April 9: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Mt 21:1-11; Is 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Mt 26:14—27:66
Well, here we are, the beginning of Holy Week and the final phase of our Lenten observance. Today is Palm Sunday, and the Gospel accounts bring us to Jerusalem where the mission of Jesus reaches its climax.
Ever since the days of King David, 10 centuries before Jesus, this city was the heart of Israel, the point zero of Jewish faith and Jewish hopes. Here was the location of God’s temple, sign of his living presence among his people. As Jesus crests the Mount of Olives on his way into the city, he would see facing him the breathtaking view of the magnificent temple built by Herod the Great, whose ruins today still inspire awe.
Earlier in his ministry, when some Pharisees — friendly ones, by the way — had warned Jesus that Herod’s son, Herod Antipas now ruling in Galilee, wanted to kill him, Jesus spoke with force: “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose. Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem.” So it would be.
Jesus had visited Jerusalem before but this time was different -- he was coming into the holy city, the city of David his royal ancestor, with the full force of his mission of bringing new life to his people Israel. His disciples catch the mood as Jesus instructs them to prepare for his dramatic entry. But hold the cameras -- Jesus will enter the royal city -- his city -- not in a golden chariot, not with an array of soldiers in uniform, not with a brass band. No, he asks to be mounted on a donkey and make his entrance as no other king would.
The selection from Matthew’s Gospel that begins the Palm Sunday liturgy gives us a quotation from 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 royal power of Jesus the Messiah was never expressed in lording it over others or in brushing aside the weak and vulnerable, nor speaking in arrogant terms. No, Jesus’ power was gentle, healing, forgiving -- speaking the truth and standing up for the downtrodden. He was a king like no other.
I found myself thinking of Pope Francis and his tiny Fiat that he chooses when he finds himself in a motorcade. As I myself have had the chance to witness in Rome, first come the Italian motorcycle police arrayed in dress uniform, as only the Italians can, then the dignitaries in their long limousines, and, finally, comes the pope, the object of all the attention, riding in an ordinary vehicle. This is not a gesture of false humility but an authentic expression of the spirit of this genuine follower of Jesus.
That humble and meek spirit of Jesus sets the tone for Holy Week. Humble and meek, because Jesus sides with those who suffer, with the poor and vulnerable, with those who are homeless and seeking refuge, with those who are ill and lonely. Humble and meek, because he is willing to give his own life so that others may live.
The Gospel for this day traditionally involves the reading of the entire passion narrative, this year, Matthew’s version. We hear the familiar and sad account of Jesus being betrayed, arrested, falsely accused tortured and condemned to death on a cross. Unlike any other moment in the Sundays of the year, we ourselves take part in this story -- identifying with the crowds who turn against Jesus, who ignore his sufferings, who mock his humble beauty. We do so in a spirit of repentance, asking God to heal our indifference, our ignorance, our arrogance, our failure to live in the spirit of Jesus. We do so, not out of despair, but in the sure hope that the Lord who enters Jerusalem on a donkey will lift us up and restore our hearts.
Senior is a New Testament scholar.