Isaiah 50, 4-7; Philippians 2, 6-11; Luke 22, 14- 23, 56.
Today the Church is celebrating the Palm Sunday which is also known as Passion Sunday to commemorate the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ final agonizing journey to the cross. The word passion comes from a Latin word that meaning “to suffer,” and we meditatively go with the sufferings of Jesus. In the liturgical calendar Holy Week begins with the sixth Sunday in Lent. Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was marked by the crowds in Jerusalem who greeted him and proclaimed him as the messianic king. The crowds spread their cloaks and palm branches on the street and shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. The Gospels tell us that Jesus rode into the city on a donkey, as foretold by Prophet Zechariah, and in so doing emphasized the humility that was to characterize the Kingdom he proclaimed. In biblical times, the regional custom called for kings and nobles arriving in procession to ride on the back of a donkey. The donkey was a symbol of peace; those who rode upon them proclaimed peaceful intentions. The laying of palm branches indicated that the king or dignitary was arriving in victory or triumph.
Today’s readings offer us a rich view of what it means to risk. The Gospel reveals in painful detail the sufferings of Jesus. He bears all painful physical sufferings. But he also suffers by being misunderstood and belittled. And yet through it all Jesus stands firm, faithful to God till the end. In the process there is a transformation. The leader becomes a servant; shame turns to honour; mockery becomes praise; fear turns to trust; abandonment becomes love; despair turns into hope; and above all death blossoms into new life. This is again confirmed in the first reading where the servant is faithful to God. He suffers in silence. He accepts all accusations mockery and pain. He remains faithful to God. The second reading tells us of the exaltation of Jesus because he obeyed and submitted to death even the shameful death on the cross. Thus the readings of today tell us that young or old, as followers of Jesus we must take risks. Loving others especially the ones we do not like is difficult. Giving of ourselves when we have nothing left to give requires great strength. Having faith when every thing points to doubt is struggle. To feel hopeful when all seems lost needs energy. Yet in this faith, hope and love we discover countless blessing of the divine.
In the first reading of today we have the oracle profiling the servant of Yahweh. The servant’s identity is debated and yet we have him as one faithful to God. The servant is attentive to God’s word at the start of each day. He is unlike the children of Israel who refused to listen to God. The servant is thrilled to serve God and serve as his instrument privileged to speak his word. The Servant is proud too as he has the God given gift of tongue to proclaim the good news. But the Servant suffers in a world that resists the divine message. The hardships the Servant endures include ridicule, contempt, and even physical abuse. But none of these distracts the Servant from proclaiming the Word of God.
In the second reading we have the Pauline hymn of Incarnation. The purpose of this is not to expound the logistics of the incarnation, but it was to serve as an example to the church at Philippi of true humility, and to look to the needs of one another. The hymn tells us that even though he was divine, he took willingly the human form for our sake. Secondly he is the new Adam who became obedient and he did not cling to his divinity. Thirdly, he is the servant of God who accepted sufferings for the sake of humanity. Finally he died on the cross a death of shame and humiliation. That death became the sign of triumph and glory and the means of salvation of the world. The cross became the symbol of glory.
The Gospel of today gives us the passion narratives. The passion narrative has long been recognised as the most significant portion of the four Gospels. The reason is that the very core of Christian faith is expressed in these chapters: namely the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Each of the Gospel write presents his own unique theological perspective and yet the basic outline in all four is the same. In today’s passion narrative, Luke builds up five basic events that take place during the last few days of the earthly life of Jesus. First is that Jesus shares his final meal with the disciples. Second, Jesus is arrested. Third, Jesus is subjected to the so called Jewish trial. Fourth, Jesus is subjected to the Roman trial and is condemned to death. Fifth, Jesus is crucified on the cross. He dies on the cross and is buried soon after. Yet the movement towards death begins when Jesus commences his long journey to Jerusalem as told by Luke in Chapter 9. He tells us that Jesus resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was his destiny and the place of glorification.
According to the Gospels, before entering Jerusalem, Jesus was staying at Bethany and Bethpage, and the Gospel of John adds that he had dinner with Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. While there, he sends two disciples to the village over against them, in order to retrieve a donkey that had been tied up but never been ridden, and to say, if questioned, that the donkey was needed by the Lord but would be returned. Jesus then rode the donkey into Jerusalem, with the disciples first putting their cloaks on it, so as to make it more comfortable. The Gospels go on to recount how Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and how the people there lay down their cloaks in front of him, and also lay down small branches of trees. The people sang part of Psalm to give him a welcome befitting the messianic king.
In the present day celebration, worshippers enact the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by the waving of palm branches and singing songs of celebration. Sometimes this is accompanied by a procession into the church. The liturgical colour for the Season of Lent is purple but in Catholic tradition the colours are changed to Red for Palm Sunday. Red is the colour of the church, used for Pentecost as well as remembering the martyrs of the church. Since it symbolizes shedding of blood, it is also used on Palm Sunday to symbolize the death of Jesus. Increasingly, many churches are incorporating an emphasis on the Passion of Jesus into services on Palm Sunday as a way to balance the celebration of Easter Sunday. This provides an opportunity for people who do not or cannot attend a Good Friday Service to experience the contrast of Jesus’ death and the Resurrection, rather than celebrating the Resurrection in isolation from Jesus’ suffering.
The liturgy of the day contains first the blessing of the palms. This is included as a part of the Eucharistic celebration. As we go for the celebration of the holy Eucharist, we recollect and honour Jesus’ entering the great city of Jerusalem. The Church maintains the dignity of the celebrations and turns to the blessing of the palms. The prayers she uses for this blessing are eloquent and full of instruction and, together with the sprinkling with holy water and the incense, impart a virtue to these branches which elevates them to the supernatural order. The faithful should hold these palms in their hands during the procession, and during the reading of the Passion at Mass, and keep them in their homes as an outward expression of their faith. It is probable that, as far as Jerusalem itself was concerned, the celebration of Palm Sunday began immediately after the ages of persecution. It was a form of public worship by the Christians as against the quiet celebration of the Eucharist. St. Cyril, who was bishop of that city in the fourth century, tells us that the palm tree, from which the people cut the branches when they went out to meet our Saviour, was still to be seen in the vale of Cedron. The ceremony consisted of prayers, hymns, and sermons recited by the clergy while the people moved among various holy sites throughout the city. In the simplest of terms, Palm Sunday is an occasion for reflecting on the final week of Jesus’ life.
The liturgy of Palm Sunday, in the past two decades has been closely related to the celebration of the Youth Day. Pope Benedict XVI in his homily of 2006 Palm Sunday said that for 20 years, thanks to Pope John Paul II, Palm Sunday has become in a particular way the Day of Youth, the day that young people around the world go out to meet Christ, wishing to accompany him in their cities and countries so that he will be among us and be able to establish his peace in the world. The Pope stressed the three characteristics proclaimed by the church, poverty, peace, universality — are summarized in the sign of the cross. Palm Sunday, however, tells us that the authentic great “yes” is, in fact, the cross, that the cross is the authentic tree of life.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome