O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!
Let Israel say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
The guests arrived on time, and soon the party was in full swing. The little nibbles, a whole variety of tasty little morsels, were delicious. The wine sparkled in the glasses. A lovely smell wafted through from the kitchen; clearly there was a major treat in store. The decorations made an already attractive room look like a fairy palace. How easy it was for the guests, enjoying one another’s company and a good evening out, to take it all for granted.
I caught my wife’s eye. Yes, it was good they were all here. We were glad to do it. But only she and I knew – and only she really knew – what it had taken to bring us to that point. The butcher had let us down, and an emergency dash to another shop had only just come up with the goods on time. The fridge hadn’t been working properly, and she had worried all night that everything that should have been cold and crisp would be warm and soggy. I had blown the house’s main fuse in putting up the extra lights. And in the middle of it all the key person who had kindly volunteered to help make all the little extras had gone down with the flu. The surface glitter of the party nicely covered over the days and hours when it felt as though we were pushing water uphill with our bare hands.
The problem of only reading verses 19 –29 of this Psalm (yes: another complaint about the Lectionary!) is that it’s like trying to get the party without the preparation. The party is great, but the preparation is what counts. Try to have the one without the other, and it’s just not going to happen. (I am reminded of the story of the student phoning his mother to ask how to cook an elaborate dish, only to reveal, after she’d given him full instructions, that the guests were arriving in half an hour and he hadn’t even done the shopping yet.) And the problem with the crowds on Palm Sunday was that they, like the Lectionary, wanted to get verses 19 –29 without verses 5 –18. Yes, the party will be wonderful: the gates of righteousness, the gate of the Lord, will open and let in the pilgrims; the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone; this is the day the Lord has made; blessed in the name of the Lord is the one who comes; give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever! Absolutely. That’s God’s party. That’s what a genuine festival ought to look like and feel like. That’s what the crowds at Pass-over time wanted, and they were right to want it.
But Jesus was living in verses 5 –18. ‘Out of my distress I called on the Lord.’ ‘It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.’ ‘I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.’ ‘The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.’ Except that Jesus went further and deeper. His preparation for the ultimate festival meant that, having taken refuge in the Lord, he ended up crying out that God had forsaken him. He put his confidence in the Lord, but the princes strung him up anyway. He was pushed hard, and fell, and nothing happened except more beating. He was punished severely, and he was indeed given over to death. The Psalmist knows that you only get to the joy of the festival by living through the pain and anguish of distress, opposition, danger and sorrow. Jesus knew that he would only arrive at it by drinking those horrible cups to the dregs.
Palm Sunday is therefore bound to be a bittersweet moment. Enjoy the moment of triumph and festival while it lasts, but recognize that it is only a foretaste of the real thing, and that you’ll only get the real thing the other side of the pain, the fear and the sense of abandonment. That was the problem in Jerusalem that day, as Jesus rode into the city with (so Luke tells us) tears rolling down his cheeks. He could see verses 5 –18, not only for himself but for the whole city. He could see the nations surrounding Jerusalem, and Jerusalem not being able, in the name of the Lord, to cut them off. He could hear the glad songs of victory, not in the tents of the righteous, but in the pagan camp closing in on the city and Temple that had longed for the festival of freedom but had not been willing to embrace the necessary preparation.
Of course, for many Christians in Holy Week, the problem comes the other way round. Many are rightly concerned to keep Holy Week and Good Friday itself with proper solemnity, with a sorrowful awareness of the folly and sin to which we have all contributed and which put Jesus on the cross. Sometimes we are so good at all that that we forget about the festival. Let’s keep the Psalm, and this coming week, in balance, and so prepare the ground by following Jesus all the way to Calvary that Easter, when it comes, will be the proper, thorough, well-grounded outburst of praise that it ought to be: the day the Lord has made, in which we will indeed rejoice and be glad.
Teach us, good Lord, to share your journey of sorrow and pain, so that we may share the joy of your victory.