A Homily for Palm Sunday
by Bishop Steven Marshall
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. Holy Week recounts a complex and meaningful series of mythic events which lead to the Resurrection on Easter Day. Palm Sunday represents a preparation, a setting up, for the Resurrection to occur. As Gnostics we may differ from the mainstream in our interpretation of these events, as to whether they are literal history or strictly symbolic, or something in between. What is important for us to focus on is that these events recount an interior experience of archetypal dimensions. It does not matter if the events of Holy Week are historical or purely mythical; they have a deep and archetypal meaning to the Gnostic soul. The series of events in Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday, describe a process of our own apotheosis and psychological transformation. Blind belief in historical events is not going to transform us; we must cultivate an experience of this archetypal reality. For this reason we celebrate Palm Sunday not as a commemoration of an historical event but as an archetypal mystery and another step in the process of psychological and spiritual transformation.
This story is one of the most Paradoxical in the New Testament, and for that reason, one of profound, personal meaning for the Gnostic. The Gospel story tells of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. He rides upon the colt of an ass, a donkey, just as Mary, his mother, rode a donkey into Bethlehem. People lay garments in his path and wave palm branches in celebration. The Revelation of St. John the Divine describes a contrasting image of an archetypal figure on a white horse. “…and behold a white horse, and He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True.” We can contrast the archetypal reality of the Saviour upon a white horse with the humble figure of Jesus riding on a donkey. The people who cheered Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem seem to have seen beyond the humble appearance to see the archetypal reality of Jesus. Yet this insight is short-lived, for some of these same people later yelled “crucify him;” They were expecting a worldly and terrestrial king who would throw off the yoke of Roman rule. And so the Light triumphs only for a brief time before it is obscured by the archons of the world. Much has been written concerning the political forces and machinations that may have led to the crucifixion of Jesus, yet this is not really the concern of the Gnostic. Our concern is with what this contrasting of archetypal and terrestrial images, of spiritual insight and worldly expectation, might mean to us in our present situation as Gnostics in the world. The Gnosis is not and will never be a political movement, for it transcends any such boundaries to penetrate to the very core of human experience and consciousness.
What these contrasting images can mean to us is both deeply personal and cosmic in scope. The story of Palm Sunday can stimulate the recognition that there exists a royal archetypal reality behind the earthly reality of our own lives. Sometimes it shines through onto our worldly stage of existence — we have our moment of glory — but often it is obscured in this material world. We often suffer revilement and condemnation when we do not meet others worldly expectations. The palm branches that we receive on Palm Sunday might, therefore, represent the recognition of our own and each other’s triumphal light and royal spiritual heritage.
The triumph of the Light before its obscuration is an expression of the divine, royal Selfhood within each one of us, that is so powerfully obscured by mundane and conventional reality. There are times when we want so badly for that light to shine out of us, for it to be recognized by the world. When the only vehicle for expression is the ego-personality our strivings to be seen are usually in vain. Personality actually comes from the Greek “persona” meaning “mask.” While in this terrestrial incarnation, we are like the Count of Monte Cristo in The Man in the Iron Mask; our behavioral gyrations and efforts to have others recognize our light only serve to convince them that we are egotists, madmen or charlatans. Often we create a false glamour that is not our true Self; we put on an entertaining song and dance act; we live a lie and shine forth a false light: or we simply forget about our light and live our lives as if it had never been.
When we are not anxiously attempting to show forth our light, we are often acting in fear of the consequences of letting our light shine. We either turn down our light or turn it off completely, so that we might pass unseen through this world. Yet, “Within a man of light, there is light, and he lighteth up the whole word. If he does not shine, he is darkness.” This is the sham, the cover up, that we are either parading a false light or hiding our light beneath a bushel. The issues are not safety or creative self-expression, the core issues are authenticity and consciousness. We must be conscious of who we really are as spiritual beings and not let either fear or love of the world pervert or hide the authenticity of our own true Self. We must not let ego-inflation or an arrogant and false playing down of ourselves deflect us from the authentic role we have in the divine archetypal drama behind the background of our lives. Just as Gandalf and Strider, in the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, remain conscious of their spiritual and royal origins and destiny while they pass behind the scenes in obscurity until the time that they must uncloak themselves to the dark powers of the world, so must we be conscious in our spiritual work, neither shirking our spiritual destiny nor running after the accolades of the world. Our spiritual light can never really be seen in this world, for the eyes of the world cannot see it. “The images are manifest to man, but the light in them remains concealed in the image of the light of the Father.” (The Gospel of Thomas) If we live our spiritual lives consciously and authentically we will be hid in that Light whatever befalls us in our mundane lives.
On the mythological and archetypal level of reality , we have our eternal and real parts to play out. Behind the appearances and scenes of our mundane lives, we participate in a mystical and archetypal play of cosmic dimensions. Occasionally we recognize each other for the parts we play in the divine drama, yet even beyond this, we are archetypal and royal beings with the capacity to enter that realm of consciousness where we are flames of the Divine Light dwelling together in love and unity, embracing and merging without physical touching or separation of flesh. It is when we do not recognize or we forget our true royal Selfhood, when we are lacking in self-esteem and fearful, that we have problems with others. To recognize our own light we must recognize it in others. We must begin the process of Holy Week by seeing through appearances to the background of spiritual and archetypal reality within ourselves and others. When we have and can hold onto this insight and not let it be obscured by worldly expectations, then we will know even as we are known; we will recognize the pearl whether it is anointed with balsam oil or cast into the mud.
Yet this recognition brings with it a great sorrow. It is as if we, as some extra-terrestrial explorers, had to leave some of our closest kin upon some far-flung outpost of the universe until we could return for them. When we returned for them they did not remember that they were alien to this world or that they were kin to another race. All our efforts to remind them brought criticism, scorn or ridicule. Sometimes, at their hands, we were even put to death. This is not to be taken literally but simply as another story by which we may grasp the existential and paradoxical reality of our worldly existence. By remembering who we are and becoming authentically translucent to that reality, we can serve to remind others of who they are and from whence they have originated as well.
The message of Palm Sunday is the recognition that we can become authentically translucent to our interior light of being, which, shining outward, allows us to see through the worldly and temporal reality to the eternal things that are truly real. In the collect for Palm Sunday the Archetypal Self is invoked as Aleph the First and Tav the Last, the beginning and the end, another paradox. In the same paradoxical fashion this translucency to the light is symbolized in the beginning and ending of our terrestrial life. At the moment of birth and the moment of death, it is reported that the skin takes on a strange translucency, as if to give visibility to an invisible and interior light. The young and the old are also closer to the archetypal reality. The old have had a whole lifetime to remind them, the young have not had as much time to forget. The traditional hymn for Palm Sunday includes the refrain “To whom the lips of children made loud hosannas ring.” Children often recognize the archetypal reality of themselves and others, they have not had as much time to forget the spiritual and imaginative dimension of life. The world and other people are more translucent to them. For this reason, those who are awakened to Gnostic insight are sometimes referred to as “little ones.” So we by becoming more authentically translucent to the light within may become more like “little ones.” We can see through the false facade of the world; we can see the archetypal dramas played out; we can see the true royal Selfhood in all of us; we can know ourselves as part of a greater consciousness, who is truly “King of kings and Lord of lords, who is called Faithful and True.”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.