A Palm Sunday Homily preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, 5 April 2020: Philippians 2:5-11; John 27:11-54
For Christians celebrating Holy Week—the eight-day period preceding Easter—it’s hard to imagine Palm Sunday without a procession of palms or Good Friday without the adoration of the cross. Yet, with the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic, you and I will need precisely to do without.
I don’t think that I am alone when I say (and not with just a little embarrassment) that I have been personifying the old adage: “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” I think that many of us, in the face of quarantine and fear, have gained a greater appreciation of those simple things that we so easily take for granted. Our common life as church and the ability to worship together are two “simple things” that I miss deeply. Again, I don’t think that I am alone in this.
So, how many times have you and I entered Holy Week? How many times have we been tempted to skate through its offerings or picked out the “interesting” liturgies we found convenient to attend? Where did Holy Week come from? How might the answer to this question affect and deepen our own keeping of this time, especially when we are held apart?
Given the sacrosanct nature of Holy Week’s worship services, it is worth remembering that, far from being handed down directly from God, much of the Easter and Holy Week liturgies come to us by way of a little-known, naturally inquisitive fourth–century Spanish nun named Egeria.
Egeria was one of a handful of upper-class Roman female converts whose support was critical for the blossoming of early Christianity, though their names lack household acclaim. Her “postcards”—sent to her fellow sisters in northwestern Spain from a three-year pilgrimage through modern-day Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Syria—offer detailed descriptions of biblical sites, monastic communities, and worship practice in late fourth-century antiquity. Her travel diaries also served as primary source material for our modern Holy Week liturgies and evoke the image of an unusual candidate for sainthood: an adventurous woman of means whose curiosity matched her piety.
Writing to her sisters back in Spain, Egeria described the Sunday before Easter, now known as Palm Sunday, as it was celebrated in Jerusalem at the end of the fourth century. For anyone who has received a palm in church, heard the story of the Passion recited by clergy and members of the congregation, and processed around the pew benches on Palm Sunday morning, this account should be familiar. According to Egeria,
As the eleventh hour draws near … all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. [In the gospel accounts, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey]… From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there through the entire city … everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.
Likewise, Egeria’s description of Holy Week in Jerusalem also includes the first eyewitness account of the practice of venerating the cross—in her case, the “true cross” recently discovered by St. Helena—on Good Friday. Awed by being present for worship on the spot where Jesus had been crucified, Egeria wrote in painstaking detail to her community back home all that she saw going on in what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“Were you there?” That’s a question one of our Holy Week hymns raises. And the implicit point it makes has a lot to do with the content and place of Holy Week in our own lives and times. For based upon what the nun, Egeria, conveyed, you and I now are familiar enough with Holy Week’s sacred events and experiences that we can actually take them all for granted, even though they are the foundations of our life of faith and our salvation. (“Salvation” a word in Latin that means “health” and “wholeness”: such a pertinent word; isn’t it?)
What Egeria shared with the larger church continues to stand as a foundational resource to us, in this day and time: namely, that the liturgies of this week: the liturgies of remembrance; confession; sacred meal and holy service; liturgies of watching, tending, and waiting; and the physical places at which they originally occurred are all brought home to us. What this means is that where we are now is Jerusalem. Where we are now is the Holy Land. Our church is the upper room. Our altar is the table. Our worship space is the tomb. And this year, unable to gather in our own Jerusalem, our own Holy Land, you and I will need to recognize that these events and these places are with us in our own homes and in our own hearts.
Egeria, 4th century nun, shared with the church and to us now that in Christ, all land is “Holy Land”; all time is sacred; all events speak to redemption, hope, and the faithful struggle to follow Jesus – and to do so together.
This is a tough week under any circumstances. Under the spectre of the Covid-19 pandemic, the events of Holy Week and their meaning come directly home to each of us. Don’t flinch; don’t turn away. “Were you there?” Yes, we are. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.