“Brethren, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:4-9).
Holy Week is a week of remembrance. We began yesterday with the story of how Christ raised His friend Lazaros from the dead. Today we recall His entry into Jerusalem, perhaps envisioning the first century version of a ticker tape parade. Tonight and for the rest of the week we undertake a day-by-day reflection on the last events in the Lord’s earthly ministry.
There are more villains than heroes in the story; even Christ’s closest companions are quite flawed. Judas is a traitor; the high priests and Sadducees conspire to have Him executed because He threatens the status quo and their privileged position in it; the Pharisees are offended by the Lord’s criticism; Pontius Pilate agrees to an execution even though he does not believe that Jesus is guilty of anything serious. The Apostles flee into hiding upon His arrest; Peter denies that he ever knew Christ. A crowd greets Him on Palm Sunday with rejoicing and cries of “Hosanna,” and on Friday another crowd cries, “Crucify Him; crucify Him!”
I have often wondered why our Church places this particular reading on Palm Sunday. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything…” These are nice words, but they simply do not seem to blend with the story that we are telling.
I found the answer in the writings of Fr. Leonidas Contos, The Lenten Covenant. In short, he notes that the words are important precisely because they guide us through the ups and downs of history and of our personal lives. St. Paul penned this advice to the church of Philippi while the church there was still young and untested. The great persecutions lay ahead of them. Controversy in the church over the questions of Jewish Law (circumcision, etc.) was already a problem. He gave them the best advice that he could for difficult times.
“The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God… whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The spirit of discouragement is always close at hand. I think that if the devil has talking points that he distributes to his co-workers, they would probably include the following: “What’s the use? No one cares.” “No one is looking.” “The good that you might do is a drop in the bucket.” “The situation is hopeless.” “It’s okay, just this once.” “You are only human.”
St. Paul gave them the best advice that he could for difficult times. When everything seems to be going wrong and when no hope is visible, then we owe it to ourselves to remember the heroes and hopes offered by God.
Now Lent is meant to be a time of spiritual cleansing, where we discipline mind and body to focus on what is ultimately important, God’s love for us, expressed in His willingness to suffer on our behalf. In Holy Week we take one further step- we put aside for a few days our mundane problems and focus on the sacred deeds and words presented by our Lord.
Fr. Contos put it writes, “We will never develop nobility of thought, refine our better instincts, by dwelling on the lower things” (Contos, The Lenten Covenant, p. 158). St. Paul puts it another way: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This is Holy Week.
Elsewhere St. Paul writes, “You have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.,” (Col. 3:1-2). We owe it to ourselves to contemplate what lifts us up.
To the Christian community of Rome, St. Paul wrote, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). So often we lower our standards to what everyone else is doing, to what we see on television or read in the newspapers. Instead of comparing ourselves to the worst examples of modern society, we need to recall the great examples.
Holy Week has physical components: fasting, church attendance, dyeing eggs, etc. But the basic need of Holy Week is to participate in the mind and heart- to focus on the highest expression of love in history, God’s Son giving up His life for us.
In good times and in bad, we need to govern our lives by the highest principles, and to call to mind the greatest examples. May this week be a blessed one for you and me and our whole church.