Sunday 5th April 2020 – Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday Reflection before Night Prayer or Compline
This morning we read about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, astride a borrowed donkey and hailed by welcoming crowds. Had you been in that crowd you couldn’t have had any idea of what would happen in the next few days. Only Jesus himself knew he was on the road to his greatest test of all for even his disciples’ understanding was hazy, despite his teaching as they had travelled together through Palestine. It is tempting to see this joyful entry as Jesus having ‘arrived’ in the city of Jerusalem, the culmination of his journey.
When reviewing our own lives we often regard the passage of time as a journey. At any point on that journey we might have had clear plans and hopes for our future, never seriously appreciating that those plans could be derailed by the unexpected.
This Lent I read Henri Nouwen’s second book of reflections on Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Both the story of the return of the prodigal son (Luke 15 vs 11 – 32) and Henri Nouwen’s personal writings focus on significant journeys. Nouwen was the eldest of four children born into a Dutch family, ‘ambitious’ for its children and staunchly practising Roman Catholics. He was an admired and appreciated author of many spiritual books but it was sight of a copy of Rembrandt’s famous painting which would eventually stop him in his tracks.
Nouwen himself had trained as a Jesuit so it was as priest, psychologist and academic, that he moved from Holland to teach in American universities ending up at Harvard. His first book won great acclaim for his style is clear and personal as he commented on the visible relationships between the welcoming father figure and his two sons. In this second book Nouwen goes much deeper, revealing more of his personal struggles. It is an acutely private work, courageous and full of raw emotion and it offers the reader an insight into the pain and struggle Nouwen had tried to cope with throughout his adult life. It also shows the way in which he ultimately, and very painfully, found his heart’s desire.
Rembrandt had painted this family group towards the end of his life, between 1665 – 67, at a time when he had suffered the last of a series of the most profound losses. Nouwen recognised this work as one of ‘the most intimate works ever painted’ for Rembrandt had by then witnessed the death of all his children, two wives and a partner who was committed to a mental hospital as well as his wealth, status and recognition as a superb portrait painter of the Dutch good and great. Nouwen realised it was the profundity and pain of so many appalling losses that enabled Rembrandt to execute this remarkably sensitive work, conveying so well the essential mercy of God. That is the base line of all our needs, though few of us recognise it in our complex acquisitive societies.
Despite his outward success as an academic, Nouwen admitted to feeling miserable on the inside. While at Harvard he met Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities for adults with mental disabilities, and had confessed to Vanier the chasm within which induced such pain and distress. All his life he had searched and longed for a sense of acceptance, love, intimacy and home – coming. When Vanier suggested Nouwen join the Toronto community, L’Arche Daybreak, as Chaplain, he seized the chance of a proper home without hesitation. It lived up to his expectations for the residents welcomed him warmly, accepting him just as he was and offering him unconditional love and affection. However, after only a few months, his old demons returned and he was forced to take a seven month leave of absence.
During this period he lived a solitary existence with the support of just two or three close friends. They accompanied him through what proved to be a severe breakdown. Before returning to L’Arche Daybreak he held three private workshops in which he tried to share what he had happened to him. He had used the well-tried spiritual disciplines of listening, ‘journalling’, ie writing down his thoughts and emotions, and ‘communing’ with God. He urged those attending to use such spiritual structures as they embarked on their own journeys while he talked to them about his emotional responses to Rembrandt’s painting. He had been able to see the original painting in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and sitting before it for several hours, absorbed every detail. This was the focus for his period of withdrawal.
So what changed? First Nouwen could see the enormous warmth and acceptance offered by the father, relieved and delighted his son had returned, disregarding his faults and mistakes, he was simply happy to have him safely home. In his solitary state Nouwen then began to perceive more deeply the essence of home – coming. He recognised that unconditional love and acceptance combined with the intimacy he had craved for so long all stemmed from the relationship he had with Jesus. He did not need to earn God’s love, it really was unconditional Furthermore he began to comprehend the essence of ‘home’ was drawn from the relationship between God the Father and Jesus his Son. We all find it difficult consciously to live in this relationship, our very being rooted in the heart of the One who sent Jesus to redeem the world. Jesus calls him Father yet the two are One. We thus live in the intimacy of Love itself, there is no further for us to go, now we are ‘home’.
This weekend we begin our own journey with Christ through Holy Week. We will find the arrival in Jerusalem was but the start of events which shook the world, just as Nouwen was to recognise after his arrival at L’Arche, there was still a long way to go before he found true solace. That may be true of us too as we hear again the familiar accounts which we hear every Passion-tide. And finally we will stand again at the foot of the cross with the two Mary’s and John, possibly with tears running down our own cheeks as we think of the pain of our world right now, then we will reach that awe-ful moment when Jesus called to his father, ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Not only ‘despised and rejected of men’, at that moment he felt utterly bereft and abandoned by his own father, the author of life and death.
So much human pain is contained in that desolate cry from the cross. It was a cry of anguish which ultimately proved to open the way for us all to come home. The father of that wayward son and Henri Nouwen understood that and we, too, are secure within the kingdom of God and we know nothing in heaven or earth can set us apart from that love.