PALM SUNDAY (2020)
Processional Gospel – Matthew 21:1-11
Psalms 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24
Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Matthew 26:14-27:66
We are poised to cross the threshold into the holiest week of the Church’s year, but this year is going to feel dramatically different given the coronavirus pandemic. The liturgical signs and symbols that so many of us have grown accustomed to, and which nourished our faith in the most special of ways, will be absent as churches wisely have chosen to remain closed. For so many of us, the reform of the Holy Week liturgies took place during our lifetimes, so it is not as though we are unaccustomed to change. But I think it is safe to say that never in our lifetimes have the signs and symbols virtually disappeared. Yes, they will still be available for viewing on televisions and streaming devices, but the immediacy of the smells and sounds will be lacking, and, even more importantly, the communal dimension of praying and celebrating as one faith community will be totally absent. It’s not to say we can’t all pray together from afar; we can. However, there is no substitute for the support given to our faith when we raise our voices, join our hands, and sing our songs in the most sacred of spaces, where God dwells in a special way.
It will take a special effort on our part to allow Holy Week to be holy, special, and different from every other week. More attentiveness to the quiet moments when the Scriptures are more capable of penetrating our hardened hearts will be necessary. And that doesn’t just mean the absence of noise that can be adjusted with a volume button. We need to go apart, take a deep breath, and ward off the noise that comes from hardships, difficulties, and challenges, noise capable of penetrating the most secure of fortresses. It is only then that we might come close to the Holy Weeks of our memories. We may not have access to the sacred spaces we are accustomed to, but the living Word of God is capable of breathing new life into old bones (Ezekiel) and invigorating us with the Easter joy that awaits us at the end of Holy Week.
The threshold to Holy Week we celebrate today first focuses on the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. After our celebration of Christ’s birth, our gospel readings have been recounting Jesus’ inexorable journey to Jerusalem, a journey, on account of Jesus’ several allusions to how this journey will end, fills the disciples with anxiety. How confused the disciples must have been. Jesus’ rather specific preparations for His entry suggest He was ready for something extraordinary, in spite of what was already experienced on the journey every time there were encounters with the religious leaders of the day, the Scribes and Pharisees. The “very large crowd” that came out to meet them surely must have made the apostles feel that their anxiety was unwarranted. There is excitement and joy among the people, “Hosannas” ring out, while branches and garments are laid out on Jesus’ path. The apostles could not have imagined at this point how badly this will appear to end, and while they would surely like to remain in the joyous atmosphere of Jesus’ entry, we know they will be fleeing His presence in fear after Jesus gets arrested.
It is on Palm Sunday when I wonder whether some of the same people throwing down their cloaks and strewing olive branches, will be some of the same people screaming “Crucify Him” on Good Friday? The curiosity that brought them to the entrance to the city to see “this prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee,” might have faded into anger with the blistering judgement of the religious leaders who so wanted Jesus out of the way. Jesus’ experience of being loved and hated, of being welcomed and then rejected, provides us strength to endure the caprices and injustices of our own life. If the very Son of God, who took on human flesh, could endure man’s woeful lack of humanity, then we too, in obedience to God, can endure whatever comes our way.
The glory that is celebrated today on the way into Jerusalem is ephemeral, for the true glory can only happen when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross as King, the real prelude to the resurrection. Without Jesus’ embrace of the Cross, it would have remained a symbol of shame and embarrassment, the deathbed of Jesus. Jesus comes to the Cross with the joy of Palm Sunday, and He carries the weight of the Cross in order that He might lift that which weighs down humankind, and truly overcome suffering and death. Jesus, as our second reading reminds us, for He “emptied himself,” becoming “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” There is no reaching the glory that is in store for everyone of us without first passing through the suffering of the Cross. The proclamations of the Passion this week (Sunday and Friday) are not meant to make us sad, but rather they are meant to remind us of the price of our salvation and fill us with the hope that is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian.