Thirsting for human glory and incapable of accepting the Kingdom of God which was offered to them, the enemies of Our Lord finally crucify Him… thus promoting His true and perennial triumph.

 

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Gospel of the Procession

When Jesus and His disciples drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately on entering it, you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone should say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ reply, ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.’” So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it. So they brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks over it. And He sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. Those preceding Him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mk 11:1-10).

 

Gospel of the Holy Mass

Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark [short version]

As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin held a council. They bound Jesus, led Him away, and handed Him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused Him of many things. Again Pilate questioned Him, “Have You no answer? See how many things they accuse You of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed. Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested. A man called Barabbas was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion. The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed. Pilate answered, “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what do you want me to do with the Man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted again, “Crucify Him.” 14 Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has He done?” They only shouted the louder, “Crucify Him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed Him over to be crucified. 16 The soldiers led Him away inside the palace, that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort. 17 They clothed Him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on Him. 18 They began to salute Him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 and kept striking His head with a reed and spitting upon Him. They knelt before Him in homage. 20 And when they had mocked Him, they stripped Him of the purple cloak, dressed Him in His own clothes, and led Him out to crucify Him. 21 They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry His Cross. 22 They brought Him to the place of Golgotha  –  which is translated Place of the Skull  –  23 They gave Him wine drugged with myrrh, but He did not take it. 24 Then they crucified Him and divided His garments by casting lots for them to see what each should take. 25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified Him. 26 The inscription of the charge against Him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 With Him they crucified two revolutionaries, one on His right and one on His left. (28) 29 Those passing by reviled Him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You Who would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save Yourself by coming down from the Cross.” 31 Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes, mocked Him among themselves and said, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the Cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with Him also kept abusing Him.

33 At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” 35 Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look, He is calling Elijah.” 36 One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed and gave it to Him to drink saying, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take Him down.” 37 Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed His last.

38 The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 When the centurion who stood facing Him saw how He breathed His last He said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:1-39).

I – The Paradoxes of Palm Sunday

Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem – Cathedral Basilica of Christ the King, Hamilton (Canada)

Palm Sunday is the gateway to Holy Week, throughout which we will contemplate the essence of the life and mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the focal point of our Roman Catholic and Apostolic Faith. It was He, the Saviour, Who personally decided to initiate His Passion, entering Jerusalem mounted on a colt, just as it was He Who chose human flesh to accomplish the Redemption, and a stable in which to be born.

Some weeks before going to the Holy City, Jesus had resurrected Lazarus, who had been dead for four days. It is easy to imagine the amazement of onlookers when He ordered the tomb to be opened, for by then the body should have been decomposing. Despite the commotion, the stone was removed and, at the order of Our Lord – “Lazarus, come out” (Jn 11:43) – , the dead man not only resurrected, but climbed the stairs leading out of the sepulchre, “his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth” (Jn 11:44). The episode had widespread impact in Israel, arousing such astonishment that the public contended for the opportunity to become acquainted with this extraordinary Miracle Worker. As Passover was approaching, the Jews who went up to the Temple to purify themselves sought the Divine Master and asked one another: “What do you think? That He will not come to the feast?” (Jn 11:56). Hearing of His approach, the multitude came out to meet Him with palms in their hands, acclaiming Him, for “they heard He had done this sign” (Jn 12:18).

A simple scene in appearance, majestic in essence

We would wish this entrance to unfold as an apotheosis, with a triumphal procession in which only the very least of the Saviour’s assistants would ride upon colts. He deserved to be borne in cortege upon an imposing beast – an elephant, or a white charger like the one described in Revelation – with a sharp sword in His mouth (cf. Rev 19:11-15). But the Lord chooses a simple mount, is arrayed in His habitual manner, wears no royal mantle, and arrives unannounced. The authorities – the high priest, the chief priests and the elders – , whom it behoved to prepare a solemn reception, pay Him no homage. The whole episode falls short of what His dignity demanded.

