Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66.
St Benedict enjoins that a monk’s life should always savour of Lent. What does he mean? His reference is not so much to asceticism as to expectancy. The monk, he says, should look forward to Easter ‘with the joy of spiritual longing’. His life should unfold with constant reference to Christ’s Pasch. From what we know of Benedict’s life, he practised what he preached. The account of his early years in particular is charged with Easter symbolism. Benedict’s cave at Subiaco was an image of Christ’s tomb. There he was conformed to the death and rising of Jesus. It is fitting that the church built around that cave, the Sacro Speco, should display in images the great events of Holy Week.
A Subiaco fresco I think of often is set on the right-hand wall of the nave. It shows Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, which we have just enacted. The Lord is riding in state, followed by the apostles: solemn, recollected men with beautiful faces. In the background are children climbing trees, throwing branches down to their ground-staff companions who strew the way for him who comes in the name of the Lord. One of these boys takes pride of place, standing right in the centre of the picture. He is there for a reason. But what reason? At first we hesitate. Is the painter profaning this sacred scene with some kind of joke?
While the attention of all is focused on Christ, this young man is different. His mind is elsewhere. He sees only the donkey. The other boys spread branches and cloths before the animal’s feet; this one holds a frond up to its mouth. He tries to make it eat. The world’s redemption is about to be accomplished. The Lord is entering his temple. And this fellow’s response is, ‘Hello, donkey! Look what I have brought you!’ The Sienese artist who painted the scene was not striving for comic effect, I am sure. The boy does make us smile, but his message is important. He is there to pose a question. For am I not like him? Aren’t you?
Faced with the enormity of the events we celebrate this week, our capacity for sustained attention is slight indeed. Our eyes are like the eyes of the disciples. We would like to keep them open, but we can’t. They fall shut with mysterious heaviness. Our mind wanders. Will the sermon be long? Will the weather hold? Will we have lunch on time? What a fine donkey! Meanwhile Jesus proceeds alone, weighed down by a burden we can’t possibly imagine. He does not cling to his equality with God. He does not even force us to notice him. He embraces our condition to the full, and bears the brunt of our inconstancy, our neglect. Faced with this predicament, the Church acts kindly, as you would expect of her as Mater & Magistra.
She meets us where we are. At no other time in the Church’s year is the liturgy more tactile, more open to the senses than in Holy Week. We carry branches in procession; loud bells resound, then are eerily silenced; we kneel to kiss the crucifix; we light fires in the night; we sing hymns to a candle; we burn incense and are splashed with holy water. By such means our attention is captured and maintained. We are brought into the rites we perform. For the Great Week of which Palm Sunday is the portal is more than just remembrance. What we celebrate is real. It happens here and now. Our life is at stake, our freedom and our happiness, in this life and the next.
Christ is in our midst. He acts on us. Had we not believed that, we would hardly have gathered here today. How, then, should we keep this week? What matters is not to understand what Christ has done and does for us. We can’t. Or at least, we can to a pitifully limited extent. What matters is to be with him. What matters is to raise our eyes whenever they are sidetracked by the donkey: to look at him who rides it, to stay close to him. ‘Had you not the strength to keep awake with me one hour?’ There is no reproach in that question, only sadness. ‘You say you are my friends, but will you prove your friendship?’ This question resounds in our church today, addressed to each one of us with tenderness and hope. Yes, brothers and sisters, this is the message of Palm Sunday: the Lord has hope for us! He hopes we will see. He hopes we will receive the gift he wishes to bestow.
He hopes we won’t abandon him. Let us assure him we will not. Let us prove that our Hosannas are for real. In Holy Week we re-affirm our identity as Christians. We say ‘Yes’ to our redemption and ‘Amen’ to the commitment of our baptism. These are serious matters, supremely important. Let us watch, then, and pray. Let us watch what we watch, and ensure that our eyes are fixed on Jesus. ‘The Lord has need of them’. This simple phrase says nothing yet says all. It does not just apply to donkeys. This week, the Lord needs us: to walk with him, to wait with him, to be weary with him, to pray with him, to fear with him, to suffer and to rest with him, and finally to celebrate his victory with him. May we not be unworthy of his confidence in us. Amen.
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