Perhaps it is not possible to read the story of Palm Sunday without it being overshadowed by the knowledge of what lay ahead. Perhaps it is not possible to imagine the crowds in Jerusalem shouting, “Hosanna!” without also imagining them shouting, “crucify him.” Perhaps the sense of social isolation at the present time can prompt thoughts of the isolation felt by Jesus of Nazareth as he rode into Jerusalem.
What do you say when you know you are going to die and can say nothing?
During the First World War, just before the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916, Captain Duncan Lennox Martin of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment had gone home on leave, he had taken with him a large scale map which he used as his guide in making a plasticine model of the battlefield. The map and the model caused him to realise that when he and his company advanced from their trench, they would die, cut down by fire from a machine gun post in the German line they faced. On his return he showed the model to his senior officers who responded that to advance was his duty.
In Captain Lennox Martin’s company, was Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson. On 29th June 1916, Hodgson, the son of the Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich and a man whose faith seems to have endured the horrors of the Western Front, wrote a poem called Before Action. His poem is a reflection on the death that awaited:
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
On 1st July 1916, Noel Hodgson was killed by a single bullet through his neck, fired from the same machine gun that had killed his comrades. What had been his thoughts in the days before the battle? When he could not speak to his men of his death that lay ahead, not even hint at what would happen, how difficult was it to continue his duty? In Noel Hodgson’s mind, would there have been a terrible sense of isolation, a deep loneliness?
As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, what poems might he have written? As he knew that his death was drawing close, how lonely must he have felt? How difficult it must have been to have continued through the days now remembered as Holy Week.
“Not my will, but thine be done,” says Jesus on the Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the final line of Before Action, Noel Hodgson asks that God will help him though the death that lay ahead. What a profound sense of desolation there must have been in those words.