For those who want a change from the Gospel
Palm Sunday – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Jewish tradition has it that what we now call Psalms 113 – 118 were recited by the Israelites as they marched out of captivity in Egypt, and thus form a subsection of the Psalms called ‘The Egyptian Hallel’ (or ‘Praise’). In later Judaism they were recited during the Passover liturgy, and the Church today uses Psalm 118 particularly during Holy Week and Easter. Scholars who like to group the Psalms neatly by their genre have scratched their heads over this one, since it contains several different moods and flavours. The first few verses provide a call to corporate worship, but in verse 5 the mood changes as an individual expresses confidence in the Lord because of his deliverance from (unspecified) human attacks. Then in v.15 there is another expression and confidence which calls forth exuberant praise. In v.19 where our filleted lectionary reading picks the Psalm up again, there is a prayer both of thanksgiving for past deliverance and a prayer for future victory. Finally we have a call to gather in the sanctuary to worship God. The Psalm also resembles ‘Entrance Liturgies’, such as Ps 24, which would have been used at the gates of the Temple, although of course the Israelites escaping from Egypt would have no physical Temple for centuries, and not even the Tabernacle for a few months. So all in all, a bit of a mish mash.
But I wonder if a key to understanding this Psalm, and its use over the Easter period, lies in one particular Hebrew word: sha’ar, which means ‘gate’. Here it obviously refers to a physical gate, as the doorway into the sanctuary, into the presence of the God of Righteousness, through which only the righteous could pass. But the Temple would have had doors, not gates. So what’s the difference?
If you were to come to my house (and you’re all very welcome!) you would ring at our front door, which is famously opaque. Anything could be going on inside, and you would have no idea. But before that, you would have come through our front gate, which is about a metre high and made of wooden slats, so it forms no sight barrier at all. An Anglican collect for Easter Eve prays ‘that through the grave and gate of death we may pass to our joyful resurrection’. In other words, we can see through death to what awaits us as followers of him who was the firstborn of the dead. Many in our world see death as a door rather than a gate, and so dread it, having no idea what, if anything, lies beyond it. Others make up their own ideas: I took a funeral in Jersey where the family were convinced that Grandma had turned into a seagull, and throughout the service I felt really guilty in case it was her I had lobbed a stone at only the day before when she tried to nick my chips on the beach. Elsewhere we tell ourselves, somewhat unconvincingly in my experience, that ‘Death is nothing at all’, or that ‘I did not die’. Whether black dread or sentimental poems attempt to form our views on death, we have no need of them. Death isn’t a door, it’s a gate, and it’s a gate into something much more wonderful even than a visit to chez Leach, if that were possible. It’s a gate which we are meant to be able to see through.
This Psalm, therefore, is primarily a call to celebrate resurrection, though not in a way, in spite of our lectionary filleters, which ignores the harsh realities of pain and persecution. We can look over, and through, the gate of death confident that where our Lord has gone, we will follow. The appropriate responses to this fact are all expressed in the words of Psalm 118. We have suffered, and will continue to do so. But the Lord is our rescuer. We have known that in the past, and we will know it again in the future. Therefore we rejoice and give thanks, and call others to celebrate with us. We go together into God’s sanctuary, and we have past-fuelled hope for the future, because God’s love endures for ever.