Nevertheless, while this scene was simple in appearance, it was very rich in substance, for it revolved around God, become Man, “born to be King, in the most admirable and august manner possible in the world, and already being such, by the admiration His example had awakened, by His holy life, His holy doctrine, His great works and His great miracles […]. No outward splendour struck the eye. This poor, gentle King sat upon a donkey, a meek and lowly mount, not a spirited steed drawing a showy chariot that would attract attention. There were neither servants nor guards, neither spoils of victory nor captive kings. […] the person of the King and the memory of His miracles were what made the feast.”1

Jesus requests “a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat” – for it was reserved for Him – , and the animal does not protest, but walks along amenably, carrying on its back the Sovereign of the universe and Our Redeemer, by reason of Whom all things were created. What symbolism there is behind all of this! What a treasure that colt would make, stuffed and mounted for display in a cathedral!

At Our Lord’s passage, the people exclaim in awe: “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!” According to St. Luke’s narrative, the Pharisees demand that Jesus suppress the ovations, to which He replied: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Lk 19:40). Indeed, not only the stones, but also the plants, the insects, the birds of the air, all the animals would have gathered around Him on that occasion and leapt for joy, singing His glories, had He not miraculously restrained them. If man’s dominion over irrational beings in Earthly Paradise was such that they obeyed his orders, all the greater was that of Our Lord Jesus Christ, as God, over the nature He created!

The people hoped for a temporal king

Entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, by Duccio de Buoninsegna – Cathedral of Siena (Italy)

With their cries, the multitude undoubtedly acknowledged Jesus’ royalty as David’s authentic descendant. But they were acclamations based on a distorted outlook, shaped by the idea, generally held among the Jews, of a political Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman yoke and restore the kingdom of Israel, affording them supremacy over all other nations. They associated the Messiah’s coming with a more temporal than eternal salvation, and received Jesus with honours, expecting that He would finally seize power and initiate a different era for the Jews.

The Redeemer was indeed opening a different era, but from the supernatural perspective. And they, decidedly naturalistic, failed to perceive this. The joy they manifested, then, lacked the dimension of admiration for Christ’s divinity. Enraptured by mystical graces and extraordinary consolations, they received Him amid joyous shouts and canticles of enthusiasm; but, with their erroneous mindset, they applied these graces in a manner not in accord with God’s plan. Desiring a human kingdom, they imagined that having a monarch gifted with the ability to perform any type of miracle would be the maximum success, since it would solve all of their problems. Essentially, they coveted a merely earthly happiness and pursued it with such ardour that, had it been possible, they would have spent eternity in this world. Briefly put, they were “limbolaters” – adorers of a situation that makes of this life a type of limbo with neither suffering nor supernatural joy.

These reflections hold a lesson for us: we should be very careful to avoid seeking graces for personal interest; we must never appropriate God’s gifts by using them to project ourselves or to satisfy our self-love, vanity, or pride.

From acclamations to cries of condemnation

Entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, by Duccio de Buoninsegna – Cathedral of Siena (Italy)

Today’s Liturgy highlights another noteworthy aspect. Of what value was it for these people to acclaim the Lord with palm branches in hand and to spread their cloaks on the road? Within a few days the multitude would come before Pilate, shouting: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” This illustrates worldly volubility, and the emptiness of the applause that the foolish seek. To pursue human approval is to later garner the condemning cry of all! How different is the stability of God! When He applauds a person, He does so for all eternity.

Had the Passion of Jesus occurred years after His solemn entry into Jerusalem, the time lapse would allow us to consider this change of attitude in public opinion as the result of a process. But what is the explanation for such an abrupt transition from praise to hatred? How can it be fathomed that their infamy reached such a point that they went before the crucified Lord to unleash the blasphemies cited in the Gospel? Such is the logic of evil, the logic of egoism, the logic of sin!

This raises a point for an examination of conscience: If I – who rejoice when my soul is deeply touched by grace – fail in vigilance and rigorousness toward myself, and consent to one evil suggestion of thought, desire or gaze, I thereby set out upon the same path as those Jews. Soon, “Hosanna!” will give way to “Crucify Him!”

II – The Irremediable Clash Between Two Outlooks

In analyzing the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot fail to notice that the rock of scandal around which the camps divide is the notion held with respect to the Messiah. On one side was the political vision; on the other, the religious. The latter, the authentic outlook, is persecuted with hatred bent on elimination by the adherents of the false vision.

This erroneous vision of the people does not differ greatly from the wishes of the members of the Sanhedrin. They, too, hoped that the Saviour of Israel would be a deft politician, capable of completely modifying the state of the nation. And, upon realizing that Our Lord would show no favouritism toward them if, in fact, He were to ascend to power, they envied Him and could not endure His presence.

Jesus: Prophet par excellence and Victim of His own mission

In the first reading (Is 50:4-7) of this Sunday, we find the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ prefigured in Isaiah, as the Prophet par excellence, called to lead men along the ways of God.

In raising up prophets, the Almighty sets them as intermediaries between Himself and mankind. Now, an office so outstanding in God’s eyes requires, of those who receive it, the willingness to give themselves up as expiatory victims: “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” (Is 50:6). In other words, the prophet is misunderstood. Why? For going against the current, for warning the people of their deviations and pointing out the path of morality, of the law, of uprightness and holiness, opposed to that of the disordered passions.

The same occurred with the Saviour: “He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not” (Jn 1:11). He came offering – not only to the Jews, but to all of humanity – the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21); yet many opted for the pseudo-freedom of following their every instinct, or libertinism. He became Incarnate to grant us divine sonship, by which we become princes, not of a house that today prevails and tomorrow perishes, but rather heirs to the heavenly throne, “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). Furthermore, God wanted not only to adopt us as sons, but also to grant us real participation in His life, almost as if causing divine Blood to flow through our veins: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1). Notwithstanding, it was this invitation to divinization, by grace, that men rejected!

Ensign of the history of Christianity

In choosing to enter Jerusalem in such a modest manner, as a symbol of contradiction, He aimed to show how distinct His royalty is from the kind hoped for by the Jews. He Himself declared this before Pontius Pilate, the highest authority in Judea: “My Kingship is not of this world; if My Kingship were of this world, My servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but My Kingship is not from the world” (Jn 18:36). If, on the contrary, He had presented Himself as a king of this world, He would have been esteemed and carried in triumph, even by His enemies.

The antagonism between the true and the false visualization of the Saviour is the ensign of the history of Christianity, and will be until the end of time. There will always be those who want to make use of the Church and the gifts of God for material and profane interests and, as a result, will hate those who repute “everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). The latter stand as rocks of scandal to remind the world of the true doctrine regarding Our Lord. He has two natures, human and divine, united in the one Person of the Word, and it is impossible to separate the humanity of Christ from His divinity.

Joy and sadness, glory and suffering

Now, because of the hypostatic union, Jesus could have redeemed us with a simple act of His will, a movement of His hand or even a tear… Nevertheless, as St. Paul teaches in the second reading (Phil 2:6-11), Christ “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a Cross” (Phil 2:6-8).

It is with this immolation in mind that Jesus enters Jerusalem; to free us from eternal condemnation, to open the gates of Heaven and to purchase our resurrection. As a result, the Liturgy contemplated here is characterized by the contrast between joy and sadness. The note of rejoicing is conveyed by the red vestments, the hymns, the palms, the olive branches, and in the Gospel of the Procession that exalts Our Lord as King. But, alongside this apotheosis, the Gospel of the Mass narrates the Passion.

Would it not be more fitting to reserve this text for Good Friday exclusively? No! In her divine and infallible perfection, the Church puts the Cross in the centre of the considerations for Palm Sunday, as well as throughout Holy Week: Our Lord, in the Garden of Olives, is arrested by soldiers who are armed with swords and clubs, as though He were “a robber” (Mk 14:48). Before the tribunal of Pilate, the multitude, incited by the high priests, requests pardon for a murderer, Barabbas, to preclude His liberation. In the Praetorium, the soldiers scourge Him, place a crown of thorns on His head and mock Him. The Via Sacra follows, and then, from the height of the Cross, flanked by two thieves, Jesus cries out with a loud voice, and expires, and at that moment, the veil of the temple is rent in two.

The Cross, sign of contradiction! Why did the Redeemer choose this kind of death? It was the most ignominious of deaths, reserved for the worst criminals. A person condemned to crucifixion was the object of general contempt. En route to the site of execution, the people jeered and spat and, when the executioners raised the offender on the wood, it was customary to gather around and ridicule him. This mockery intensified the torment and consequently heightened the people’s fear of engaging in crime. Ultimately, Our Lord sought what was most execrable for Himself. St. Augustine asks: “What is more ‘beautiful’ than God? What more ‘disfigured’ than one crucified?” 2

Christ Crucified – Basilica of Our Lady of the Roary, Caieiras (SP)

Crucified and triumphant!

In His infinite wisdom, the omnipotent Word established the cross as a symbol of horror, rejection and repugnance; later, in taking on flesh, He embraced it to redeem us and to fulfil the will of the Father. From then on, the Cross became the greatest honour, the greatest triumph and the greatest glory. In the words of St. Leo the Great, 3 it was transformed into the sceptre of power, the trophy of triumph, and the sign of salvation. It took its place atop church steeples, at the centre of decorations of honour and the highest point of crowns, and stands as the sign that distinguishes a child of God from a son of darkness.

As Our Lord hung bloodless on the Cross, wounded from head to foot, ready to surrender His spirit, the Sanhedrin mocked Him, saying: “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the Cross that we may see and believe.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux rightly comments on this passage: “O venomous tongue, O evil word, O perverse speech! […] Why does it seem opportune that He should come down? If He is a King of Israel, should He not rather go up? […] Or again, since He is the King of Israel, let Him not abandon the title of His Kingship, let not that Lord cast aside the sceptre, Who bears the government upon His shoulders.” 4

It was thus that He resurrected on the third day, and on the fortieth, He ascended into His heavenly Kingdom, where, seated at the right hand of the Father, He rules the entire world. Absolute King, He did not descend, but ascend!

III – The Cross Is Transformed into Glory in Eternity

In order to benefit from the graces of Holy Week which begins today, we should be thoroughly convinced that our reception for Our Lord should not just be a matter of bearing palms in our hands, but rather of having interior resolutions and intentions, and the firm conviction that each of us was created to serve the God-Man, according to our particular state, whether in family or religious life.

Jesus convokes me to follow Him! Using an expressive image, St. Robert Bellarmine ponders: “Who, seeing his captain fight for love of him, with such perseverance in such an arduous conflict, receiving so many wounds and suffering such great pains, would not feel impelled to fight at his side, making war against vice and resisting until death? Christ fought until He conquered and obtained a glorious triumph over His enemy […]. And Christ’s example of battling so perseveringly should fully invigorate all of His soldiers so that they never distance themselves from His cross, but rather fight at His side until victory.” 5 I will be with Him, whether acclaiming Him as King at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, shouldering my cross along the Via Sacra, or nailed to it on Golgotha. It will be through this cross that I will obtain the glory of the resurrection, and will live with Him for all eternity in the true, heavenly Jerusalem!

As we enter past the walls of the splendorous city – “the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev 21:3) – our Palm Sunday will be authentic, and we will understand that the ceremony in which we participate today is but symbol of “what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9). However, those who cling to a worldly and erroneous outlook of Our Lord, refusing to accept Him as He is, will be consigned to an eternal Sunday of fire, sulphur, hatred and revolt!

Let us request the grace of understanding that it is through the cross that we reach the light – Per crucem ad lucem! There is no other way to gain the joy that has no end. May the cross be our inseparable companion until we are admitted into the beatific vision, and may it accompany us for all eternity as a magnificent corona of sanctity, the resplendence of glory. 

 

Notes

1 BOSSUET, Jacques-Bénigne. Méditations sur l’Évangile. La dernière semaine du Sauveur: Sermons ou discours de Notre Seigneur depuis le Dimanche des Rameaux jusqu’à la Cène. Ier Jour. In: Œuvres choisies, vol. II. Versailles: Lebel, 1821, p.116, 118.
2 ST. AUGUSTINE. Sermo XCV, n.4. In: Obras, vol. X. Madrid: BAC, 1983, p.632.
3 Cf. ST. LEO THE GREAT. De Passione Domini, Sermo VIII, n.4. In: Sermons, vol. III. Paris: Cerf, 1961, p.59 (SCh 74 – hom. 46 [LIX]).
4 ST. BERNARD. Sermones de Tempore: In Resurrectione Domini, Sermo I, n.1-2. In: Obras Completas, vol. IV: Sermones Litúrgicos (2º). (Ed.2). Madrid: BAC, 2006, p. 67-69.
5 ST. ROBERT BELLARMINE. De Septem verbis a Christo in cruce prolatis. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1944, p.107-108.

 

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