Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion (Year A)
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 A, our Gospel Readings of today are taken from St. Matthew'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: Matthew 21:1-11
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. 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.
St. Matthew's account of the Messianic entry into Jerusalem depicts the 'humble & peaceful' character of Jesus’ Kingship. Riding on a 'colt,' the coming of Jesus evokes the prophecy of the Prophet Zechariah, “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” 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.
Now, Matthew provides a straightforward account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that is close to the other gospels. As Jesus rode along, St. Matthew mentions “The very large crowd people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road.” 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.
Again, the crowds preceding Jesus joyfully began to praise God at the top their voice for “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” The ecstatic proclamation of the crowds avowed the royal character of the one approaching and the object of their blessing. Due to this the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.” 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: Matthew 26:14-27:66
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. Matthew's Gospel. Throughout his gospel, Matthew follows closely the storyline of his primary source Mark but still colors that story with themes characteristic of his gospel. The same is true of the passion story where Matthew's account absorbs virtually all of Mark's story; yet here, too, Matthew recasts the narrative to highlight his own distinctive themes:
Matthew's Gospel was written for a Jewish circle of readers, therefore, there is insistence on the position of Jesus as the Christ.
In meeting death Jesus fulfills his God-given destiny foreshadowed in the Scriptures and inaugurates a new age of history charged with resurrection life.
Jesus is the obedient Son of God, tenaciously faithful even in the midst of abject suffering. Jesus' trust in God, tested in the savage fury of death itself, is not in vain.
There are several fresh episodes possessing distinctive and marked characteristics. They include the washing of Pilate's hands and the dream of Pilate's wife.
The resurrection of the saints after the death of Christ, with the earthquake and the rending of the tombs.
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.