PALM (PASSION) SUNDAY 2021
Readings:Procession Gospel: Mark 11:1-10Isaiah 50:4-7Psalms 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24Philippians 2:6-11Mark 14:1-15:47
We commemorate on this day Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the start of where Jesus’ entire earthly ministry has been headed. Were this passage at the end of all the gospels, we might have been confused into thinking that the ending of Jesus’ ministry had a completely happy ending. The fickle throngs that had turned out to witness Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem seemed enthralled with His arrival. The cloaks of His disciples would obscure any lack of a more royal vehicle, and the crowds seemed genuinely excited, laying down their cloaks and “leafy branches,” and shouting messianic expressions that surely gave Jesus’ disciples a great deal of encouragement: “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!”
But things are not what they appear to be, for the timbre of rejoicing voices would soon turn into the noise of menacing crowds calling for Jesus’ death. Jesus would be betrayed, mocked, and scourged, and soon He would be driven outside of the city of Jerusalem that He so gloriously just entered, only to be nailed to a cross, serving as an example for all insurrectionists and blasphemers. The emotions of His disciples would be on a frightening rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, and their enjoyment of Jesus’ entry in broad daylight would turn into a fear that would drive them behind locked doors. The disciples, in spite of Jesus’ teachings, no doubt had no idea where this was going to end up, for the several allusions made by Jesus during their times together, were surely lost on ordinary men who could not have imagined a “resurrection from the dead,” at least not without the help of the Holy Spirit.
The outstanding biblical scholar, Donald Senior, reminds us of what was said by one of the early German biblical scholars: “Martin Kahler, an early twentieth-century biblical scholar, noted that the Four Gospels—and in particular the Gospel of Mark—are essentially “passion narratives with a long introduction.” In effect, the Gospels were “built backwards”; the account of his passion and death does not crash in on the story of Jesus as an unanticipated surprise but is prepared for from the outset.”
As we might imagine, initially it was the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus that was of the utmost importance, and the personal recollections of those who knew Him, or knew of Him, were then added on in what was a largely oral tradition. This would take place until Mark penned the first gospel, the shortest of all the gospels. Some two decades later, as the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry were dying off, Matthew and Luke would use Mark to write their own collection of Jesus “memories” (Synoptics), adding to what they had available to them, material pertinent to Jesus’ infancy. It was nearly a decade after they wrote, that the evangelist we call John would collect the memories of Jesus and put them together in an entirely different and distinctive style. All of this is to say, that for all four evangelists and the early group of “Jesus followers,” the Passion narrative is what was most important, as it should be for us on this Passion (Palm) Sunday. As important as “blessed palm” has become in our liturgical tradition, it is Jesus’ Passion and death that should have our undivided attention.
After glancing at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the liturgy of the day uses readings that demand our focus on Jesus’ Passion. The gospels relate up to three times that Jesus attempted to prepare His disciples, proclaiming that He would “suffer and die, and on the third day be raised up,” but the gospel recollections were largely lost on His listeners. In spite of the Jewish Scriptures (Isaiah) which largely foretold what would happen to God’s chosen one, the disciples viewed the crucifixion as an ignominious defeat (recall the disciples on the way to Emmaus). The gospels relate how Jesus purposely headed for Jerusalem where He knew God’s plan for Him would come to completion, and our first reading reminds us that Jesus “did not rebel, did not turn back.” Isaiah almost appears to be predicting what would happen to God’s Son in Jerusalem: “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.” The Psalmist too, in an almost eerie description of what will happen at the crucifixion, finds his words enshrined in the actual Passion narrative: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Whether it be Isaiah or the Psalmist, like the second reading from Philippians, all somber expressions end with words of praise and thanksgiving. Jesus could endure His mistreatment because of “knowing He would not be put to shame,” and the Psalmist, in spite of the refrain, knows that God is “not far away,” even though His “hands are pierced” and people “are dividing my garments among them.” “All will give glory to the God of Israel,” says the Psalmist, and Paul knows that because Jesus was obedient, “even to death on a cross,” God “will greatly exalt Him,” and eventually “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”
On this Passion/Palm Sunday we are reminded that the King we have pledged to follow was denied by one of His closest associates, betrayed by another, scourged and mocked by the throngs who lauded Him on His way into Jerusalem, and then excruciatingly nailed to a cross, in order that the entire world would know of His failure. He was abandoned by nearly all, in spite of the many good works He did in His short ministry among His fellow Jews, and perhaps one of the deepest cuts of all was that the so-called religious leaders of His day joined forces with the local government to find joy in His execution. No justice would be served by the death of Jesus, yet, the Father whose design and wishes He dutifully obeyed, would bring good out of the evil Jesus endured, the same God who holds our hand and guides us through the pain and suffering we endure in this life to the glory of a resurrection shared with Christ. As the disciples would learn after Jesus’ resurrection and the imparting of the Holy Spirit, there will be no enjoying the much hoped-for salvation promised by Jesus, without us going through our own Calvary, however that might manifest itself in our lives.