Fancy some high-class works of art to enrich your Holy Week? Then pop along (as I and a dozen other Bishops on CME did last week) to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Almost every scene has been depicted. In loving detail the great Masters lay before us the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Jesus before the High Priest, and on through to a wonderful image of Christ rising from a sarcophagus clutching a flag of St. George â€“ making him look like a rather dishevelled member of the Barmy Army after a particularly heavy Ashes victory. But somethingâ€™s missing. And that thing is today â€“ Palm Sunday. Liturgically itâ€™s a major part of the Easter Drama, pictorially it has vanished off the radar.
Iâ€™m sure there must be some depictions of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem — and I expect the anoraks among aficionados of this web site to provide us all with hyperlinks — but by comparison with the other major events of Holy Week and Passiontide they are few in numbers. Why?
My suspicion is that Palm Sunday is uncomfortable for Christian art because it is too near the bone. Central to it are people who greet Jesus enthusiastically , scattering palms. And five days later, when he failed to conform to their expectations, they are ready to assent to his crucifixion. The betrayal of Jesus by the Jewish authorities, by Romeâ€™s officers, by the Jerusalem mob and even by his immediate disciples is something we can distance ourselves from. But betrayal by those who cry â€œHosannaâ€ and welcome him into their lives as a Saviour, well thatâ€™s much harder to push away.
Today weâ€™re forced to think about the equivocal nature of our welcome to Jesus. We let him into our lives and into our faith but on our terms. He mustnâ€™t bring children or those with learning disabilities with him, as they might disturb the peace of our worship. He can help us say our prayers but mustnâ€™t make any major demands on our money. Heâ€™s welcome to chide us gently about some of the minor sins we commit, but he must restrict his real challenge to other peopleâ€™s temptations. And he must be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in the battle to save the church from those dreadful liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, misogynists, radicals, evangelicals, charismatics, Nigerians, Americansâ€¦
To paint the Jerusalem welcome is to depict ourselves, and to draw attention to the conditionality and ambivalence of our faith. No wonder many churches have moved the focus of their Palm Sunday Services to an overview of the whole Passion Narrative, we can lose ourselves among Peter and Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate.
St Francis of Assisi recognised that he would never fully welcome Jesus until he had embraced those he most feared and despised — lepers. He could then go on to welcome Lady Poverty and, in due course, Sister Death. Today you and I are given the opportunity to face a similar challenge. Or we could find some less threatening picture to look at.