Palm Sunday

04 April 2019

Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19.28-40; Psalm 118.1-2,19-end

Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11;

Luke 22.14-end of 23


JESUS’s procession to Jerusalem — echoing that of Simon Maccabaeus, when he drove out the occupying Seleucid empire in 141 BC (1 Maccabees 13.51) — was hugely provocative. As Herbert McCabe explains, both the “conscientious administrators” of a Roman colony “based on exploitation and the fear of violence” and the priests who wanted to protect their “fragile” way of life in the midst of this occupation had reason to regard Jesus as “an irritation, a nuisance, and liable to cause a breach of the peace” (The McCabe Reader).

Alongside these resonances with Maccabaeus’s march on the occupied city, Luke provides several details that anchor the Palm Sunday procession in the tradition of Israelite kingship (cf. 1 Kings 1.33 and 2 Kings 9.13). “What the disciples do is a gesture of enthronement in the tradition of the Davidic kingship, and it points to the Messianic hope that grew out of the Davidic tradition.” On the lips of the crowd of pilgrims who get caught up in this moment, the verses of Psalm 118 “become a Messianic proclamation” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week from the entrance into Jerusalem to the resurrection).

Another crucial detail, however — Jesus’s arrival on a colt — serves to subvert these parallels. Unlike the Davidic monarchs, his power will not be enforced through military might. And, unlike Maccabaeus, he does not come to replace one earthly regime with another. Jesus’s more fundamental revolution will dethrone the powers of sin and death. Only suffering love can accomplish such a work.

To be an earthly king is to be in control, issuing and enforcing commands. By contrast, Jesus constantly places himself in the hands of others. As our epistle reminds us, this is true from his conception, when he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”.

Before he is handed over to his captors by Judas, Jesus first hands himself to his disciples sacramentally. The eucharist is “Christ in his self-surrender”, and presents this “eternal reality” in a form that “permits us to draw from it vitality for our spiritual life as concrete as the food and drink from which we draw our physical strength” (Romano Guardini, The Lord). The eucharist both proclaims and makes present his Paschal sacrifice. In this handing over, Christ constantly offers human beings the opportunity to receive him in freedom and love. He deigns to make his home in us, that we might find our home in him.

Intervening between the Last Supper and Jesus’s betrayal is his agony in the garden, as he contemplates and surrenders to what must follow. As Benedict XVI explains, “the Son’s whole being is expressed in the ‘not my will, but yours’ — the total self-abandonment of the ‘I’ to the ‘you’ of God the Father. This same ‘I’ has subsumed humanity’s resistance, so that we are all now present in the Son’s obedience.”

Jesus says very little more after his arrest, offering no resistance as he is scourged and whipped. In the midst of his humiliation and weakness, Christ, none the less, has a majesty — a majesty evident to the repentant thief, and to the centurion who praises God as Jesus dies. They have heard Jesus’s words to the women of Jerusalem, and his prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners, and have seen his courage in the face of the taunts of his tormentors. In these words and deeds, they have recognised the divine glory present in the midst of Jesus’s worldly humiliation.

Reflecting on the prayer of the thief, St Ephrem the Syrian observes that it would have been easy for Christ to convert him by working wonders. The more “powerful miracle” is to be able to draw this man to himself in the midst of such weakness and abasement.

What Jesus has spoken of throughout his earthly ministry, dramatised in his entry into Jerusalem and celebrated in his institution of the eucharist, is enacted in this moment of suffering and death. In his words and deeds, Jesus invites us to recognise his cross as the throne from which he reigns. His reign is not manifest in domination, but through his self-offering. It is precisely by being placed in the hands of sinful and murderous human beings that he delivers humanity from the power of sin and death.

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