HOMILY FOR PALM SUNDAY
As it does every year, today the Church invites us into a journey – the journey of Holy Week – during which we are given the opportunity to reflect upon the painful sequence of events in the life of Jesus – beginning with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we commemorate today through the events of the Last Supper, His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and betrayal to His crucifixion and death – sobering events, each of which must take place for God to glorify Jesus – and to bring salvation to a broken world – through His resurrection.
The entry into Jerusalem sets the scene for what is to happen in Holy Week and interprets not just the events but their meaning. The key to understanding all of what is to take place in this coming week is the word humble. Jesus is recognized by the humble and rejected by the arrogant and self-certain. Jesus Himself humbly enters into the Holy City not in a carriage, the symbol of royal power. He does not even enter on horseback which was the method of transport of the wealthy and the distinguished. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a borrowed donkey, the animal of the simple, common country people. The Jesus who humbly enters into Jerusalem is the one who humbles Himself that we may have life.
In his humility and fidelity Jesus rejects the perennial temptations of power, wealth and success. The arrogance and self-certainty that accompany the unscrupulous use of power will only produce friendships of convenience like that between Herod and Pilate, friendships useful only to generate a pride and greed that divide society and cut us off from others and damage the weakest and the vulnerable among us.
True simplicity and humility must never be simply a mere show of external gestures. Authentic humility alone is the key which creates hearts open to the mysterious ways in which Jesus calls us to be like Him and to love and serve Him in others.
Many will say that Jesus assumed the poverty of the people of that time; of the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten, all those living on the fringe of society. I would personally like to think that Jesus simply came among us as a “common man”, no different than you or me. I believe that the God of the ages came among us not to identify just with the poor and lowly of mankind, but to all of us…the common man. He came to us to empower us, to free us from sin, and to challenge those who were complacent and selfish and who saw themselves as being better than the “common man.” The God who created all that is seen and unseen came to teach us and show us that the right way to live as human beings is to live the life of God…a life of love, compassion, mercy and service.
It is true that Jesus was humble. But in that humility was great power and authority. For God deigned to take upon Himself our human nature and come into our midst as one of us so that we might learn from Him what we had forgotten through sin. God came into the world to set us straight. But His entry today into Jerusalem, even though He rode on the foal of an ass, was the public manifestation of His Kingship over all people. He came not as an earthly king, but as the Heavenly King.
A good ruler is one who rules benevolently and with humility. This is exactly the example that Christ showed us. Power and authority finds its purest expression in humility and service, and in the case of Jesus, this is exactly what happened. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise their authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Truly I say to you, that whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all; for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”(Mark 10:42-45)
Jesus’ words from the above passage in the Gospel of St. Mark could not be clearer as to what is expected of one who is in a position of authority. We hear God Himself tell us that He came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.
Beginning with today’s Gospel for the Blessing of Palms, the stage is set for these words to be fulfilled later this week. It’s noteworthy to begin this reflection by taking a look at the role of the crowds in Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, they cried out: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Yet, we know that the same people who proclaimed Him on Palm Sunday were the same ones who just a few days later, on Good Friday, were shouting: “Crucify him!”
Did the same people change their minds? Perhaps some are the same. But before we chastise them for their fickle ways, let’s take some care to assess where we stand along the way – for therein can be found the real blessing of the journey and the hope that is given to us, through faith.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Holy Week is the way in which we approach it and participate in it. We seemingly set out to participate in it as one of the multitude who rushes out joyfully to greet Christ as He enters the Holy City. But in reality, we’re the mob. And we assist in condemning Christ to death. The great irony, of course, is that we do it while clutching palm branches. We might take offense at this statement, but we’re really no different than the crowds in Jerusalem. We start out acting like angels, singing “Hosanna.” But we end up just being the mob. Because Christ did not turn out to be what we expected or wanted, we turn against Him, deny Him and condemn Him to death, hoping to make Him and all that He stands for go away once and for all; for if He dies, then all that He said and stood for will, after a time, disappear and be forgotten.
No – we’re not the worst people who ever lived – far from it. Yet, for the journey of this Holy Week to have meaning, we must find own our place within it. To be a part of the Body of Christ is to be with Him on the cross. To be a member of the Church is to both acknowledge our sinfulness and the potential for good within us.
The Church, you and me, this gathering of God’s people on Palm Sunday, 2013, with Jesus in our midst, is no different than an earlier gathering – at the Crucifixion when Jesus hung in the midst of two thieves – two broken, sinful men, still maintaining – at the very end – a potential for good within themselves. One of those thieves, in another passion narrative, taps that potential through faith and gives us words to live by: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
Isn’t that what this journey – the journey of Holy Week and the journey of our lives as Christians – is all about? “Jesus, remember me as I carry my cross. Let my cross – because of Your Cross – become life-giving, transforming and redemptive.”
Indeed, the cross of Calvary has the power to speak to every cross that finds its way to our shoulders – mine and yours. It speaks to crosses that we create as a result of our abuse and lack of respect of others, of our greed and pride; our arrogance and selfishness; our indifference and self-absorption. The cross of Calvary speaks to the crosses that emerge as we worry for loved ones, wait for lab results, cope with loss and estrangement, as we try to figure out what to do in the wake of a job loss or financial catastrophe, as we find ourselves burdened with the frailty of age.
As the Cross of Calvary speaks to us in our brokenness and sinfulness, we ask that Jesus remember us. We pray that we may be better than we are, and receive better than we deserve. We pray that we, who often deserve to be forgotten, may be remembered.
My brothers and sisters, may we find the strength to open our lives to Jesus and the cross of Calvary through the Eucharist that we celebrate this day. For in this Sacrament, the passion, death and resurrection that Jesus experienced is made present time and again in our lives. This presence enables us to share in the benefits of Jesus’ cross. Because of it, we CAN speak of seeing through our crosses and of our dying to sin and rising to new life because we participate in the very mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
With faith, then, may we begin the journey of this Holy Week with the recognition that the crosses that we carry are not empty burdens with little or no meaning or value. When embraced with faith and the recognition of the need in our lives for a power bigger than ourselves through which we find meaning and hope, every cross – because of Jesus’ cross – can be carried into the world of God’s redeeming love and embracing grace.
Like Jesus, we must bear our crosses with a humbleness of heart and spirit. For in that humbleness of heart and spirit we find God and a life in and with Him through Jesus Christ. This is the life that Jesus proclaimed as He entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, fully aware that His cross was a prelude – not only to His death but also to His glorious Resurrection and new life for all mankind.