No votes at Calvary
Given on Sunday 28th March 2010 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was no room at the inn. When Jesus died just outside the walls of Jerusalem, there would have been no room at any of the city's inns. For it was the time of the celebration of the great feast of Passover, and during the preceding week Jewish pilgrims would have made their way to Jerusalem from all over Israel and beyond. They still do.
For those who could not find a room at the inn, or could not afford one, there was the equivalent of bed and breakfast, not least in the outlying villages. For those from the north, from Galilee, there was a good possibility of finding floor space in the home of a relative or friend in the villages of Bethany and Bethphage, which formed a kind of Galilean suburb to the east of the capital. Here the thick northern accent which the High Priest's servant girl was to recognise in Peter was heard all the time. But if you were from the north and you weren’t lucky enough to find somewhere to stay in the two villages, there was always the Mount of Olives itself, between the villages and the city, and a bed roll under the stars. At Passover time the Mount would have been a-twinkle with Galilean camp fires, and on the other hills of Jerusalem the fires of groups from other parts of the country would have glowed brightly too.
In the city itself, the atmosphere would have been tense. The Roman occupying forces were not a large garrison, and at Passover they were hopelessly outnumbered. The High Priest and his court would have shared the Roman anxiety. Unpopular at the best of times for their co-operation with the occupying power, they faced the prospect of thousands and tens of thousands of pilgrims invading the Temple Mount during the festival, with only the small Temple police force to keep order – the Roman concordat with the Jewish authorities meant that Roman troops never entered the Temple precincts except in the most dire of anti-terrorist or other emergencies.
Just as a spark from a campfire could have set a hillside ablaze, so in that political tinderbox a small spark of sedition or popular protest could have set the city itself in uproar. And it nearly happened when the word went round that Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, was planning to make his entry into Jerusalem from his Galilean base, the villages of Bethany and Bethphage and the Mount of Olives itself.
There can be little doubt that there were many who hoped to exploit the arrival of the charismatic teacher and healer for their own ends, and saw in his arrival at Jerusalem precisely the spark that would ignite a popular uprising against the Romans. Hence the appearance of the cheering mob, whose acclamations had strong political connotations. They began with words from Psalm 118: Hosanna [meaning, 'save now!'], Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. But then came an addition, presumably a slogan specially prepared for the occasion: Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! St John even records ‘God bless the king of Israel!’. And the palm branches which John also mentions, cut down and waved so enthusiastically, were the first century equivalent of flags, because the palm was a symbol of Jewish nationalism, as potent a symbol as the flag of any nation under enemy occupation today. No one would have missed the significance of the palm branches on that first Palm Sunday.
Jesus, as we might put it today, had been ‘set up’: set up by the Zealots and other resistance movements who thought they could use him to bring down the Roman government of occupation. Then, if he wouldn’t co-operate, he could be dumped in favour of one of their own leaders, or kept on as no more than a figurehead.
But Jesus knew what was coming, and defused it. He took all the steam out of the situation by choosing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, the symbol of meekness and humility, rather than on a conqueror’s stallion. And when he arrived in the centre of the city, he made not for the Governor’s palace, the seat of political power, but for the Temple, the religious heart of the city. It would have been a bit like an invader of London arriving on a push-bike and going straight, not to Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street, but to St Paul’s Cathedral. And there, at the Temple, Jesus by the sheer force of his personality drove out all the money-changers and the dealers in pigeons, all the Sabbath-traders and the rest, and his first words were not those of a political programme; they did not seek to capture the popular vote. Instead they were words which speak of the holiness of God. ‘Scripture says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”, but you have turned it into a den of thieves.’
And so Palm Sunday and Holy Week bid the Church, bid us, to leave behind our preoccupation with the affairs of the world, not to hanker after power or influence – not even power and influence for God himself – but instead to devote ourselves to the holiness of God, to following the tragic, powerless victim as he treads the path of the Cross, and then to discover, on the other side of his death, his risen power, tragedy defeated and victory, spiritual victory, achieved.
A General Election is coming, and all the political leaders are trying to woo and win the popular vote. Each vies to be seen as the one who will lead our nation into a better and brighter future. No doubt a great many people will be cajoled into becoming something like that first Palm Sunday rent-a-mob, hailing this political messiah, that economic genius, this great war leader, that peace maker. Well, that is not what this Holy Week of our salvation is all about. We know that on the first Good Friday Sunday's great crowd had evaporated. The drama had dwindled to a sordid crucifixion on the municipal rubbish heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. And very few bothered to be there; very few were to be found, still faithful. We know that if there had been any journalists and media pundits around at the time, they would have reported that the so-called messiah was a total wash-out, a complete failure, the place of his death a suitable location for the dumping of the hopes and dreams he has inspired. There were no votes to be won at Calvary.
But equally we know that that was not the end of the story. The tree of defeat was to become the tree of glory. Where life was lost, there life was restored. And two thousand years on, the message is the same. We have to weave our palms into crosses. Good Friday must find us faithful, faithfully kneeling at the foot of the Cross. It may seem tame compared with the artificial dramas whipped up at election time. But then the really significant events in history are seldom dramatic. No-one realised it at the time, but that Cross on that municipal rubbish heap outside Jerusalem was to change the history of the world. And for you and for me it still has its ancient power.