Palm Sunday and Easter 2008


Universe Column

Sunday March 16th Palm Sunday

And the crowd called for Barabbas to be freed.”

As we brandish and wave our palms today, celebrating again Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it’s hard not to fast forward and reflect on how rapidly the crowds repudiate Him: how quickly approbation becomes rejection.

Within days, Pilate will offer the crowds the chance to set Jesus free. Instead, they will demand the release of the rabble-rousing Barabbas; the nationalist political leader, who hated the Romans, rather than the man of peace who urged renunciation of self and reconciliation with others.

When putting these events into a contemporary context, it’s hard not to reflect on how fickle public opinion can be; how crowds can easily be whipped up into lynch mobs; and how transitory is worldly acclamation and success.

Today, we sing our hosannas (which means “save us now”) and tomorrow we stand at the foot of a cross.
Today, we witness the King’s entry into His city – recalling the investiture of Solomon as heir to David’s kingship and the celebration of his kingship and authority over each of us.

Tomorrow, we see the King nailed to a cross.
Today, we see a King entering His Kingdom on the colt of a donkey – a gentle, humble, animal of peace rather than on a horse, an animal symbolising power and warlike intentions. In the Babylonian Talmud the Persian king, Shevor asks “Why doesn’t your Messiah come riding on a horse? If he lacks one, I’ll be glad to provide him with one of my best!”

Jerusalem’s crowds made the same mistake as King Shevor – failing to understand Christ’s purpose; and that’s why tomorrow they shout for Barabbas rather than Jesus.

Today also recalls the ascent of the observant Jew to the hill of the temple; a journey each of us has to make if we would seek the face of God.

Some Catholic priests still observe the old Palm Sunday custom of striking the locked door of the church with the shaft of the processional cross, signifying that this is an action we must each take. The ascent into the temple is through an open door to a tabernacle with an everlasting welcome.

Pope Benedict’s Lenten reflection ( “Conversion of the Heart” published by CTS) recalls that ancient tradition and the Pope says this: “But the Lord also knocks with His cross from the other side: He knocks at the door of the word, at the door of our hearts, so many of which are so frequently closed to God. And he says to us something like this ; if the proof that God gives you his existence in creation does not succeed in opening you to him, if the words of the Scripture and the Church’s message leave you indifferent, then look to me – the God who let himself suffer for you, who personally suffers with you, – and open yourself to me, your Lord and your God.”

Today’s palms will, in due course, be burnt and a year from now the ashes will be used at the commencement of another Lent to mark each of us with the sign of our destiny – “remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Those words from the Book of Genesis perfectly express the symmetry of our beginning and our end.

Many nations have used palms as symbols of joy and victory over enemies. The enemy for each of us ascending to the temple is an internalised enemy; the battle a spiritual one.

In many Catholic homes the palms are preserved in prominent places throughout the year; farmers would often place them in their barns; in parts of Germany they are used to decorate graves of loved ones. The palms are full of meaning; so is today’s liturgy.

It is redolent with profound symbolism. The reading from Exodus with the complaints of the children of Israel, left wandering in a desert, but promised the consolation of the manna that will be sent from heaven, foretells the Eucharist; the prophetic words of the High Priest, Caiaphas, in the Gradual, , “That it was expedient that one should die for the people” foresees Calvary; the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Olives that the cup should pass Him by and the modest request to His disciples to watch and pray – reminds us that He found them asleep when they were needed. How so very much like most of us.

Each of these episodes, particularly the overwhelming cheers and salutations of the crowds – which like the palms that so quickly turn to dust – has application in our individual and collective lives.

Perhaps those of us who live in the world of politics particularly appreciate how easy it is to put your trust in the ephemeral and short-term, to cheer the demagogue with the sharp turn of phrase rather than profundity, and how easy it is to turn away from truth. Enoch Powell knew where that kind of politics led when he observed that ultimately “all political careers end in failure.”

It is said that Barabbas, the political leader, was a member of the sicarri, a militant Jewish movement that sought to overthrow the Roman occupation by force – and St.Mark mentions that Barabbas has committed murder in an insurrection. Some scholars argue that the sicarri emerged only after Christ’s death. Whatever the truth, it is clear that Pilate cunningly believed that by offering the mob a choice between a populist rebel and Jesus, he would be absolved of some of his responsibility in ordering Christ’s execution. He knew the choice the mob was bound to make.

Al l of this would make for a fairly depressing conclusion if we could not also fast forward through the events of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum to the moment that make sense of all of this: Christ’s resurrection. Barabbas, by contrast, disappears into the ether of history and the coldness of the grave.

With his characteristic bluntness, G.K.Chesterton summed up the implication of courting worldly approval rather than confronting the mob: “We do not want a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.” As it seeks to challenge today’s world, the Church, too, can expect plenty of moments when the mob will shout for Barabbas, but it should remember always the promise that Easter holds.

