Sunday, April 09, 2017

Holy Week Begins

  Sometimes they strew His way,
  And His sweet praises sing,
  Resounding all the day
  Hosannas to their king:
  Then "Crucify!"
  Is all their breath,
  And for His death
  They thirst and cry.

With the arrival of Holy Week comes around again one of the best hymns in the English language.  It is also one of the hardest to sing, not at all because it is too technical or too complex, but rather because, in tight, lean verse (see how lightly those flawless rhymes wear their music), it expresses itself rather too simply and starkly for comfort.  It would be one of the finest poems ever written — a beautifully-wrought match of meaning and metre, which John Ireland's music perfects —  even if it did not also grasp so unflinchingly, so firmly and so painfully the truth at the paradoxical heart of the Christian faith: the 'love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be'.  This hymn has not lost an iota of its charge since it was set down by Samuel Crossman (1623-1683) nearly four hundred years ago.   It defies a glib rendition: the words grab ungently at the heart.

For anyone who wishes to see the paradox laid bare, who wants to behold a single expression of what the Church is all about, Mass on Palm Sunday is perhaps the occasion when this is keenest.  The Church withdraws physically into itself: the furnishings and decorative aids to prayer are removed or veiled; the altar is stripped, the faith is pared right down to its core.  The stage is set and the soul is prepared for the contemplation of the historical events upon which all our other teachings and doctrines and music and art are founded: the paradoxes of and cusps between Old and New Testaments, the fulfilments of ancient prophecies and instinctive split-second actions of particular people at particular moments, the folly of man and the humility of Christ and (in the end) the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.  This Sunday precipitates the reluctant but faithful commemorations of these events.

As part of the Palm Sunday liturgy, there is the actual dramatisation of Christ's Passion according to one of the Gospels. The lines given to the congregation to read aloud are those of any plural speaker, which are normally those of the crowds or mobs that accumulated at Gethsemane, the Temple and Golgotha.  That these are in fact different crowds assembling at various points over the course of the Passion becomes increasingly less important as we go on, not only because the crowds' words and moods are not substantially different from each other's, but because we must be made to acknowledge that, had we been there, we would ('to a man') have been the crowd, and indeed that we continue to be the crowd to this day.  We have to fill our mouths with bile and sarcasm, clamouring to save a murderer and have the Prince of Life slain.  "We want Barabbas!"; "His blood be on us and on our children!"; "If he is the Son of God, let him come down from the cross!"  And so on.  It is a relief to rinse out our mouths with the Creed.

But without this, and without the coming desolate, dry-throated liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, there can be no Easter.  As the liturgy puts it, we are "following in his footsteps, / so that being made by his grace partakers of the Cross, / we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life."

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