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Reflections for Palm Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for Palm Sunday. He says that it is on Palm Sunday that we enter Holy Week, and welcome Jesus into our lives, asking him to allow us a share in his suffering, death and Resurrection.

Isaiah 50:4-7, Philippians 2:6-11, Luke 22:14-23:56

Homily starter anecdote: “You are that man!” After David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged to have her husband Uriah killed, God sent Nathan the prophet to convict David of his sins. Nathan told the story of a rich man who, although he had many flocks and herds, decided to steal and kill the ewe lamb of his poor neighbor to eat with a guest (cf. 2Sam 12:1ff). This outraged David and got him to exclaim, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.” Then Nathan shocked David by saying, “You are that man!” During our listening to the Passion of the Lord, we might be tempted to become outraged against Judas, Pilate, Peter, Herod, the soldiers and so many others. But God through the Church gives us this story and then tells us, as Nathan told David, “You are that man!” You are Judas! You are Pilate! You are Peter! There have been great debates through the centuries about who ultimately was responsible for the death of the Lord. Some said the Jews. Some said the Romans. Some said both. But the Second Vatican Council, clearly basing herself on the traditional understanding from St. Paul’s letters and the earliest teachings of the Church, said that — even though clearly the sinful deeds of the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities played a part — ALL OF US killed Jesus by our sins. Jesus died for our sins. We also encounter Mary Magdalen, the Blessed Mother, Simon of Cyrene, the Roman Centurion, St. John and the others, and the Church says to us, again, “You are that man!” We are Mary Magdalene, reconciled sinners who remain faithful to the Lord to the end. We are Simon of Cyrene, helping the Lord — albeit perhaps reluctant at first — to carry the Cross. We are St. John, receiving Mary as our inheritance. We are the Centurion proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God. During these days we are called to contemplate their faces as well and see in them the reflection of our own. (Fr. Roger J. Landry) .

Introduction: The Church celebrates today as both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. It is on Palm Sunday that we enter Holy Week, and welcome Jesus into our lives, asking him to allow us a share in his suffering, death and Resurrection. This is also the time we remember and relive the events which brought about our redemption and salvation. That is why the Holy Week liturgy presents us with the actual events of the dying and rising of Jesus. The liturgy also enables us to experience vicariously, here and now, what Jesus went through then. In other words, we commemorate and relive during this week our own dying to sin and selfishness and rising in Jesus, healed, reconciled to God and each other, and redeemed by His death and rising for us. No wonder Greek Orthodox Christians greet each other with the words, “Kali Anastasi” (Good Resurrection), not on Easter Sunday but on Good Friday. They anticipate the Resurrection.  Just as Jesus did, we, too, must lay down our lives freely by actively participating in the Holy Week liturgies. In doing so, we are allowing Jesus to forgive us our sins, to heal the wounds in us caused by our sins and the sins of others and to transform us more completely into the image and likeness of God. Thus, we shall be able to live more fully the Divine life we received at Baptism. Proper participation in the Holy Week liturgy will also deepen our relationship with God, increase our Faith and strengthen our lives as disciples of Jesus. But let us remember that Holy Week can become “holy” for us only if we actively and consciously take part in the liturgies of this week. This is also the week when we should lighten the burden of Christ’s passion as daily experienced by the hungry, the poor, the sick, the homeless, the lonely and the outcast through our corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy combines contrasting moments, one of glory, the other of suffering: the welcome of Jesus into Jerusalem and the drama of his unjust trial and suffering, culminating in his crucifixion and death.

First reading: Isaiah 50:4-7, explained: In the middle section, chapters 40-55, of the book of the prophet Isaiah, there are four short passages which scholars have called the Songs of the Suffering Servant. Today’s first reading is the third Servant Song. These four songs are about a mysterious figure whose suffering brings about a benefit for the people. In the original author’s mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. However, Jesus saw aspects of his own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs, and the Church refers to them in this time of solemn meditation on the climax of Jesus’ life. In today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 22), the psalmist feels abandoned but puts his trust in Yahweh for deliverance and salvation.  The context of this day’s worship also conveys Jesus’ confidence in God’s protection in the midst of his trial and crucifixion.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11, explained: is an ancient Christian hymn representing a very early Christian understanding of who Jesus is, and of how his mission saves us from sin and death.  It is a message that Paul received from those who had been converted to Christ.  “Jesus was Divine from all eternity.  But he didn’t cling to that. Rather he emptied himself and became human.  He accepted further humbling by obeying the human condition even unto death by crucifixion.  So, God highly exalted him, giving him the highest title in the universe.”  Christians reading this passage today are joined with the first people who ever pondered the meaning of Jesus’ life and mission. We’re singing their song, reciting their creed, during this special time of the year when we remember the most important things Our Lord did.

The Gospel Readings: The first part of today’s Gospel describes the royal reception which Jesus received from his admirers. They paraded with him for a distance of two miles:  from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem.  Two-and-a-half million people were normally present to celebrate the Jewish feast of the Passover.  Jesus permitted such a royal procession for two reasons: 1) to reveal to the general public that he was the promised Messiah, and 2) to fulfill the prophecies of Zechariah (9:9): “Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion…. see now your King comes to you; he is victorious, triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey…”), and Zephaniah (3:16-19): “Fear nor, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty Savior … He will … renew you in His love  … I will save the lameand assemble the outcasts … I will bring about their restoration.” (The traditional “Palm Sunday Procession” at Jerusalem began in the fourth century AD when the Bishop of Jerusalem led the procession from the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Ascension). In the second part of today’s Gospel, we listen to the Passion of Christ according to Luke We are challenged to examine our own lives in the light of some of the characters in the story like Peter who denied Jesus, Judas who betrayed Jesus, Pilate who acted against his conscience and condemned Jesus, Herod who ridiculed Jesus, and the leaders of the people who preserved their position by getting rid of Jesus.