Sunday March 23rd,
Easter Sunday
David Alton

G.K.Chesterton famously wrote that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.”

This Easter day it is worth reflecting on that brilliant aphorism and asking ourselves how well we put the case for the Christian faith.

I recently attended the world premier of John Taverner’s “Requiem” – poignantly and moving performed by the Liverpool philharmonic Orchestra and Choir at the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. The cathedral was full to capacity.

On the same night, elsewhere in the city’s Hope Street, Liverpool University had organised a talk by Richard Dawkins. Some witty Scousers had gathered outside and held aloft some amusing posters: “Don’t let Dawkins Make a Monkey Out of You” they proclaimed.

That Richard Dawkins is sincere in his evangelistic atheism, I have no doubt; but I couldn’t help being struck by the contrast between Taverner’s music and Dawkin’s arguments.

That evening’s events represented the classic clash between faith in an omnipotent Creator God and faith in the human project, constructed by accident, and powered by intellect alone.

Taverner’s music expressed for me an awesome appreciation of the infinite and also the ultimate accountability of mankind before the God who made him. Music and art are two of the finest tools for connecting our lives to what Taverner identifies as the great Light. They often open the way to the Sacraments and to Scripture.

Yet, I also accept that not everyone is reached in this way. That is why – to avoid being made monkeys of – we also have to rationally put the case for Christianity.

Too many of our compatriots dismiss Christianity as a dying superstition. They embrace the anti-Christian writings of Dawkins, or fall back on Marxist dialectics, the musings of Bertrand Russell or the hostile fiction of writers like Philip Pullman.

Not letting the case for Christianity go by default is what led men like Chesterton and C.S.Lewis to see the importance of making the case for Christianity.

They were not alone.
The English journalist, Frank Morrison (real name Albert Henry Ross) was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, in 1881. He died in 1950.

His finest work, still in print, was “Who Moved the Stone?” – essential reading for anyone who doubts the truth of the Easter story.

Influenced by the sceptics of the time Morrison began writing his book to prove that the Resurrection of Christ was a fabricated story. The more he probed, the more he came to believe in its authenticity.

When I first read “Who Moved The Stone?” I was struck by the forensic skills which Morrison used to assemble both the case for the prosecution and the case for the defence. It is investigative journalism at its best.

The book includes a moving and vivid description of the betrayal by Judas, Christ’s trial and death and the accounts of the Resurrection. Some of the chapter titles give a flavour of the style of the book: “The Real Case Against The Prisoner”; “What Happened Before Midnight on Thursday?”; “Between Sunset and Dawn”; and “The Witness of The Great Stone.”

If I was giving Morrison’s book as an Easter present, I might be tempted to add a couple of others.
Another non-believer who came to embrace Christianity was the Oxford academic, C.S.Lewis. His “Mere Christianity” remains one of the most accessible accounts of the Christian faith.

He argued that to comprehend Christianity you have to understand the moral law: without which the entire universe cannot function. He describes the moral law as “hard as nails” and argues that God is its source. He asserts the primacy of God over Satan – whose rebellion is at the root of all evil; and who, in the way of a parasite, twists all that is good.

Without understanding this we cannot, he say, comprehend the coming of Christ or His role as Redeemer and Saviour.
Lewis says that “God “became a man” in Christ in order that “our human nature which can suffer and die” may be “amalgamated with God’s nature” and make full atonement a possibility.

Like Lewis, Professor Alister McGrath, was born in Northern Ireland. His recent book, “The Dawkins Delusion”, is brilliantly argued – as you might expect from Oxford University’s Professor of Historical Theology. He has a background in molecular biophysics.

McGrath says that “Growing up amid sectarian violence, I concluded that if there were no religion, there wouldn’t be any violence. At the time Marxism, with its offer of political transformation and its aim of doing away with religion, was very attractive to me. I was also studying natural sciences. To me, science had disproved God. So I was a Marxist atheist who enjoyed sciences”

He went to Oxford University, a convinced atheist, but:
‘I began to realise that I’d misunderstood what Christianity was. I had thought that it was simply a kind of ritualistic, mechanistic thing. All about keeping rules. I had no idea that it was really about a personal relationship with Christ.

‘Discovering that changed things in a very big way. I discovered not simply that Christianity was true, but also that it was real. It was not just something that made sense but also something that could transform someone’s life. I decided I wanted to become a Christian.

‘I can’t point to a single defining moment but when I went to Oxford in the October I was an atheist; when I went home for Christmas I was a Christian.’

And of his fellow Oxonian academic, Richard Dawkins, he says:
“Richard Dawkins asserts very strongly that to buy into modern science is to say that there is no God. But that is simply not true – scientifically or philosophically. There are a large number of Christians who are scientists who spend most of their professional careers disproving him on this point.”

As we try to convince the world that Chesterton was right – and that Christianity may be difficult but it is worth trying – what better allies could we have than men like Morrison, Lewis and McGrath. Forget the Easter eggs, and give their books instead.