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Palm/Passion Sunday

April 9, 2006

Blessed Palm Sunday!

We are entering into the most holy days of the Church year, intensifying our preparation to unite ourselves with Jesus in His Passion and death as He leads us through tragedy into triumph. You will notice that we do not celebrate any saints this week or next. Nothing may interrupt these high holy days.

+Mark 11:1-10 or John 12:12-16 (Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem)
Isaiah 50:4-7 (God’s noble servant is not deterred by suffering and insult)
Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24 “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Philippians 2:6-11 (because Jesus emptied Himself, God has exalted Him)
+Matthew 14:1-15:47 (Jesus’ Passion and death)

The festival of Passover, set at the head of the Hebrew calendar by God’s command (Exodus 12:2), is just days away, and all Israel is converging on Jerusalem for this pilgrim feast (see Exodus 24:14-15). Smaller caravans of travelers are meeting up to swell the road at this last approach to the holy city as they crest the hill for their first glimpse of the temple. As they walk these last few miles, they’re singing the songs of ascents, Psalms 120-134, praising God, celebrating His deliverance in the past and anticipating His deliverance in the future. Passover itself is all about deliverance; making their departure from the slavery Egypt present and personal, while at the same time committing themselves to work for deliverance in the future. The Passover supper will end with the shout, “Next year in Jerusalem! Next year, may all be free!”

What no one realizes yet (except Jesus Himself) is that this is the year of the ultimate Passover. This is the deliverance from slavery that the original Passover prefigured. The turning point of history is upon us. This year, we pass from death to life, to the freedom that no one can take from us. This year all will be freed.

Jesus and His disciples are part of this crowd of pilgrims that overflows the road to Jerusalem like a river at flood stage. As they near Bethphage and Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem, Jesus instructs two of His disciples to bring Him a donkey, on which He will make His triumphal entry into the city. He’s fulfilling the prophesy of Zechariah:

“Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he,
meek, and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the foal of an ass” -Zechariah 9:9

Jesus’ disciples, in keeping with this prophesy, form a sort of “tickertape parade”. They rejoice, throwing their cloaks on the ground before Jesus and cutting branches to wave in celebration at His grand entrance. The crowd picks up the theme, “changing their tune” from the Psalms of ascents to Psalm 118, a hymn of thanksgiving to the savior of Israel.

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118:25-26, Mark 11:9-10).

“Hosanna” is a shout of praise that means “Lord, save us!” This is precisely what Jesus came to do. This is what we pray very shortly before the Consecration in Holy Mass, reliving this triumphal entry as we rend the curtains of time to present ourselves before Jesus’ eternal sacrifice on the cross and to unite ourselves to his sacrifice. As the bread and wine are consecrated separately, they symbolize Jesus’ death; when Body and Blood are separated, there is death. When the priest drops a tiny piece of the Host into the Precious Blood, Body and Blood are reunited in a symbolic presentation of the Resurrection.*

Indeed, the rest of our readings today describe just what this salvation cost Jesus, just what it meant for Him to be King. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” (Isaiah 50:8). “All who see me scoff at me…They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones” (Psalm 22:8, 17). “He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave…He humbled Himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7, 8). This is, after all, the form of leadership Jesus expected of His disciples (see Matthew 20:25-28), the service He modeled for them throughout His earthly ministry. Every crown, properly worn, is a crown of thorns. Our final Gospel gives the details of His ultimate act of authority, of His death and the contemptuous torture that led up to it.

This was Jesus’ exaltation. This was the baptism He came to receive, the fire He came to ignite (Luke 12:49-50). This was His hour (John 12:23, 13:1), and He rode to meet it in triumph.

May we rejoice with Him, not merely with a shallow expectation of external victory, but with a deep trust in His ability to conquer death from the inside.

*Just for the sake of clarity, above and beyond the symbolism, when the Bread is consecrated, Jesus is completely present as He lives now, resurrected, united in Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, even in the tiniest crumb. He cannot be divided. This is true even before the wine is consecrated. Likewise, after the wine is consecrated, Jesus is completely present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, even in the smallest drop. There is a symbolic separation of Jesus’ Body and Blood, but not a sacramental separation.

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