the noise was experienced.  Down the Mount of Olives came this band of people surrounding a man on a donkey.  They were waving branches they had torn from the trees, they were creating a carpet with their own clothes for the donkey to walk over.  And when in full sight of the city the procession halted.  And they looked.

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Jesus enters Jerusalem

 

Spread before them was the city and the Temple, gleaming in the sunshine on this cloudless day.  The man got off the donkey and wept, Jesus wept.  Out of joy, out of sorrow, out of love – out of all of these and more besides.  But the crowd were not for stopping and he remounted the donkey and they continued towards their destination.  They could have taken the Lion Gate, which would have passed by his grandparents house, where his mother, Mary, had been born, but that would have led them straight to the Antonia Fortress where the Governor, Pontius Pilate, was based – and he had no desire to encounter him.  So they headed for the way in for all the pilgrims, to the place where the mikvehs were located, the Jewish ritual baths for purification, before they climbed the steps into the Temple courts.

The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
(Luke 19.37-40)

They were in no doubt, these followers who proclaimed him as the awaited king and nor was he, it was a cloudless sky.  Washed clean for entry, with confidence, Jesus and his friends entered the Temple.

This year Palm Sunday falls on what would be the Feast of the Annunciation.  The passion of Jesus is inextricably linked to the incarnation and it is a good reminder of that fact and both divine events, it seems to me, are cloudless.  There’s an American comedy that we can still find on the TV, ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ and both these events, the annunciation and the triumphal entry, seem to be like that, events played out in the clear sunshine.  But clouds are bubbling up below the horizon. As John Donne reminds us in his sonnet, ‘Annunciation’

That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb.

We must watch the sky.

Lord, as I enter with you
this Holy Week,
may I watch with you
as the clouds descend.
Amen.

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Triduum

All over the country people having being begging or borrowing a donkey from a local farm, organising the palm branches and praying for decent weather so that the Palm Sunday procession can take place as both planned and looked forward to.  For many churches this is the only occasion when they take their liturgy out of the church and into the street.  If you haven’t tried it I thoroughly recommend it.

Many years ago now I was Parish Priest in the Parish of Richmond Hill, Leeds and our three churches, All Saints, St Hilda’s and St Saviour’s loved to take religion out of the church and into the community.  Whether it was our May Festival with a bobbing around statue of Our Lady on the shoulders of some of the parish lads, Corpus Christi with the monstrance, or Palm Sunday and then a procession with the cross between the three churches on Good Friday, as well as carol singing in the streets and in the pubs in the run-up to Christmas, we all loved it.  This was witness, this was mission.  People scratched their heads wondering what we were up to or shouting ‘What’re you up to, Father?’ And that gave us the opportunity to tell them and to invite them to join us.

So I’m delighted that each year the congregation of Southwark Cathedral begins Palm Sunday not inside, but outside the building and in the Borough Market.  The liturgy begins, the Palm Sunday gospel is read and the choir sings their hosannas.  With holy water and with incense the palms are blessed and then we all process into the Cathedral through the streets.  And people in the open-topped tourist buses look down, and some may recognise what we are up to and others may wonder, but everyone notices and the pictures go up on Twitter and Facebook.

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Palm Sunday in the Borough Market

 

This blog is titled ‘Triduum’ and before you send me a message telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I do know that Palm Sunday is not part of the Great Three Days, which is precisely what the word Triduum means.  But you can’t get to Maundy Thursday when those three days that changed the world began without passing through Palm Sunday. Jesus had to enter Jerusalem if he was to be expelled from it, carrying his cross outside the city wall to those places of death and burial.

For the past few years I have done a special blog for Holy Week – ‘Passion in Real time’ and ‘Calvary Bound’ and you can still read those.  So this year I thought I would just put onto this blog some meditations for the Triduum itself.  The reason I wanted to be able to set down some thoughts is because, as some of you will know, I was on sabbatical last year and for six weeks of that I was living in Jerusalem.  Each day I was out discovering new places and walking old paths.  I know that as we go through each of the days of this Holy Week and as we celebrate Easter, I will be reliving some of the experiences that I had there.  So I invite you in joining me in some of those reflections.

Almost all pilgrims to Jerusalem will begin their visit looking down from the Mount of Olives and seeing spread out in front of them the fabulous view of the Old City with the Dome of the Rock in the foreground and in the middle distance the grey dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  It is an amazing view, breath-taking and though in the distance you can see the towers and tall buildings of modern west Jerusalem, you know that it is something, something like the view that Jesus saw that made him weep.  You walk the steep path down the side of the mount knowing that the triumphal Palm Sunday procession passed this way, knowing that countless generations of worshippers, like the pilgrim of the 4th century, Egeria, have followed the same path, doing the same things, hearing the same gospel, singing the same hosannas.

But I suppose that for me when of the particular memories of being in Jerusalem was being taken to Bethphage.  This little village is just over the crest of the Mount of Olives and is halfway down the eastern slope before you get to Bethany.  That town was of course the home of the friends of Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  He may have begun his Palm Sunday journey from their home but it was when he got to Bethphage that he mounted the donkey and rode the rest of the way.

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The mounting black at Bethphage

 

As a result of the construction of the wall that divides Jerusalem from the Palestinian territories in the West bank it is now impossible to follow the journey that Jesus made.  He would have been stopped by the wall if he tried it now.  But close to the wall is a lovely Franciscan church which commemorates that first day of Holy Week in the frescos around the wall.  But close to the sanctuary is something more beautiful.  Enclosed now in glass is the ‘mounting block’ that Jesus is supposed to have used when mounting the donkey.  He didn’t use it of course, it’s a Byzantine invention, but it is beautiful.  On each of the four sides are the most lovely paintings of the events of that day, reminders of the powerful nature of the events that we have been remembering.

