Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion (Year C)
After five and a half weeks of preparation, we now enter into the climax of the Lenten season viz. Holy Week, the chief week of the Liturgical Year. Today is the first day of Holy Week and it is called “Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion.” In a way, the whole week from today until Easter Sunday should be seen as one unit – viz. the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, which is the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we are in Liturgical Year C, our Gospel Readings of today are taken from St. Luke's Gospel.
Now, today's celebration is a lengthy one, and it is divided into two distinct parts - the Procession with Palms and the Holy Mass proper.
PART I – The Procession with Palms
Gospel Reading: Luke 19:28-40
In the first part, the prevailing atmosphere is one of joy and the vestments in today's liturgy are a triumphal 'red' and not 'violet' which has prevailed during the other days of Lent. This is because the reading from the Gospel in this part recalls the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as King - the decisive step to complete his work as our Messiah: to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Earlier, the Evangelist Luke had pointed out that Jesus had "set his face towards Jerusalem.” So, the ritual commemoration of the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of today's Mass is basically geared toward the Paschal Mystery.
Now, St. Luke’s account of the Messianic entry into Jerusalem depicts the 'humble, peaceful & victorious' character of Jesus’ Kingship. Riding on a 'colt,' the coming of Jesus evokes the prophecy of the Prophet Zechariah, “See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The Messiah is to be a 'humble' and 'peaceful' ruler who would bring about the fulfillment of God’s kingdom by his life-giving death on the cross.
Again, St. Luke provides a straightforward account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that is close to the other gospels, except in one tell-tale variation. As Jesus rode along, instead of palms, St. Luke mentions “the people were spreading their cloaks on the road.” Now, a cloak was a person’s costliest piece of clothing and this symbolic gesture was a sign of a 'royal' welcome. However, from St. Luke’s perspective the action of spreading the cloaks on the road has a deeper meaning of discipleship. True to St. Luke's theme of rich and poor, it fundamentally refers to people’s response to Jesus the King by means of the use of their possessions which is at their disposal. But even here there is shadow. For not all are spreading their clothes on the ground for Jesus to walk over. His enemies are watching and what they see only gives greater urgency to their desire to see the end of Jesus. In one way, they will succeed with a frightening ruthlessness to destroy Jesus; but of course, they will also fail utterly. And our presence here today is proof enough of that.
And again, when Jesus was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole group of disciples joyfully began to praise God at the top their voice for “the mighty deeds they had seen.” This is a summary statement of Jesus’ ministry to the blind, lame, crippled, and poor in fulfillment of the Scripture. The ecstatic proclamation of the crowd of disciples avowed the royal character of the one approaching and the object of their blessing: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Some Pharisees then ask Jesus to stop the singing, but Jesus tells them that if these people went silent, “the stones would shout out.” This scene is important for, in a few days' time, the same triumphant Jesus will be reduced to a battered wreck of humanity, calling forth the words of Pilate: "Look, it is a human being!"
So, as we process through our Church now, with our palms in our hands, let us also sing with enthusiasm: 'Christ conquers, Christ is king, Christ is our ruler.' However, there is a difference in our case; for we know the end of the story and what is to come. And because of that, we sing with even greater conviction about the greatness of Jesus and a realization of just why he is our King.
PART II – The Holy Mass
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7 Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11 Gospel Reading: Luke 22:14-23:56
The second part of the liturgy of “Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion” shifts to a more somber tone. We just now had the solemn reading of 'The Passion and Death of Jesus' according to St. Luke. It is quite clear then that today we reflect upon a paradox of triumph and tragedy: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the one hand and the Gospel proclamation of the passion and death of Jesus on the other. After the apparent triumph of Jesus' messianic entry into Jerusalem, the passion awaits. And even in the tragedy of Good Friday there is the triumph of Easter.
Why do we today, on Palm Sunday, read out the Passion of Jesus? It seems out of place, since Jesus did not die on Palm Sunday and it seems inappropriate, since Sunday is supposed to be a day of rejoicing and not a day of mourning. Yet, after the joyful episode of the palms, there follows the stark, terrible reality of the passion, and if we go deeper and delve into the the paschal mystery, it is indeed fitting to read the Passion of our Lord Jesus today, for we must realize that the triumphant arrival of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem was one with his death on the Cross. Also, there is a sort of parallelism as well as contradiction between the two. On Palm Sunday, Jesus climbed up Mount Zion; in his passion, he climbed Mount Calvary. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was carried into Jerusalem; in his passion, he walked carrying his cross. On Palm Sunday, a crowd lined the streets to praise our Lord; a crowd lined the way of the cross too. On Palm Sunday, the crowd took off their cloaks and laid them on the road to honor Jesus; before the cross, Jesus was stripped of his cloak. On Palm Sunday, everyone praised Jesus, calling out “Hosanna!” In his passion, Jesus was insulted, mocked, and laughed at.
Moreover, Palm Sunday is the key to understanding the Passion of Jesus Christ, and also the Passion of Jesus Christ is the key to understanding Palm Sunday. We stand with palms in our hands because we want to worship God and give him the honor that is his due. We also stand as sinners. We are the reason that Jesus died on the cross. We praise God and ask his forgiveness. On the one hand, we imagine that we are already up in heaven praising Jesus. On the other hand, we allow the demons to pull us down to Hell. Are we part of the crowd praising Jesus or are we part of the crowd demanding that he be crucified? Both. Let us not imagine that we are so good that we would never have gone along with his death. Every time we commit sin, we stand with the crowd yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Indeed, his blood is on us, and that blood saves us.
Let us now consider the three Scripture Readings of today:
In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear about the 'suffering servant of Yahweh.' It is easy for us as Christians to identify this servant with Jesus. When he was made to suffer, despite his innocence he did not rebel or seek revenge against his enemies. He trusted that God was at his side and knew that he would "not be put to shame." On this Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, we honor 'the Suffering Servant' who laid down his life for us.
The Second Reading from Paul's Letter to the Philippians is a Christological hymn, which is a summary of 'the great mysteries of our redemption,' and it rightly serves as a preview of the events of Holy Week. It describes how Jesus, though Son of God, “emptied himself'” of divine glory and took the form of a man like us except sin. Out of love and obedience, he willingly accepted his death, “even death on a cross.” Because Jesus humbled himself and did not cling to any of his special privileges as God's Son, “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above all name.” We are called to have the same attitude of humility and obedience as Christ our Lord had.
This Palm Sunday, Gospel Reading of the Passion of the Lord is taken from St. Luke's Gospel. Actually, St. Luke portrays Jesus in death as he had been all during his life, viz., in deep communion with the Father, forgiving and healing, and willing to give his life in atonement for the sins of others.
While each of the evangelists includes the essential elements of Jesus’ passion in his narrative, each of them also shapes his account in accord with his own unique sources and pastoral concerns. Following are some of the unique features in Luke’s account of the Passion of the Lord which we just heard and we have to pay attention to:
St. Luke in his Gospel presents Jesus as 'the Savior of mankind.' So, in his passion narrative too, he tells that Jesus suffered and died to save mankind. So, this is not just the tragic story of one man; this is a story of a Savior who is fulfilling a mission.
From the outset, St. Luke also establishes Jesus’ death as an 'innocent' martyr. From the beginning of Passover at sunset on Thursday until the beginning of Sabbath at sunset Friday, St. Luke tells the story of an innocent man who was betrayed, denied and abandoned by friends, unjustly charged by a frenzied mob led by threatened religious leaders and abetted by weaseling politicians. In line with his overall intention to demonstrate that Christianity is no threat to the Roman Empire, St. Luke repeatedly points to the innocence of Jesus. Only in St. Luke’s narrative does Pilate pronounce Jesus innocent three times. Again, only St. Luke has Herod declaring Jesus’ innocence. We also notice the centurion’s statement, “Surely, this was an innocent man.” Even one of the criminals crucified with Jesus attests his innocence, “We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
St. Luke also affirms the fact that the 'forgiving' power of God was already at work in Jesus before his death. His enemies humiliate him, strike him, scourge him. Soldiers make a crown with thorns, a crown for the 'King of the Jews,' Herod mocks him. Through it all there is Jesus and for his part, he does not strike back, he does not scold, he does not accuse or blame. At every turn in this tangled web, in response to every individual and the crowds who caused his suffering and death, Jesus forgives! The most remarkable is Jesus’ readiness to forgive his executioners. On the cross, he forgave those who put him to death and promised paradise to one of the criminals who died with him. Another is his capacity to go out to others: to ‘turn towards’ the women of Jerusalem, to acknowledge their grief, and to express his own concern for them.
Finally, right from the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth till his death on the cross at Calvary, Jesus is 'Spirit-filled' and he is always in union with God through 'prayer.' The Lukan Jesus is the rejected prophet, but he is the one who trusts utterly in God. Jesus seems to be the victim, but all through, he is in fact, the master. He is master of the situation because he is master of himself. We notice, St. Luke’s depiction of Jesus at prayer on the Mount of Olives lays less stress on his being troubled and sorrowful and more on his union with God. Indeed his prayer to his Father is answered in the form of an angel sent to strengthen him. This strength saw him through to the end, such that, just before he died Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
So, as we go through this day and this week, let us look very carefully at Jesus our Savior. We watch, not just to admire, but also to learn, to penetrate the mind, the thinking, the attitudes and the values of Jesus so that we, in the very different circumstances of our own lives, may walk in his footsteps.
If we are to be his disciples, he invites us to walk his way, to share his sufferings, to imitate his attitudes, to empty ourselves, to live in service for others – in short, to love others as he loves us. This is not at all a call to a life of pain and misery. Quite the contrary, it is an invitation to a life of deep freedom, peace and happiness. If it were anything else, it would not be worth considering. And this is the Good News of today.