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Palm Sunday: The Crowd’s Last Word – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: The Crowd’s Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date: Palm Sunday,  2 April 2023  10.30am 

Last words are for fools who believe they have not yet said enough, remarked Karl Marx on his own deathbed. You might agree with that, although it feels a slightly aggressive way in which to take leave of this life. I suspect that, when the time comes, my own preference might be closer to that of the economist John Maynard Keynes, who sadly remarked I only wish I had drunk more champagne!

Or it might prove to be the case that we are overwhelmed with regret, and echo a sentiment more in keeping with the last words of Queen Elizabeth I, who is reported, wistfully, to have said All my possessions for a moment of time.

But whatever faces us at the end of our own lives, today, and throughout this week of weeks, we are called by God and by God’s Church to work out what our last word is when faced, as we are right now, by the Cross, and by the death of Jesus. Because it is no use claiming to be a follower or a disciple of Jesus, if you have nothing to say to the world about the Cross – for the Cross stands not just at the heart of our religion. For the Christian, the Cross stands – the Cross must stand – at the heart of the life of the world.

And it is not just Christians who can find themselves confronted with the Cross. In 1972 the American Jewish author and rabbi Chaim Potok wrote a remarkable novel entitled My name is Asher Lev, about a child born into an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in New York, a family very like his own. And it turns out that this child is blessed with the gift of truly remarkable artistic talent.

But, while you or I might delight to see such talent in one of our own offspring, in the context of a devout, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, this was very far from welcome, for art, painting and drawing do not sit well in Orthodox Judaism, which takes very seriously the prohibition on making graven images.

But so very talented is this child that, with the eventual encouragement of their rabbi, his parents arrange for their son to have lessons in art from a non-religious Jew who possesses similar talent.

The climax of the story comes when the teacher tells his ever-blossoming pupil that if he wishes to be a truly great artist, he must go down to the Met – the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and gaze at, and study, and sketch, and reproduce all the great paintings of the crucifixion in the museum.

The boy is horrified at the idea that he, an Orthodox Jew, should be encouraged to immerse himself in pictures of the ultimate expression of the Christian faith. But his teacher is clear – no other image in the world, he says, has the significance in the entire history of art as does the crucifixion of Christ. To be a truly great artist, whatever one’s faith or beliefs, one must encounter the cross of Christ.

In other words, this committed, observant Jew is called to find his ‘last word’ on – of all subjects – the Cross.

This morning, as we begin Holy Week, we find ourselves faced with a body of people that the evangelists refer to as the ‘crowd’. And because of the curious, unique nature of today’s liturgy we have had not one but two snapshots of the crowd in this morning’s service – which is both helpful and necessary if we are to understand what being part of a ‘crowd’ can really mean.

Just now, as we gathered outside the Minster, we acted out the crowd’s behaviour as it followed Jesus down the Mount of Olives, celebrating his arrival in a Jerusalem turbo-charged with religious fervour at the celebration of the most significant Jewish festival of the year. And, as the evangelist reminded us, so excited is the crowd, it is shouting Hosanna, and calling Jesus the Son of David     , and claiming that he has come ‘in the name of the Lord’.

But crowds are easily swayed, and – as we see all too often in our own volatile political and social climate – people can veer from being superstar to public enemy number one in little more than a heartbeat. When the going gets tough, both 2000 years ago, and all too often today as well, a crowd can change its communal mind and change the chant of Hosanna to the hideous last word that cries out, Let him be crucified.

And so, today, God asks us, God demands of us once again, to work out what the Cross really means to each one of us. God asks us what it is that we might say to the world around us about the Cross and about the death of Jesus. Are we outwardly going to shout Hosanna, but let our inner thoughts and our behaviour call out Crucify? How will we fashion our own response to the Cross?

I want to suggest that if you – or I – properly wish to answer this question, the ultimate question of Holy Week, then you need to walk with Jesus throughout this week through the great liturgies of the Church. For if, after this morning, the next time you set foot in a church is next Sunday morning, I am not sure that you will properly have understood what it is that God in Jesus has done for you, and I am not sure that you will fully understand what it will mean to celebrate resurrection on Easter Sunday.  And that is why the Church of God has, for many many centuries, offered unique and powerful liturgies to help us enter into this ultimate, great drama of hope and of salvation.

And so I invite you to join us in the coming days. To join us tomorrow, and Tuesday and Wednesday, as we are reminded of Jesus’ last days of teaching his disciples and friends as the situation around him ineluctably comes to a head.

And then to join us in the solemn darkness of a Thursday night, replete with its bread and wine, and acts of service; to join us in the bitter darkness of a Friday afternoon, complete with an agonizing and undeserved death; to join us in the expectant darkness of a Saturday night, as the light of a single candle will illumine your life more brightly than you could have thought possible.

And if we are faithful to God’s call, and make such a journey, then we will comprehend so much more clearly what God has done for us on the Cross, and then can we frame our own last word to help us speak – as we are called to do – speak to the world of the death of the Son of God.

For now, right now, the crowd chants Crucify…Let him be crucified. Is that going to be your last word?

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