Vatican News
The Word of God The Word of God 

Reflections for Palm Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for Palm Sunday. He says that today's liturgy combines two contrasting moments: one of glory, the other of suffering. Besides the welcome of Jesus into Jerusalem and there is also the drama of His trial which ends in His crucifixion and death. Let us rejoice and sing as Jesus comes into our life today.

Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mt: 21:1-11 (Procession); 26:14—27:[54] 66 (Holy Mass)

Introduction: The Church celebrates this Sixth Sunday in Lent as both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  It is on Palm Sunday that we enter Holy Week, welcoming Jesus into our lives and asking Him to allow us a share in His suffering, death and Resurrection. This is the time of the year when we stop to remember and relive the events which brought about our redemption and salvation. The Holy Week liturgies present us with the actual events of the dying and rising of Jesus.  These liturgies enable us to experience in our lives here and now what Jesus went through then.  In other words, what we commemorate and relive during this week is not just Jesus’ dying and rising, but our own dying and rising in Him, which result in our healing, reconciliation, and redemption.  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, heal the wounds in us caused by our sins and the sins of others and transform us more completely into the image and likeness of God.  In this way, we will be able to live more fully the Divine life we received at Baptism.  Attentive participation in the Holy Week liturgies 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.  During this week of the Passion -- passionate suffering, passionate grace, passionate love and passionate forgiving – each of us is called to remember the Christ of Calvary and then to embrace and lighten the burden of the Christ Whose passion continues to be experienced in the hungry, the poor, the sick, the homeless, the aged, the lonely and the outcast.  Today’s liturgy combines two contrasting moments, one of glory, the other of suffering - the welcome of Jesus into Jerusalem and the drama of His trial which ends in His crucifixion and death. Let us rejoice and sing as Jesus comes into our life today. Let us also weep and mourn as His death confronts us with our sin. The African-American song asks the question, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed Him to a tree?" The answer is yes, a definite yes. Yes, we were there in the crowd on both days, shouting, “Hosanna!” and later “Crucify Him!”

Homily starter anecdote: #1: Two processions: “Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30 … One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class …On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. As Mark tells the story in 11:1-11, Jesus’ procession is a prearranged ‘counter procession.’  The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion), ‘humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (9:9). Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. The king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, warhorses or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, Jesus will be a king of peace. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology -- worshipping the emperor as god. It was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals … to be in the city in case there was trouble … The mission of the troops with Pilate was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia, overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts. No wonder, the Roman governor realized how the peasant procession was a threat to his government and, hence, its leader should be exterminated.” 

First reading, Isaiah 50:4-7, explained: In the middle section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 40-55, 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. They portrayed the antithesis of Israel’s messianic expectations because Israel expected a triumphant Messiah while the prophet foresaw a “suffering servant” Messiah. 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. These songs foretell Jesus’ conscious and active choice to remain faithful to his saving mission no matter what the cost: “I have not ... turned back” and “I gave my back to those who beat me.” The kingship of Jesus was to mean suffering and humiliation, not just publicity and grandeur. In today’s Responsorial Psalm, (Ps 22), the Psalmist 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. The passage encourages us to be companions of Jesus in suffering by offering our own sufferings in union with Christ, so that we may become collaborators in suffering. The passage also challenges us to accept what we cannot change, so that we may endure the difficulty as long as it is necessary, just as Christ did.

Second Reading, Philippians 2:6-11 explained: This section of  Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is an ancient Christian hymn representing a very early Christian understanding of Who Jesus is and 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.  Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion clarifies this contrast: kingship of splendor/fame versus kingship of service to others.  God showed that the greatness of kingship consists of love that is willing to pour itself out for others. Jesus accepted further humbling by obeying [the constraints of the] human condition even unto death by crucifixion.  So, “God highly exalted Him, giving Him the Name above all Names,” – the highest title in the universe. Christians reading this passage today are joining the first people who ever pondered the meaning of Jesus' life and mission.  We're singing their song and reciting their creed during this special time of the year when we remember the most important things Our Lord did. God humbled himself for us! Jesus’ triumph was his self-giving on the cross to open for us the road to the Father. All we can do in response is to bow our heads in awe, and present our loving, contrite hearts to God, begging for mercy. God wants a humbled, contrite heart as the sign of our true repentance.

Today’s Gospel summarized: The first part of today’s Gospel describes the royal reception which Jesus received from His admirers, who 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 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 Zephaniah (3:14-19): “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion, …. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear;” and of Zechariah (9:9):  “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass….” (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/participate in the reading of the Passion of Christ according to Matthew. Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection constituted the most important aspect of his life and ours. According to Fr.  Raymond E. Brown “Theologically, Christians have interpreted the death of Jesus on the cross as the key element in God’s plan for the justification, redemption and salvation of all. Spiritually, the Jesus of the passion has been the focus of Christian meditation for countless would-be disciples who take seriously the demand of the Master to take up the cross and follow him. Pastorally, the passion is the centerpiece of Lent and Holy Week, the most sacred time in the liturgical calendar.” [The Death of the Messiah, Vol. I, (Doubleday, New York: 1994).] Taking into account the Jewish heritage as well as the increasingly Gentile complexion of his Church, Matthew presented Jesus as the Messiah, foretold in Hebrew Scripture, and as the universal Savior of all peoples.  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, Herod who ridiculed Jesus, and the leaders of the people who preserved their position by getting rid of Jesus.  God humbled himself for us! All we can do in response is to bow our heads in awe, and present our loving, contrite hearts to God, begging for mercy. God wants a humbled, contrite heart as the sign of our true repentance.

Exegetical notes on part I of today’s Gospel: 1) Jesus rides on a lowly donkey:  In those days, kings used to travel in such processions on horseback during wartime but preferred to ride a donkey in times of peace. Since the sign of a king was humility, the customary mount for a king in procession in Israel  was a donkey.  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 the 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 three Greek armies sent by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and liberated the Temple from the Greeks (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 to be 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.

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.  Do I??  Or, worse, do I continue to produce bitter fruits of impurity, injustice, pride, hatred, jealousy and selfishness?

3) Will Jesus need 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, neither does the Christ praise 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 in a 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 on earth is fulfilled? These are the questions of Palm Sunday.  Let us take a fresh look at this familiar event.  It could change us forever because the Passion of Jesus shows us that we are sinners who have crucified Jesus, and we are able to turn to Jesus again and ask for his mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is through the Passion of Jesus we receive forgiveness, “through his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5) (Fr. Antony Kadavil, chaplain, Sacred heart Residence of the Little Sisters if the Poor, Mobile, Alabama, U.S.A.) (Fr Antony Kadavil) 

02 April 2020, 16:20