From Palm Branches to the Wood of the Cross, Palm Sunday 2004 (C), April 4, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Palm Sunday, Year C
April 4, 2004
Lk 19:28-40; Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Lk 22:14-23:56

1) This Palm Sunday Liturgy is framed by two expressions. The first is “Hosanna,” which was shouted at the beginning of Mass. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The second is “Crucify Him!,” which we just shouted with the crowd in front of Pontius Pilate. HOSANNA and CRUCIFY HIM. At first glance, no two expressions could seem more opposed. But when we really confront them in faith, we recognize that they’re not that opposed after all, for the Messiah who rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey amidst waving palms, shouts and adulation, FREELY decided to mount the throne of the Cross. The Cross, therefore, was not a sign of humiliating ignominy in contrast to the palm branches, but the fulfillment of all the messianic hopes they proclaimed. It is to that glorious tree of the Cross that the palm branches all point, for on that Cross Jesus was ultimately gloriously enthroned and inaugurated the messianic kingdom that will never end.

2) Our emotions this next week will oscillate between these two related poles of the GREAT JOY of those outside the southern city walls on the way to Bethany (on Holy Thursday) and the GREAT SADNESS outside the northwestern wall on the hill of Calvary (on Good Friday and Holy Saturday). But we will not really capture the meaning of these events for us unless we recognize that the story of this Holy Week in Jerusalem — the story we proclaim in today’s Gospel — is not just a memory, not just an historical event that we commemorate. Rather it is a LIVING STORY that beckons us to enter into it.

3) 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, like 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. Thus, if we’re really going to understand what the terrible consequences of our sins have had, and if we’re ever going to be able to experience the extraordinary joy of Easter that saved us from those sins, we need to enter into these events and recognize that we betrayed the Lord, that we killed him. During this holiest of weeks, therefore, the Church calls us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the characters we encounter, because, over the course of our lives, we have acted just as they have and our actions have had the same consequences as theirs.

4) But that’s not the end of the story. God through the Church doesn’t stop merely by pointing out Judas, Peter, Pilate, Herod and the Others. 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 fine.

5) But there’s one other person God the Father points to. He beholds his Son on the Cross and says to us, “You are THAT man!” This is an UNBELIEVABLE reality, that we are meant to be other Christs — “Hosanna in the Highest, blessed is he who bears the name of the Lord!” But astride this shout, there is another: “Crucify HIM!” “Crucify HER!” The Lord Jesus told us that, to truly be his disciple, we must pick up our Cross each day and follow him. We are called to follow in his footsteps until our footsteps themselves become bloody and hammered to a tree. The Cross is given to us, as it was given to Christ, so that we might DIE, die to ourselves, die to our egos and selfishness, die to earthly desires. But as with Christ, this suffering and self-death are not ignominious or humiliating, but glorifying, because it is in dying with Christ that we rise. We are called ultimately to state with St. Paul, in truth, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

6) There is no better place to start on our ascent to Calvary in Christ than here at this Mass. The Mass we celebrate is in itself Palm Sunday and Calvary altogether in one. We again will shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.” We again will mount Calvary where we will be not just witnesses but participants in the very same death of the Lord once-and-for-all for us and our salvation. And we will gain an ingress to that Eternal Banquet in the presence of all the angels and the saints, where we hope forever to behold the Lamb looking as if he has been slain in that kingdom won for us by the Lord by the very death and resurrection we celebrate now.