Reading from Egeria’s account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (c.380AD)
Last year we had a family holiday in Crete, an island that we have visited before, and that we love.
One of my discoveries in Crete, on this visit, was that it is home to Europe’s only species of indigenous date palm; and while we were there, we went to find some of these. We drove down those very windy, unmade roads that characterise holidays in Greece, and at the end of it around the rocky headland and around the sandy beaches, we discovered the palm trees growing in groves close to the water’s edge. Just across the road from one of these groves there was a small roadside fruit stall, and I thought it would be wonderful to bring home with us some of these unique Cretan dates. So I went to the stall and was puzzled to find an awful lot of bananas and not much else. So I asked the stallholder if I could have some dates from the trees. He looked at me rather pityingly and told me that Cretan date trees do not bear edible fruit.
There could have been no more definite confirmation that dates (and the trees that bear them) are an exotic rarity to those of us who live in Western Europe. These trees cling to the easternmost shores of Crete and they bear no fruit. If you want to see date palms in all their luxuriant abundance, you have to travel a bit further across the Mediterranean Sea, to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and further beyond. There you will find them.
Jesus would have known them well and it is almost inconceivable that he would not have eaten of their fruit. And he would have known that date palm trees grow in the least likely places.
Any modern-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land will almost certainly include a trip to the Dead Sea. The area around the Dead Sea is dry and barren, and the air and the ground is very salty and very parched: hot, arid, desolate. And yet there, in the middle of that inhospitable terrain, date palms thrive, rows of them, farms of them. In some eastern cultures the date palm is called ‘the tree of life’ because of its ability to flourish in these least promising of surroundings, and Palestinian Christians will tell you that there’s a reason why the branches that the crowds waved as Jesus rode into Jerusalem were palm branches. They could have been olive branches or almond branches, or apricot branches. But they chose palm branches because the date palm is sign of hope. Flourishing in a landscape which admits very little other life, the date palm symbolises hope and, more than that, because of its abundant fruitfulness, it symbolizes a fruitful hope, a giving hope, a rich generous, abundant hope. And as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the back of that donkey, the crowds were acclaiming hope embodied for their city in this man. In this figure, new life, new hope, a new beginning was embodied: a rich promise of a glorious future for the city and for its people.
This Palm Sunday, we find ourselves inhabiting a barren landscape. I don’t mean that literally: I am speaking in the garden of the Deanery and the signs of new life are all around me. But socially, nationally, so much has been taken away from us. For good reason, but taken away from us in these last weeks. We have lost the places where we habitually gather, theatres, pubs, cafes, restaurants and gyms. Schools are closed. Many of us are at home. It’s a barren landscape. Many of us are spending long hours isolated at home and sometimes it must feel as though the hours stretch on like a shapeless, featureless, barren wilderness. It is in this barren landscape that you and I are called to be like the date palm. Symbols of fruitful hope.
How might we do that? I am not much of a gardener and I am even less of a botanist, but I understand that one of the reasons that date palms flourish in harsh climates is that they have a wide spreading root system. Not deep roots, but roots that reach out far beyond the trunk of the tree . Lots of intermeshed tentacles stretching outwards to receive whatever moisture the surface of the earth can give them.
Now, it feels as though, this year, some of those roots have been cut off for us. We cannot gather to worship alongside our fellow Christians. We cannot celebrate the wonderful liturgies of Holy Week with which many of us are so familiar and find so life giving. We cannot enjoy, live, glorious choral music. We cannot even receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.
With all these roots cut off, how can we flourish as the date palms, as the symbols of fruitful hope? It is so important that we do not mistake the roots for the water that feeds the roots. The roots are just the conduit, aren’t they? They are the means that take the moisture to the plant, and what waters us, what nurtures us, gives us life, is not simply the liturgies and the buildings and the symbols and the company. Not just those, but the living God, who communicates himself to us through those. It is God who is the living water, who feeds, sustains, nourishes, and nurtures us. And, my dear friends, however barren the landscape is, we may be certain that the living God is the living God, and that even in this dry season he longs to nurture us, nourish us, feed us and give us life, and so although some of the roots have been temporarily suspended for us, others of them have not.
The study of the scripture; prayer for others; and silent contemplation of the mystery of God: all these are means through which we can soak up the glory and the goodness and the mercy and the love of God, which continues to surround us even at this time.
My dear friends, I understand this season in our lives as a call to prayer, to serious, sustained, disciplined prayer; to an attentive listening to God through the long hours of the day and the long hours of the night. For God for is God, and God longs to communicate Godself to us. Even at this time, when some of this means that we are used to receiving him through are denied us. Let this be for each of us a season of deep listening and profound prayer, and we will find, I am sure, great streams of living water welling up within us and allowing us to be sources of fruitful hope for our neighbours and communities. The fruitfulness of love, of patience, of kindness and of attentiveness. If only we will pray, if only we will listen. Amen.
The service includes the readings of the day, which would normally have been the 10:30am Choral Eucharist at the Cathedral, and the Palm Gospel that would have been read at the start of the procession from Choristers’ Green.
This is a Service of the Word, with readings, an address, prayers and musical items from recordings of the Choir of Salisbury Cathedral.
The spoken parts of the service have been pre-recorded in our houses by members of the clergy. The service lasts about 40 minutes, and is led by the Treasurer, Canon Robert Titley, with an address from the Dean, the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos. The readers are the Chancellor, Canon Ed Probert and the Revd Pete Atkinson, Minor Canon for Young People.
Anthem: Thomas Weelkes, “Hosanna to the Son of David”- Salisbury Cathedral Choir
Introduction and Blessing of Palm Crosses- Canon Robert Titley
Reading from Egeria’s account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (c.380AD): The Palm Sunday Procession
Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a- Canon Ed Probert
Psalm 31- Salisbury Cathedral Choir
Reading: Philippians 2:5-11- The Revd Pete Atkinson, Minor Canon for Young People
Reading: Matthew 21:1-11, followed by Address- The Dean
Creed, Prayers, ending with Lord’s Prayer- Canon Robert Titley
Hymn: “O thou who camest from above”- Salisbury Cathedral Choir
Blessing- Canon Robert Titley
-“Hosanna to the Son of David,” text: Matthew 21:9/Mark 11:9/Luke 19:38, music by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), from “Anthems for America;”
-Psalm 31, from “The Complete Psalms of David;”
-“O thou who camest from above,” text: Charles Wesley (1707-88), music: Hereford by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76), from “Great Hymns from Salisbury”.
All sung by the Choir of Salisbury Cathedral (with kind permission of Priory Records and with kind permission of Meridian Records).
-Bach Prelude and fugue in C BWV 545 (1197) from "Bach from Salisbury"