Palm Sunday | The Rev’d Dr Thomas Plant
The “palms” of Palm Sunday are a symbol of victory. Usually, on this day, Christians go out into the streets to wave them, as did the crowds who welcomed Jesus to his final triumph in Jerusalem. Perhaps it is fitting this year that we do not. The absence of palm processions might afford a much-needed opportunity to reflect on and correct our own society’s notion of what triumphs are really worth celebrating.
As I spend time in enforced isolation, seeing much more of my family and catching up with old friends; as I hear of their fears for their own friends, relatives, spouses – those who are vulnerable to the Coronavirus, those who are dying or have died alone because of it, those who are risking getting infected themselves to work on the wards and so putting their own lives on the line – I come to realise how much time until now I have been spending in unreality. How much time I spent insulated by my work, my busyness, my media consumption, from the pleasure and the pain, the little joys and overwhelming sadness, the risk and reward of real life. The kind of real life that the majority of the world experiences all the time, but to which the life of the affluent West inoculates me. The irony is that in a way, I was more quarantined before the isolation: quarantined by the relentless, blinding unreality of modernity.
I should probably point out that by “reality,” I mean something quite different from the common-sense use of the word. I don’t primarily mean the things that we can touch and smell and see, and weigh and measure. These things change and pass. The world, even the universe, will one day come to an end. The materially poorer majority of the world face death every day, and so know the fragility of things far better than those of us with access to the technologies and medicines which protect and prolong our lives.
It takes a crisis to make us realise that however great our technical skill, we are not in fact masters of the universe, nor even of the world: and that worse, our technological prowess is at least as much the cause of all this death and devastation as their remedy; as much the poison as the cure. After all, it was through rapidity of transport by air and sea that the virus could spread so rapidly; through our desire to create even greater wealth that we were slow in halting its spread. Yet as people die in ever vaster numbers, and we and those we love come under threat, the seas and sky recover from the damage we have done. And so we are brought face-to-face with a truth that is not relative, is not arbitrary, is not something we have made up or can change: death is real, and we have played a part in a global culture which promotes it.
But this is precisely why the things that we consider real, the world of existent things, is not in the end the most real after all. Their reality is limited, because all things change and die. That which cannot change and cannot die consequently has a greater claim to reality.
There are such things. There are mathematical truths, for instance. The area of a circle will always be πr² whether or not any circular things exist: and in what we call reality, no perfectly circular thing does exist. The idea of the circle is, in this sense, more real than any of the imperfect circular things in existence, which are only temporary shadows of the idea, and in time will pass. It is a mistake to think that one day long ago, people saw circular things and then came up with the idea of the circle, just as it is a mistake to think that 2+2=4 only if you have two pairs of counting cubes to match up. The idea is real, whether there are human minds to think it or not. And such ideas are woven into the reality of the universe. Humans do not invent them: we only discern them, we only find out what is hidden there, these truer, permanent realities which underlie the passing realm we mistakenly think is most real simply because it is most accessible to our own limited physical senses.
The great philosophies of the entire world have all recognised the impermanence of what many nowadays mistakenly think of as the sum of reality. Most by far of the ancient thinkers of Greece, Persia, India, Arabia, Africa and China understood that this passing world could not be what is truly real. Christians were far from unique in this regard. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we in the West assume that our materialist assumptions have always and everywhere been self-evident, and that ideas about a reality beyond it are just matters of private, even idle, projection. And with exactly the same pride and superiority that we once forced Christianity on other parts of the world by war and empire, by commerce and technology we now force the “self-evident,” neutral, empirical truth of our secular mores on the world. In our arrogance, we fail to see that our way of thinking has only ever been a minority way of seeing the world. We keep trying to force our own hastily contrived map onto a world we think is inherently value-free, merely crude material to be formed and contorted into whatever shape we choose.
By the end of the 19th century, we in the West thought that we could redefine reality and do a better job. We fell for the myth of progress, blindly believing that our mastery of the world would lead to prosperity and peace for all. At the beginning of the next, that quest for mastery led to the First World War and gave us hitherto unparalleled tools of murder. It provided the ideological backing for both Nazism and Communism. And a hundred years on, after a century of greater death by the technocratic will for progress than ever before, whether by weapons of war, pollution of vehicles, or powerful systems of oppression, we yet again risk destroying the world and one another.