Many congregations will have been singing the traditional Palm Sunday hymn as they made their way from start to finish.  ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’ was written in 1827 by Greenwich educated Henry Hart Milman

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, your triumphs now begin
o’er captive death and conquered sin.

That second verse captures something so important about this entry, the ‘lowly pomp’ that will be reflected on a number of occasions as we enter those Great Three Days, that Triduum as the triumphs now begin.

Almighty God,
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My Holy Week – Palm Sunday

In previous year’s I’ve written specific blogs that people have been able to follow during Holy Week.  This year I thought I’d do something a little different.  I hope you don’t object to me calling it ‘My Holy Week’. It’s as much yours as mine, ours in fact.  But what I want to do – and this may prove to be interesting or not – we have yet to find out – is to simply record what Holy Week has meant for me this year, what has got me thinking, reacting, reflecting.

People often say to me, as they did last week, ‘It’s your busy week coming up!’ In one sense, of course, they’re right – it is a busy week.  But not in the same way as other weeks are busy.  Lacking in self discipline and diary management skills some of my weeks are almost undoable – but I manage to scrape through. But Holy Week is different in that the normal round of meetings is absent and instead I’m able to worship and lead worship and hear confessions and do things that are priestly in a way sometimes that, speakinging frankly, some decanal tasks aren’t.

The other thing that makes a huge difference is that I can listen to someone else preaching and not have to worry as much about preaching myself.  It’s not that I won’t be preaching – I am tomorrow lunchtime and twice on Easter Day.  But the Holy Week preacher – this year Canon Mark Oakley from St Paul’s – does the bulk of the preaching.  It’s great.  I can be fed alongside the rest of my colleagues and the congregation.

Having recently returned from co-leading the Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the Bishop of Southwark, I was eager to begin Holy Week so that the fresh memories of Jerusalem could be brought to life again in the liturgy. It’s only a few weeks since we began on the first proper day of pilgrimage as most pilgrim groups do, standing at the top of the Mount of Olives and looking across at the view of the Temple Mount and the beautiful Dome of the Rock and being reminded that the rather precipitously steep road down is the route that Jesus would have taken. On this occasion it was pouring with rain and I mean pouring. As we left Dominus Flevit the road outside had become a river and we struggled to hang on to each other as we made our way down to the Garden of Gethsemane.

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The Mount of Olives

 

I woke this morning to a gentle shower of rain and that question that’s in the head of many priests on Palm Sunday morning ‘Will we get away with it this year?’ The IT is the outdoor procession and last year we didn’t – it was really raining and we had to make the difficult decision not to go out.  That was such a disappointment – the procession is so integral to the liturgy and doing a ‘figure of eight’ round the Cathedral just isn’t the same.

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The congregation arrives

 

Fortunately the weather wasn’t too bad as the time for the procession approached and we headed off to the Borough Market.  That’s where the first part of the liturgy is held.  In what is normally a packed space with market stalls and shoppers we pack with worshippers and it’s a great beginning.  Then out onto the Borough High Street and shocking the people wandering about there or passing by on one of the many buses.  You can see bafflement in people’s faces – ‘What are they doing?’ – for some it clicks and they remember, others remain baffled.  A builder working on the High Street stopped what he was doing and stood back and a Steward went and gave him a Palm Cross.  He really beamed with the most tremendous smile and proudly held it up to show his mates in the shop behind him. Some others joined us, caught up in the fun, just as must have happened on that first Palm Sunday.

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Entering the Cathedral

 

There is something good about Palm Sunday, it’s sameness.  It takes me back to my days as a chorister, out on the streets then, singing the same hymns – ‘All glory, laud and honour’ and ‘Ride on, ride on’ – the same style of palm cross, the same sense of anticipation and there is something so connecting about this.  Not messing about with Palm Sunday is as it should be.  Egeria on her pilgrimage experienced it like this in the 4th century and we connect with that experience and every large or small procession, with or without donkey.

Yet, even though its the same as ever, its always a fresh expression of church.  The procession is made up by a new congregation, with new Christians and, being in the northern hemisphere, there is a spring-like freshness to it all.  I love it and I loved it today.

In the first of his sermons in the afternoon Canon Mark Oakley spoke of something which I had never thought of before.  He said that we had to remember that in fact two processions occurred that first Palm Sunday.  One came from the north, a peasant procession which in many ways had begun in Galilee.  The other came from the east, from Caesarea Maritima, the Roman headquarters.  This was an imperial procession bringing Pontius Pilate to bolster his troops in what could be a difficult and fractious week in Jerusalem, Passover week, when the memory of shaking off oppressive rulers and finding freedom made the people restless in their present, dominated situation.  Two very different processions – one with imperial stallions, one with a donkey; one with gleaming standards one with palm fronds; one with the glint of armour worn, one with coats spread on the road.  Both were triumphal entries but from very different worlds and these worlds, these images of the kingdom, were to collide and would collide around Jesus.

It has given me a lot to think about as I begin this week and the day is not over yet.

Lord,
your humility challenges
our need for power,
your majesty challenges
our attempts at glory.
As worlds collide
hold us together
with wounded, majestic hands.
Amen.

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