The worship of the Catholic Church is full of ceremonies and rituals and these signs and symbols are given to us not only to help us worship, but also to teach us about the Christian way of life – and one of these is “the palm”, with which we begin the Holy Week ceremonies. Palm Sunday is the day we remember Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem and how the people acclaimed him King, with singing and the waving of palm branches. On that day, we bless palm branches and hold them up, as they did; however we do this, not just to remember what they did, but also to acclaim ourselves that Christ is King – our King. With the palm, we publicly profess that he is the one whose words, we have heard in the depths of our hearts and he is the one we have chosen to follow. Later, we take these palms and place them in our homes to remind us of our promise – our choice to follow him. However, we also need to remember that in almost a year’s time, at the beginning of Lent, we will burn those same palms and use the ashes to mark our foreheads as a sign that we have failed in our discipleship. However, having acknowledged that failure, we will then begin a period of penance, after which we will make our promise again and start to follow him once more.
Recently, there have been many criticisms of us Christians – and maybe of us Catholics in particular, in newspapers and bloggers. Fingers are pointed at us and voices raised calling us hypocrites – saying that we profess one thing, but do something else. Sadly, some of those criticisms are justified, but they also betray an ignorance as to what the spiritual life is about, for, as our Catholic ceremonies teach us, the spiritual life is not about self-perfection – the choosing of an ideal and living up to it – but is about choosing a way of life, something which can only be learnt over time. The Christian way of life is not about choosing standards of behaviour, but about choosing goodness; it is not about living up to ideals, but learning how to love – and, as the palms and ashes show us, this is a long journey, one that will take as long as there are ashes to receive and new palms to bless as a sign of begin once more.
There is, however, also something not recognised by our critics – and often not recognised by us either – and that is that failure is an ingredient of our journey. I have not chosen to become an isolated, perfect, self-sufficient individual, but a companion, part of a company and that only happens as I learn to help and be helped. Thus, our failures, our weaknesses, our sins are a part of our journey; they are a part of learning to care for each other and to be cared for by each other – for this is the only way we can become one with God. Without the experience of our own weakness, we will not know the strength and comfort of our friends, without experiencing our own failures, we will never learn of the graciousness of the gift we are being given. For gift it is! Spirituality – communion with God and others – is about being drawn into that love and compassion, which created the world and which seeks to redeem it – and this is something we receive as a gift, not something we attain to.
This sense of the “giftedness” of spirituality should not only help us in our weakness, but also help us to be understanding of our companions when they fall. The temptation is always there to stand alongside the newspapers and bloggers with their pointing fingers and so we need to remind ourselves again and again that failure is part of the journey. To paraphrase John Donne: “Seek not to know at whom the fingers point – they point at thee!”
Palm Sunday, then, is a day when we stand tall and look towards the Far Country, towards which the Lord calls us. We see it and we choose – we choose the type of person we want to become; we choose the direction we wish to go in; we choose to take the palm in our hand and in our heart to whisper “Yes!” We know that at times the way will be monotonous;We know that it will often be two steps forward and one step back – but that is the way the Lord invites us to travel with him and it is, in fact, the only way – as is taught by the ceremony of the palms.
I am 69 today, 24th March – and so am beginning my seventieth year. I stopped and thought – “Wow, where did all those years go?” I remember my Dad used to say that the Lord had promised him three score years plus ten and that should he live longer he would consider it a bonus. He died at the age of 71, which I now realise is very near my own age – although I am still young enough to be taken aback when a seminarian asks – as one did a week or so ago: “Are you older than Pope Benedict?”, but then, to a seminarian, everyone older than 30 is ancient!
Recently, I came across a quote from Viktor Frankl, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. This one is about getting older and I would like to share it with you:
“To express this point figuratively we might say: The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after having first jotted down a few diary notes on the back.
He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people he sees or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities I have the realities of my past – not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of suffering bravely endured. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”
I shall be celebrating the Holy Week ceremonies in an Iban-speaking kampong (village) about 20 kms from here. I began saying Mass there, once a month, towards the end of last year and I enjoy it – it is also a good way to improve my Iban, which is rusty, to say the least. I love the way that everything is done at a meeting – always delightfully informal, and accompanied always by bits and pieces to eat and drink – and much laughter. I am looking forward to the ceremonies.