From Palm Branches to the Wood of the Cross, Palm Sunday (A), March 20, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Palm Sunday, Year A
March 20, 2005
Mt 21:1-11; Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 26:14-27:66

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 Palm Sunday) and the GREAT SADNESS of those 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 two millennia old 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 did so by way of a story. He told David there was a rich man in his domain who, although he had many flocks and herds, decided to steal and kill the single ewe lamb of his poor neighbor to prepare a meal for 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!”

4) During our listening to the Passion of the Lord, we might be tempted to outrage against the many betrayals of Jesus. We might profess bewilderment of how so many could go from lifting palms in their hands and laying their clothes on the ground for Jesus so STRIPPING HIM OF HIS CLOTHES and STRIKING HIM AND MOCKING HIM WITH A REED PLACED IN HIS HANDS. We might be angered at the treacherous deeds of Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate, Herod, the soldiers and so many others. But God through the Church gives us this Passion account today and then tells us, like Nathan told David, “YOU ARE that man!” You are Judas — for so often you have sold out my son and gotten far less than 30 pieces of silver! You are Peter, and betrayed him in order merely to stay warm by some fire! You are Pontius Pilate, letting an innocent man be killed because of your cowardice in the face of evil! 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, taught that — even though the sinful deeds of the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities clearly 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 dreadful consequences as theirs.

5) But that’s not the end of the story. God through the Church doesn’t stop merely by pointing out the people in the crowd, 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 — or at least we’re supposed to be. We are called to be Simon of Cyrene, helping the Lord — albeit perhaps reluctantly at first — to carry the Cross. We are summoned to be St. John, receiving Mary as our inheritance. We are beckoned to follow the example of the Centurion by 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 own.

6) 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!” YES, we are meant to be other Christs. We are called to be other Christs, reflecting his light and sharing his love to the ends of the earth. On occasion our discipleship will bring us praise, as others say about us what they said about our Savior: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But very often, if we’re true to Christ, the same crowds that turned on him will turn on us and we’ll hear the bone chilling clamor, “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 own footsteps become bloody and hammered to the Cross so that we can no longer run away from it. The Cross is given to us, as it was given to Christ, so that we might DIE on it, die to ourselves, die to our egos and selfishness, die to earthly desires, and most especially die to sin. 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. God wants us to be able to say and experience what St. Paul did, who wrote to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” We are called to be that Crucified Man, who will raise us to glory!

7) 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 together in one. In just a few minutes we will sing, “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 that saved us. It is here that we will receive God’s strength to be able to be faithful to him, to choose him over Barabbas in various disguises, to value him more than warmth, money or any other thing, and to love him to the very end as he loved us. It is meant to help us to be faithful to him until the end of time.

Hosanna to the Son of David Forever!