Gospel exegesis: Notes on Palm Sunday events: 1) Jesus rides on a lowly donkey:  Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would walk 90 miles from the Galilee to Bethany and then secure a donkey for the final two miles to JerusalemIn those days, Kings used to travel in such processions on horseback during wartime but preferred to ride a donkey in times of peace.  I Kings 1:38-41 describes how Prince Solomon used his father David’s royal donkey for the ceremonial procession on the day of his coronation.  Jesus entered the Holy City as a King of Peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah.  The Gospel specifically mentions that the colt Jesus selected for the procession was one that   had not been ridden before, reminding us of a stipulation given in I Samuel 6:7 concerning the animal that was to carry the Ark of the Covenant.

2) The mode of reception given:  Jesus was given a royal reception usually reserved for a king or military commander.  I Maccabees 13:51ff describes such a reception given to the Jewish military leader Simon Maccabaeus in 171 BC.  II Maccabees 10:6-8 refers to a similar reception given to another military general, Judas Maccabaeus, who led the struggle against the Greek Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and liberated the Temple from pagan control in 163 BC.

3) The slogans used: The participants sang the “Hallel” psalm (Psalm 118), and shouted the words of Psalms 25 and 26.  The Greek word “hosiana” originally meant “save us now” (II Samuel 14:4).  The people sang the entire Psalm 118 on the Feast of the Tabernacles when they marched seven times around the Altar of the Burnt Offering.  On Palm Sunday, however, the people used the prayer “Hosanna” as a slogan of greeting.  It meant “God save the king of Israel.”

4) The symbolic meaning of the Palm Sunday procession: Nearly 25,000 lambs were sacrificed during the feast of the “Pass Over,” but the lamb which was sacrificed by the High Priest was taken to the Temple in a procession four days before the main feast day.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus, the true Paschal Lamb, was also taken to the Temple in a large procession.

5) Reaction of Jesus:  Before the beginning of the procession, Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41-42), and when the procession was over, he cleansed the Temple (Lk 19:45-46).  On the following day, he cursed a barren fig tree. Jesus cursed a fig tree for lying with its leaves. It looked good from the outside, but there was nothing there. Surely, he must have intended a reference to the Temple. The religious folk of his day were impotent and infertile. They had taken a good thing, religion, and made it into a sham.

Life Messages: 1) Does Jesus weep over me?  There is a Jewish saying, “Heaven rejoices over a repentant sinner and sheds tears over a non-repentant, hardhearted one.”   Are we ready to imitate the prodigal son and return to God, our loving Father through the Sacrament of Reconciliation during this last week of Lent and participate fully in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection?

2) Am I a barren fig tree?  God expects me to produce fruits of holiness, purity, justice, humility, obedience, charity, and forgiveness.  Am I a barren fig tree?  Or do I continue to produce bitter fruits of impurity, injustice, pride, hatred, jealousy and selfishness?

3) Do I expect Jesus to cleanse my heart with His whip?  Jesus cannot tolerate the desecration of the temple of the Holy Spirit in me by my addiction to uncharitable, unjust and impure thoughts words and deeds; neither is He pleased by my calculation of loss and gain in my relationship with God.

4) Do I welcome Jesus into my heart?  Am I ready to surrender my life to Him during this Holy Week and welcome Him into all areas of my life as my Lord and Savior, singing “Hosanna”? Today, we receive palm branches at the Divine Liturgy. Let us take them to our homes and put them some place where we can always see them. Let the palms remind us that Christ is the King of our families, that Christ is the King of our hearts and that Christ is the only true answer to our quest for happiness and meaning in our lives. And if we do proclaim Christ as our King, let us try to make time for Him in our daily life; let us be reminded that He is the One with Whom we will be spending eternity. Let us be reminded further that our careers, our education, our finances, our homes, all of the basic material needs in our lives are only temporary. Let us prioritize and place Christ the King as the primary concern in our lives. It is only when we have done this that we will find true peace and happiness in our confused and complex world.

5) Are we ready to become like the humble donkey that carried Jesus?   As we “carry Jesus” to the world, we can expect to receive the same welcome that Jesus received on Palm Sunday, but we must also expect to meet the same opposition, crosses and trials later.  Like the donkey, we are called upon to carry Christ to a world that does not know Him. Let us always remember that a Christian without Christ is a contradiction in terms.  Such a one betrays the Christian message. Hence, let us become transparent Christians during this Holy Week, enabling others to see in us Jesus’ universal love, unconditional forgiveness and sacrificial service.

6) Can we face these questions on Palm Sunday? Are we willing to follow Jesus, not just to Church but in our daily life? Are we willing to entrust ourselves to Him even when the future is frightening or confusing, believing God has a plan? Are we willing to serve Him until that day when His plan for us on earth is fulfilled? These are the questions of Palm Sunday. Let us take a fresh look at this familiar event. We might be surprised at what we see. It could change us forever.

7) Let us rejoice and weep: Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday are two sides of the same coin because we have to rejoice and sing as we receive Jesus into our lives as our Lord and Savior and we have to weep and mourn as his death confronts us with our sin. Yes, we were there in the crowd on both days, shouting “Hosanna!” and later “Crucify Him!” Because of what Jesus has done for us and our Faith in him, one day we will be in that great crowd gathered around the throne of God, and there everyone will shout words of praise, heavenly hosannas, that will ring through all eternity, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” Rev (5:13). (Fr. Anthony Kadavil)

11 April 2019, 10:26