29 March 2015: Palm Sunday
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
Isaiah 50. 4-9a; Mark 15.1- 39
It may be that you have not succumbed to the spell of Hilary Mantel, specifically the first two novels in her Tudor trilogy dealing with the turbulent career of Thomas Cromwell – the man who was responsible, among other things, for the physical destruction of the great religious houses of England including Bolton Priory. But if you are not a particular admirer of Mantel you are not alone: she has been criticised, on the one hand, for an over-sympathetic portrayal of Thomas Cromwell; and, on the other, for traducing the reputation of Henry VIII’s one time Chancellor, Thomas More, by portraying him as nothing more than what one critic has described as “a charmless prig, (and) a humourless alienating nasty piece of work”.
As it happens, I don’t think this criticism is entirely fair. Mantel’s treatment of both Cromwell and More is rather more nuanced in her novels than the recent television production suggested. But in any case I am more interested in the relationship between Cromwell and More, a relationship that was especially well conveyed in the recent television adaptation.
Newcomers to Tudor history need to know just two things. That Henry VIII wanted the Church in England to be rid of the Pope’s authority so that he could get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the much more pliant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer; and that many eminent theologians and politicians, for reasons of religious conscience, opposed Henry’s wishes to be rid of the Pope.
Thomas More was one such conscientious objector. Though he did not voice his opposition to Henry’s plans publicly, he refused to add his signature in support of the necessary legislation. He was convicted of treason and executed. There is evidence that Cromwell attempted to persuade More to fall into line and thus save his life, evidence that Mantel uses in her account. But ultimately More followed his conscience and ended up on the scaffold.
I would not want to press the analogy too far, but I think that the triangle of relationships between Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, and Henry VIII offers a helpful way to understand the events we have heard unfold today in Mark’s account of the trial and execution of Jesus. Like Thomas Cromwell, Pontius Pilate is a loyal servant of the monarch who appointed him and who could just as easily dismiss him – in his case the Roman Emperor, Tiberius. The man, Jesus, who is brought to him, bound as a prisoner, by the Jewish religious hierarchy might not have the political status of Thomas More but, like More, his near silence makes it impossible for Pilate to progress any notion of saving his life, as much as he might have wanted to. Pilate knows, as did Cromwell, that his position is not entirely secure for all sorts of reasons and he cannot afford to put a step wrong even in the case of a man whom, it seems clear, he knows to be a prisoner of conscience. His need to satisfy the vengeful crowd in Jerusalem and so keep his position with the emperor secure outweighs his amazement, to use Mark’s words, that Jesus refuses to defend himself against charges that he knows will lead to his death.
But enough of analogies, the preacher’s favourite conceit. In any case, there is an ingredient in the Passion narrative that is largely missing from the Tudor triangle of Cromwell, More, and Henry VIII. This ingredient, of course, is the crowd who in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s last hours stand both literally and figuratively between Pilate and the emperor. In our liturgy today we have, in a very modest way, relived the moment of triumph on the first Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the enthusiastic cheers and singing of the onlookers, and the spreading of leafy branches and clothing. And through our participation in the Passion narrative we have been reminded that those who had greeted Jesus as the Messiah, the one who would usher in the ‘coming kingdom’, would a few days later turn on him, shout ‘Crucify’, and abandon him to the violence of the occupying power. Such is the fickleness of human allegiance; such is the ease with which the best of human nature can be subverted by what William Whyte described as the irrational and dysfunctional phenomenon of groupthink; such is the root of the scapegoating throughout human history of vulnerable individuals and vulnerable groups.
In their descriptions of the trial before Pilate all four of the gospel writers confront us with the endless, nihilistic, human capacity to subvert, to ridicule, to humiliate, and to destroy our fellow human beings. And this capacity is not just about what happens in other contexts – Hutu versus Tutsi in Rwanda, Serb versus Muslim Bosniak at Srebenica, Isis versus Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, Jeremy Clarkson versus his TV producer at the end of a day’s filming. It’s something in which we are all complicit – not through mass murder or physical violence, but through our choice of newspapers and magazines, in what we say about others publicly and privately, and in when we choose to remain silent through fear of the consequences of speaking out. I don’t say that all of us, or even most of us, are guilty of this complicity all the time, or even most of the time. But very few of us have never fallen prey to such temptation at some time or other.
Jesus shows us a different way altogether. Like Isaiah’s suffering servant in our first reading, he does not hide his face from those who would insult him or spit on him; he offers himself willingly, not passively, in an act of sacrificial love and as a consequence of deliberate choice. In human terms, the description of Jesus in his final hours in Jerusalem closes a circle of vulnerability whose circumference began with the description of his birth in Bethlehem; under the gaze of eternity, Jesus’s death on the cross shows us a God whose name is love, a love to which, like the centurion, we can do nothing more than bear awestruck witness.