We Have Been This Way Before
Palm Sunday. Fr Euan Marley takes us on journey into Paradise.
In Exodus 14:19 we read, ‘Then the angel of God who went before the camp of Israel moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them.’ What is happening is that the Egyptian army is pursuing the Israelites into the desert, and God, who has been ahead of them – in appearance at any rate – moves behind them. This is to show that he is protecting the Israelites as they pass through the Red Sea. The journey of Israel has begun, and for most of the journey God is seen to be ahead of them, leading them to the promised land. I wonder if the people of Israel ever felt they had truly finished that journey. As they followed Christ into Jerusalem, perhaps some thought that this was the true completion of the journey.
Their history had spoken more of loss than gain. The sons of Jacob went to Egypt because of famine. First the northern kingdom of Israel, and then the kingdom of Judah had gone into exile. They returned, but then the Greeks and the Romans came. Had they really reached the land of God’s promise? Many Jews still lived apart from that land, some had forgotten their Hebrew tongue and read their scriptures in Greek. Others had lost their Jewish identity almost entirely. Did they think they were following the Messiah into Jerusalem, the promise of God finally fulfilled? They followed behind him, as they had followed behind the cloud by day, and the fire by night. Whatever they believed about Jesus, surely this was the last stage, the true homecoming.
In the New Testament, we follow behind Jesus, using the same word as in the Greek version of Exodus. He is never behind us, he does not protect us in that way. We follow him in hope, and do not fear what may be behind us, or we shouldn’t. In the 23rd Psalm, there is a line, ‘Surely goodness and kindness will follow me, all the days of my life.’ That is a less comforting verse than it may seem. The Hebrew word for ‘follow’, actually means to pursue, or chase after. Remember that the psalmist is walking through the valley of the shadow of death. In the darkness, we may feel afraid, and in fact run from God’s goodness and kindness. Yet the psalm ends, ‘in the Lord’s own house I shall dwell forever.’
The journey into Jerusalem is not the last stage of the journey of Our Lord. We follow him, into and through Jerusalem. We pass through Jerusalem into the world and we are always behind him, and he is always before us. But we fear the journey. It is no happenstance that the Saviour ascends to heaven, having taken the disciples out of Jerusalem. They return to Jerusalem, because they need to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, but the dispersal of the Church happens more because of persecution than an eagerness to carry the good news to the world.
So the journey continues, through all the highways and byways of the world, until the end of time. Yet the journey began when Jesus set his face hard for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), and after the triumphant entry, the crucial stage of the journey, the journey to the place of his death begins. Every year we make that journey. In the account of St Luke, Simon of Cyrene receives the cross at the beginning. It is placed on him, to carry behind Jesus. That word, ‘behind’ again. This is the journey we make every year in this Holy Week, or in our meditations, or when we say the Rosary, or sometimes we just live something like his passion. We journey through our pain and suffering, sometimes into exile. We need to repeat the journey of Christ to the cross often, to help us in these hard journeys through life. We will walk through suffering of many kinds in our lives, yet if we make that last hard part of the journey with Christ in our prayer, as we do in this Holy Week, even if he seems far ahead and out of sight, we may be sure that we walk in his footprints, and this will be our consolation. Say to yourself in times of suffering, in those days when we walk through darkness and horror, ‘I have walked this way before.’ One day we will come to the last stage of our journey, still following him, as we make our way to Paradise.
Image: from pxfuel