Sermon preached on Palm Sunday (20 March 2016) by Revd James Milne, Sacrist

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on Palm Sunday (20 March 2016) by Revd James Milne, Sacrist

The pilgrim Egeria helps Revd James Milne discover God afresh - she's his Saint for our Day 

Devotees of the popular quiz show “Have I Got News for You” will be familiar with the “Odd One Out Round” in which celebrity contestants strive, with varying degrees of success, to establish connections between four very different people.

When considering the subjects of our Lenten Sermon Series – C.S. Lewis, Dolly Parton, Desmond Tutu, Janani Luwum, Benedict of Nursia and Egeria – you might be forgiven for concluding that here, at St Paul’s, we have been hosting an ecclesiastical version of the same game. But in truth, these faithful Christians, have all, in remarkable and surprising ways, born witness to our God of love and liberation, often at great personal cost.

In Oscar Wilde’s farcical play “The Importance of Being Earnest”, the flirtatious Canon Chasuble, on encountering Miss Prism, a Governess, in the garden with her charge, declares: “Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, I would hang upon her lips.”  When Miss Prism, glares, he quickly takes his leave, whispering: “I must not disturb Egeria and her pupil any longer.”

Egeria, to whom Canon Chasuble likens Miss Prism, was a Roman nymph, who counselled the legendary king, Numa Pompilius, and is famously depicted by the Spanish artist Ulpiana Checa, standing before him in a woodland idyll dictating the laws of Rome wearing nothing more than a pearl necklace. But the Egeria, about whom I wish to speak, is not this seductive, mythological goddess, but an Iberian nun, who, in the closing decades of the fourth century, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the consequences of which are felt to this day.

Egeria belonged to a religious community located in the Spanish region of Galicia, whose capital, Santiago de Compostela, is the final resting place of James the Apostle. For three years, Egeria toured the cities and shrines of the eastern Mediterranean, recording in vivid detail, for the benefit of her fellow sisters in Galicia, the liturgies she encountered. She arrived in Jerusalem when Cyril was bishop and her descriptions of Cyril and the customs and practices he developed, form the most significant surviving account of the worship of this period.

Egeria’s detailed reports of the commemorations and celebrations held during Holy Week reveal that the Christians of Jerusalem had begun to remember significant moments in the final days of our Lord’s life at the places where they occurred. Indeed, Egeria reveals that on this very day, at this very hour, the Bishop having gathered with his people on the Mount of Olives, was led triumphantly to the Church of  the Holy Sepulchre by crowds of enthusiastic worshippers singing hymns and waving branches, “some of palm and some of olive”. 

Egeria’s descriptions, which speak both of the rituals and of the people that celebrated them, reveal that these ancient liturgies were, by their very nature, participatory, and were shaped by the needs of the people. The Palm Sunday Procession, for example, moved very slowly so that all people “even matrons and gentlemen” could take part.  

Uninhibited by the need to censor her writings, Egeria records those little details the Church sought quietly to forget. Indeed, she reveals that on Good Friday the deacons flanked the Bishop as he held a cross for the people to venerate, a custom that continues to this day, because “someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a piece of the sacred wood.” They “stand around, lest anyone coming should dare to do so again.” 

It is easy to imagine the gasps of wonder and the peals of laughter in the parlour of her Monastery as Egeria read aloud from her diary for the very first time. But after the gasps of wonder and the peals of laughter had subsided there the came the question: “Could we process to our Church with branches held high this Palm Sunday?” 

Egeria is worthy of our remembrance because, her vivid descriptions of the commemorations held in Jerusalem during Holy Week inspired people throughout the Christian world to remember significant moments in the final days of our Lord’s life at the very moment they occurred. The Liturgies of Holy Week that both delight and move us, are enjoyed today because Egeria, and pilgrims like her, having discovered God afresh through word and gesture inspired others to worship God in new and exciting ways. 

Egeria is “A Saint for Our Day”, by which I mean a saint for this very day, because she calls us, from the pages of her diary, to journey in heart and mind with Jesus to Jerusalem and there experience the sorrows and joys of his final days; to walk with him into the city waving our branches of palm; to break bread together in his presence; to embrace the pain of his betrayal; to share the agony of his loss; to wait in hope for a miracle; and then, early in the morning, to witness his glorious victory over death.

Egeria calls us to walk this journey because, through our participation in the worship of the Church, we learn how to walk through life with our friends and neighbours; to share with one another the good things of this earth; to embrace the pain of those who are betrayed; to share the agony of those who are bereaved; to wait in hope for the transformation of the darkest places of our world; and then, when all seems lost, to know in our own day the liberating power of God and the triumph of love in the face of hate.

Above the Portico of this great Cathedral, the dramatic Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus is depicted, as warning to all who dare to enter that this is a place where people will be transformed.

I pray that whatever church we enter this Holy Week we will all be caught up in the story of Jesus and changed forever, that through the care and service of an Easter People, our Lord’s victory over hatred and death may be known throughout the world. Amen.