The Coronavirus is like a mask for the ideological virus of modern western thought which has infected so much of the world. The western idea of capitalism, which separates material goods from any inherent value and makes them neutral stuff for use and sale, helped to propagate the virus. The western idea of Communism, exported into China, led to the silencing of voices which could have warned us of this early on. The western idea of utilitarianism makes us think that the world has no real value in itself, but is just there to be used for what is good for us. No doubt among these there are lesser and greater evils: but history is proving that no utopian system, whether the untrammelled freedom of the markets or totalitarian state control, is capable of yielding human flourishing, for the ironic reason that neither of these systems recognises any ultimate value to the world beyond that which humans assign to it.
I am not for a moment advocating a Woke anti-Western revolution here. On the contrary, there is much that is great in the thought and the history of the West. But what made Europe great was our older tradition, built on Christian interpretation of Europe’s classical Greek philosophical inheritance. This tradition recognises that proportion and harmony are absolute truths woven into the laws of the universe; that their constitutes an absolute beauty; and that for the truth of this beauty to be perceived, there must be living perceivers, which implies the absolute goodness of life and its propagation and preservation: set against which, the termination of life, as an act against reality, constitutes the greatest conceivable evil. Without this recognition of the absolute value of life, the great western human rights tradition ends up lacking any foundation, and is relegated to being merely another collective fiction to be imposed by trade sanctions or the threat of the red button.
Despite moderns’ protestations of “tolerance,” out older tradition has much more in common with the traditions of the rest of the world than the systems which have eclipsed it. In practice, the modern mindset assumes its own superiority all the world’s ancient traditions, and sneers at the notion of tradition itself. Today’s crisis should jar us into rethinking what we value in the West, and listening to other, older voices from our own tradition and beyond.
The triumph Christians are supposed to mark on Palm Sunday should never be triumphalistic. Christians like me have nothing of our own to boast about. For after we have carried our fronds, we would usually process into church and re-enact the Passion of Christ, and in the process, we shout out together, just like those first palm-wavers did, for his execution. The triumph is not one we have earned. On the contrary, it is a reminder that we still fail in the one victory that really matters: the victory of the spirit over the flesh, of the truly real and lasting over the fleeting shadow of reality which comprises this world. If our way of thinking is still tied to the older symbol of the palm as one of victory in war, in material battles, battles for dominance and control of others, then we need to think seriously about what we are doing, year after year, with those palms.
This Palm Sunday needs to mean a turning away from the fiction of human mastery over the world, and the expression of this fiction in the liberalisation of either markets or social mores: a turning away from the idea that we can dictate our own reality to a pliant and malleable world. It needs to mean a turning towards truth, beauty, goodness, recognising these first in the time we spend with our families and our friends, and letting that reality change the way we relate to our neighbour, our nation, our enemies, and the whole of the natural order. It needs to mean a turning outward of the self to others, paradoxically finding the real self not in self-serving but in self-gift for the life of others, which is an absolute good.
Thankfully much of that self-gift still survives in this country, as is evident in the work of the nurses, doctors and volunteers who are risking their lives for others; in those who are trying to keep their employees paid despite the prospect of economic collapse; in workers volunteering for furlough so that more needy people can be paid. Yet we have to remain aware that the survival of this innate sense of the good persists despite the anti-communitarian ideological mindset of the West, and not because of it, and we need to reflect on what we intend to change. State imposition can only take us so far. After that, we rely on mutual goodwill, and such goodwill is forged only in the smaller, more local and naturally more conservative, traditionally-rooted environments of family, parish, school and neighbourhood: precisely those arenas against which both modern statism and global capitalism’s expectations of a global workforce militate.
I am blessing palms at home this year, but not in a spirit of triumphalism. First, I will see in them the stuff of the dead trees from which they are made, and I will recall that all of creation, not just humans, is a passing shadow of the eternal and real beauty of the Divine Mind, that trees and the rain play their part too in the worship and glorification of God. And second, I will look to their shape, and remember that the people who cried “Hosanna to the King of Kings” were the very ones who called out for the death of the Divine Reality, crucified him and buried him – and that in my own succumbing to unreality, I am in their number. Yet as a Christian, I will also hold onto the great reality that lies beyond this life, and trust that the love many of us are rediscovering in this time of enforced reflection is only a shadow of the eternal love we have yet to enjoy.
Photo by St Mary’s Orthodox Church on Flickr.