PALMS INGLORIOUS RAIMENT TWEEDY
When I lived and taught in the great city of London, I went to church at St Stephen’s Gloucester Road. A church that once had T S Eliot, perhaps the greatest of 20th century poets, as its churchwarden, and right in the centre of London.
Economy and precision
It had the sort of services I love. Beautiful, dignified and un-fussily High Church. The congregation, to all intents and purposes, was unimportant and unobtrusive. The choir was unobtrusive too, a quartet of volunteer professionals or semi-professionals, students or teachers from the Royal College of Music, I suspect, in plain clothes in the front row. They disappeared discreetly after the offertory hymn up to some hidden balcony above the sanctuary to sing Monteverdi, Lassus, Byrd, Mozart perfectly. There was a large, uncluttered sanctuary, incense, but not overdone, a trio of servers, with the priest, deacon and sub-deacon. High Mass performed with quiet and beautiful economy and precision.
You could lose yourself and find God very easily. Anonymous in a congregation treated as important by being granted not lots to do and say, but by well prepared sermons, perfect music, rehearsed and purposeful liturgy....
A tweedy crocodile
On Palm Sunday at St Stephen’s Gloucester Road, however, things were different. I learned to my horror from the peace and quiet of my pew that during the singing of All glory Laud and Honour we were to form a crocodile and process, not merely around the aisles of the church, but also outside, in the thin, spring air, out into busy Gloucester Road, then in to Southwell Gardens and back into church.
So indeed it was. The organ thundered out, the choir lead on, and off we went. Once we were outside it was terrible. We had left the organ behind and the wind blew our voices away. Our tweedy little crocodile wound along the pavement making a barely audible sound. Even the censer with his swinging and glittering thurible was unimpressive, for the smoke was whisked away by the wind before it could even be seen, let alone sniffed. The palms we carried were dull and dead, having had to be imported from Madeira, or Southern Europe, or some outlandish African Mission Station, not lovely green ones by courtesy of Shepparton’s municipality.
The passers-by on Gloucester Road, on their way to get the Sunday paper, stubble-chinned, hung-over, bleary-eyed, gawped at us in disbelief and with world-weary derision. What was this? The Church triumphant? The church impressive? A snivelling, miserable band of apologetic freaks. What sort of witness to Christ was this wandering, wavering, quavering crocodile? I, at any rate, felt an absolute fool.
Because, you see, I am a proud Christian, a believer in the Church militant and triumphant. I do not like a Church apologetic and pathetic. None of this weak, lily-livered Christianity for me. I like to take on unbelievers and agnostics to smack them in the eye, or like St Peter cut off their ear. Christ deserves awe and admiration, not scorn, contempt and derision.
So I did not at all like the look in the eyes of those unbelieving, scornful and contemptuous Londoners, as they gave way to our procession. It was a great relief to me when we finally made our way back into the warmth and shelter of the church, all of us having to sharpen our voices by a good tone and a quarter, to tune in to the organ again.
That procession ruined my service. But on reflection there was a significant similarity between that silly procession and the one it commemorated.
I have always suspected that the onlookers at Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem were scornful, contemptuous and derisory, and that many of those who cried “Hosannah” did so in mockery and scorn. The Jews were not looking for a king of peace riding on an ass.
Like me, just like me, they were looking for one proud, militant, all-conquering. For spears not palms, for grimly efficient soldiers, not country town hicks, for a disciplined army not for a babbling rabble.
So what a farce this procession into Jerusalem. Judas, like me, must have been blushing with shame. A farce of a procession. Something drastic needed to be done to rectify things, And so Judas went and did it.
Protection from God-almightiness
He was wrong, the Church is truest to its Lord when at its least impressive and triumphant, its strength lies in its weakness. The fact that we are to a great extent laughable, vulnerable to criticism, and are not hugely successful, could well be a sign of authenticity.
Certainly as individual Christians, what makes us lovable, what makes us memorable, is not our success, is not our ability, is not our achievement, nor our humour, our wit, our like-ability. All of that being largely just part of the act we present to the world. Rather, it is those little things we regard as nothing and even weaknesses, that lie behind the mask.
Like when our spouse looks at us in a certain way, and we realise that she’s seen through some silly little expression of vanity, to the minor insecurity that gave rise to it, and smiles and loves because she knows that insecurity to be a grace, protecting us from insufferable God-almightiness, and a reason therefore to love us.
At such moments in one sense we are weak, exposed, even sometimes embarrassed and yet loved and lovable and therefore oh so strong!
And, when we die, it will not be our social success, or our professional success, that when recalled breaks our loved one’s hearts with a sense of loss. It will be rather the silly little things that we did our little pomposities seen through, our foibles, idiosyncrasies, that pointed to our weakness yet somehow to our strength, our lovableness and vulnerability.
It was not Jesus’ successes and triumphs that broke his disciples hearts and so enabled them to see and appropriate the Resurrection. It was his weakness his vulnerability, lovability, all thrown into irresistible relief by his crucifixion, and foreshadowed by his laughable ride into Jerusalem on an ass.