Today in England it is Easter Eve, and perhaps the world around us has spared a passing thought for Christ on His Cross yesterday. The shops will mostly be closed tomorrow and today there is the activity and gentle happiness of a holiday weekend, shopping for spring fashions and chocolate Easter eggs, scarcely reflecting that the chick cracking through the shell symbolises the new life of Christ bursting forth from the Tomb.
Meanwhile, our Eastern Church follows the old calculation of the date of Easter and we find ourselves this year a week behind. So today for us is Palm Sunday, on the verge of events that our fellow Christians are immersed in all around us.
But it is all the same story. In the Eastern Church we tend to refer to the coming feast not by the English name “Easter”, but by the word “Pascha”. This is the name common to both Greek and Latin, recognisable in French, Italian, Russian and Ukrainian too, that was borrowed from Hebrew to describe not just the Day of Resurrection itself, but the whole event over three days that witnessed Jesus our Lord passing from life to death to new life again, and the way that the passage of time and of the Person of Christ has drawn everything in after it and left nothing the same as before. The Hebrew word is “pesach”, which means Passover, recalling how the Avenging Angel of the Lord passed over the homes of the Hebrews so that they would be saved from the tyranny of Pharaoh and the punishment that justly befell him, and even more so that they could pass over the path of the Red Sea on their way to the Jordan and entry at length into the Promised Land. They never went back; they never looked back, always “pressing on to what lies ahead”. (Philippians 3.13)
So, in our Church’s liturgy today and at the end of the forthcoming week, there is this constant experience of Passover, of one thing leading to another, of lives and old ways being left behind as a new future seizes hold of us and a new purpose is embraced. Toward the end of the week on Thursday night, we will take up the Cross with Christ and walk with Him round the Church on His way to the Passion, to die on the Cross for our sake. On Friday evening we will reverently take Him down from His Cross and again go round the Church, carrying a cloth on which is depicted His lifeless human form, which we will down as a shroud once covered Him in His Tomb. Then we will wait in hope for the last stage of the Passover, the Paschal passing over from death to new life that we shall celebrate with joy next Saturday and Sunday. But today it is a different kind of passing over, passing round. We greet the coming King with palms and branches, as He turns His back on Galilee and His years in His home territory, pressing on through the miraculous acts in Bethany and around beyond the outskirts of Jerusalem, to begin a new level of action and proclamation of God’s Kingdom that He knows with bring about the most terrible consequences - but consequences that must happen if the old life is to be broken apart and overturned, like the trading tables in the Temple, if a new and everlasting life is to be opened.
Thus at our Liturgy we have held our branches as the Lord in His Holy Gospels entered His Temple. In a few moments we shall stand when the Lord, as if beneath the veils of covered bread and wine, goes on his way to Calvary to offer His life on Calvary in sacrifice, so that He may for ever after give His life to us at the altar from His own everlasting life. You will have seen the priest, too, constantly coming in and out of the Holy Place, bringing Christ’s blessing and peace from Heaven to earth. Around it all you see the incense marking the presence of God in Heaven among us on earth. You see the saints looking out of us, not static images on a wooden screen, but figures represented as they constantly praise God and pray for us, gazing upon us in the world through the windows onto God’s creation that are icons, insistently transmitting prayer, peace and divine blessing to us, as we return their gaze and thus look out of the world into Paradise.
As in our Church today you re-enact the events that surrounded Christ on His coming as King to Jerusalem, see not barriers, or customs in the way of God, or activities that complicate the simple worship of the honest and good heart, but the way in which the Lord opens up the access, flinging wide the gates, so that the Christ Who passes we may follow, so that the Lord Who dwells in heaven and Who constantly comes in and out of it to bring salvation and all heaven’s glory close to us, here where we are, may take us with Him on the next step. See that this constant movement, round and in the Church, from one state to the next, from ceremony to ceremony, from glory to glory, from death to life, is not something that you merely witness. It is to draw you in, as it shows the path that you too must now follow. For if the King most pass through His life to the journey that leads in the end to His death, if He is to pass over to new life and thus return to us with a “Resurrection like His” for us too (Romans 6.5 – today’s reading from the Apostle), then we, who follow likewise, follow all the way. Every step by which the Church, the priest and the Liturgy mark the coming of Christ out of Heaven into our world with peace and salvation mirrors the steps by which we must come out of our world to follow Him into Heaven. If we long all to be united with Him in the Kingdom of love, we cannot be less than utterly united with Him at every point of His sacrifice, faithfulness and sheer love and devotion that leaves the old ways and reasons behind, that draws everything in its wake, and by the complete potency of the Cross leaves behind nothing in us to be ever the same again.