Palm Sunday (Year A)

Commentary on Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

Some celebrants are tempted to drop preaching a homily today because of the length of the Gospel, not to mention the blessing of palms and a procession. Yet, as this day is the opening of Holy Week, it seems a pity not to say something, by way of introduction, about the meaning of this climax to Lent, and about the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the high point of our liturgical year. Partly due to traditional and commercial influences, we tend to make more of Christmas than Easter, but in terms of our faith, Christmas only has meaning in the context of what happens in Holy Week and Easter.

The theme of this week and of today’s liturgy is clear. What Jesus experiences for us, is a manifestation of God’s overwhelming love for each one of us. Further, by our identifying ourselves with the ‘mystery’ of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, we ourselves experience a great liberation, a ‘passover’ from various forms of sin and enslavement to a life of joy and freedom. Certainly our celebration of Holy Week is not just to be one of memories, or even just of thanks, but of entering, together with Jesus, into a new experience of living. It is meant to be real, and not merely religious, pious and devotional make-believe.

Triumph and tragedy
Today’s liturgy combines both a sense of triumph and tragedy. Very importantly, we are reminded at the beginning, that we are about to commemorate the triumph of Christ our King. We do this through the blessing of palms, the procession and the joyful singing. And the celebrant wears red vestments. We need to keep this in mind as we proceed, in the Liturgy of the Word, to hear the long tale of the sufferings and indignities to which Jesus was subjected. A tale not relieved — yet — by the proper end of the story: the Resurrection to new life. So as we listen to the Passion story unfolding, let us keep in mind the Hosannas as Jesus our King entered Jerusalem, his city. Very soon it will be difficult to recognise our King in the battered, scourged, crowned-with-thorns, crucified remnant of a human being.

Why did Jesus have to undergo such a terrible fate? Basically, there were two reasons. The first was political – Jesus had become the object of hate and prejudice by people who saw in him as a threat to their religious authority and political standing. He had to be gotten rid of one way or another.

But second, what happened was all in accordance with the Father’s will. That is not to say, as some people seem to imply, that God wanted to kill Jesus and engineered everything to happen that way. There are perfectly understandable reasons why Jesus’ behaviour led to his suffering and death.

At the same time, this behaviour was the result of Jesus’ unconditional love for every person he met — including his enemies. And Jesus’ love for everyone was a mirror of the same love of the Father. It was an agape-love so intense that Jesus was ready to sacrifice his own life for it.

Greater love than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And, we might add, for those who have made us their enemies as well.

In doing so, Jesus identified with his Father’s will, namely, that all come to be aware of God’s unconditional love for them. It is St Paul who says that it is not altogether unusual for a person to die for good people. It is altogether unusual for one to give up their life for evildoers. And, basically, that is what all of us are, in one way or another.

Eyes of faith
What we see in today’s readings is God using perfectly human situations in order to convey, in dramatic fashion, his relationship to us. And it is only with genuine faith that we are able to see the work of God in the tragic death of Jesus. As Paul says, for many of the Jews it was a stumbling block, and for many non-believers, sheer nonsense.

Today’s readings also tell us that Jesus suffered – and he really did suffer. There are those who tend to minimise the sufferings of Jesus because “after all, he was the Son of God, he had a ‘Divine Nature’.” This is to deny one of the most central teachings of the New Testament, that Jesus was one hundred percent a human being and, except for sin, shared our human experiences in every way. In fact, as a particularly sensitive human person, it is likely that, when Jesus suffered, his pain was more intense than that of others.

Jesus suffered obviously in his body, and he underwent pain that we might associate with the more barbaric forms of torture in our own day. But he must also have suffered psychologically, and this pain may have been even more intense. He saw his mission collapse all around him in total failure. His disciples had all, for the sake of their own skins, taken to their heels. Would anyone remember anything he taught or did? There was, at this special time of need, a terrible loneliness. His disciples fell asleep in the garden when he especially needed their support. They ran off as soon as people came to arrest Jesus. Even the Father seems to be silent – the Father who could send legions of angels to rescue him – but apparently did nothing. There is the final poignant cry from the cross:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Yet through it all, Jesus’ dignity, power and authority keep shining through, making his captors seem to be the ones on the defensive. After the prayer in the garden, Jesus stands up to face those arresting him full of an inner strength and authority. He stands in silent dignity before his judges, refusing to be intimidated. In the midst of his own pain and indignities, he can continue to think of the needs of others and can, after his own teaching, pray for and forgive his enemies.

How were we saved?
How did Jesus save us? Was it because he suffered and died for us? Was it because he made the ultimate sacrifice? Was it not because, in the words of the Second Reading from Philippians, he “emptied himself” totally and in so doing became filled with the Spirit of his Father. He clung to nothing; he let go of everything (that is what we find so hard to do).

In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew says that at the moment of his death, Jesus “released the spirit”. It is a way of saying that he breathed his last breath and died. But it also has the other meaning that the life, sufferings and death of Jesus, when properly understood, released a power into the world, the power of the Spirit of God, a Spirit with which Jesus himself was filled. Jesus’ followers will soon also become filled with that Spirit.

Jesus’ disciples, energised by the power of their Lord and Master, will go through similar experiences to his. They, like Jesus in the garden, will be filled with fear but, later on, they will be filled with a fearless courage and joy. No matter who threatens them, no matter that they are thrown into jail or that members of their communities are murdered and executed, they will continue to preach fearlessly the Gospel of Truth and Love. The Passion and death of Jesus, which we commemorate today, was not in the end a sign of failure. It was Jesus’ moment of triumph and victory. The same can be said of the long line of martyrs and witnesses over more than 2,000 years.

So, as we participate in the liturgy of Holy Week, let us not concentrate simply on the sufferings of Jesus as if there was something good about suffering. Those sufferings only have meaning because they lead to resurrection, new life and new joy. The pain and sufferings of our lives are not the punishments of God, still less are they to be sought out. Suffering, pain, sickness are not in themselves desirable. They become, however, sources of good when they help us to become more mature, more loving, more caring, more sympathetic people — in other words when they lead us to be more like Jesus himself, when they lead to our own liberation and the liberation of others.

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