“Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.” Mark 11:8.
Our Holy Week addresses this year focus upon five objects from the events of the week; five objects which are significant details of the story; five objects that point beyond themselves, five objects that point to truths for us to see, five objects that ask questions of us.
We begin with a cloak. On Palm Sunday, it is usually the branches that catch our attention, but the cloaks are significant, they are a detail not to be missed.
In Saint Mark’s Gospel a cloak can be a symbol of the presence of God. We read in Saint Mark Chapter 5 of the woman who hoped to find healing from Jesus and believes that no more is necessary than just to touch the hem of his garments. Verse 27 tells us, “She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak”. Touching his cloak has a powerful effect, for Verse 30 tells us that Jesus is aware that power has gone out from him, and the woman comes forward, fearful, and, in verse 34, is told her faith has healed her.
The woman is not alone in believing that the cloak worn by Jesus was a symbol of the presence of God, we read in Saint Mark Chapter 6 Verse 56, “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed”. The cloak must have been a very powerful symbol for it to have such an impact in the minds of those who came to Jesus.
In our own times, what symbol can there be that for us is a symbol of the presence of God? What is there that might fill us with a sense of him being among us? Have we ever had a sense like that experienced by the woman of the presence of God being something very powerful?
The cloak is a symbol of the presence of God in Jesus, it is also a symbol of commitment for those who would wish to follow Jesus.
We read in Saint Mark Chapter 10 of Bartimaeus who was blind at sat at the roadside because it was his opportunity to beg for a few coins each day in order that he might buy food to eat. Mark Chapter 10 Verse 46 tells us, “As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging”. Jesus comes along and Bartimaeus realizes that this is his one opportunity to have a different life; he shouts and he shouts and he causes embarrassment, but it’s worth it. Bartimaeus is called to Jesus and, we read in Verse 50,throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Perhaps for the first time in Bartimaeus’ adult life, he is treated as a person of dignity. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks and Bartimaeus asks that he might see.
Bartimaeus’ cloak was his single most important possession in the world. It was his protection and shelter, it was home to him as he sat at the roadside, but he throws it away in response to the call of Jesus.
What are we prepared to set aside in response to Jesus? If the cloak symbolised commitment for Bartimaeus, what might symbolise commitment for us? If we had to choose something that showed our level of commitment, what might it be? When we look at the Gospel story, does our own level of commitment seem something very pale, something very trivial? If our faith was judged on the basis of the commitment we show, what would people think of our faith?
A symbol of God’s presence; a symbol of our commitment; the cloak is also a symbol of honour shown to God.
If we read Saint Mark’s account of that first Palm Sunday in Chapter 11 Verse 7 we are told, “Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it”. The donkey, the symbol of lowliness, is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah, and the disciples are acknowledging the coming of the king by putting their own cloaks over the donkey’s back, showing their own honour to the king.
What might have gone through their minds at that moment? The honour they showed Jesus is repeated by members of the crowd, Verse 8 tells us, “many people spread their cloaks on the road”. The most precious garment they might have, the most expensive garment they might own, and they are prepared to spread it on the road in front of Jesus? What did they think as he rode by? To what sort of king were they showing honour?
In retrospect, we judge harshly those who showed honour to Jesus when all was going well, but shouted “crucify him” five days later, but how different are we? Do we show honour to God when it is easy, when it is convenient, when it doesn’t cost us very much, and then turn our backs in difficult times? If the cloak was a symbol of honour for the crowds, what might be the symbol of honour we show to Jesus?
The cloak in Saint Mark’s telling of the Gospel story is a symbol of God’s presence, of human commitment, of human honour, and it is a symbol of the kingship of Jesus. We read in Saint Mark Chapter 15 Verse 17, “And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him.” They seek to humiliate Jesus, to make a parody of his claims to be a king, the purple cloak is a cruel mockery of him. In Verse 17, we are told, “After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
The soldiers take a purple cloak, a cloak dyed in the colour of kings, to try to declare that this man is no king, yet the cloak becomes a symbol of a kingship none of them could have imagined. The purple cloak is a reminder that the way to eternal life in the kingdom of Jesus is the way of the Cross, the way of self-denial. Among the crowds who saw Jesus standing there in the purple cloak, most probably believed this was no way to be a king, but Jesus is saying that it is the only way.
In our own times, we tend not to be very good at the way of the Cross, we want an easy God and an easy way to heaven, we do not want to be reminded of Jesus standing in a purple cloak, we do not want Jesus reminding us that this is God’s way of doing things.
“Many spread their cloaks on the road” and those cloaks asks questions of each of us. Will we have a sense of God’s presence? Will we show our commitment to following Jesus? Will we honour Jesus in what we do? Will we see his way as the way to the kingdom?