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Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

How quickly things can change.  One moment we are celebrating, and the next we are brought to shock and grief.  This is Palm Sunday.  The same crowd that cheered as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem is the same crowd that only a few days later is shouting for his execution.  How can this be?  Our own recent history has similar moments… the September 11th terror attacks, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger… for those who are older, the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor.  History defining moments that, for those who lived through them become emblazoned in their memories and can move an entire society to say, “everything is different now.”  This is Palm Sunday:

Luke 19:28-40
Isaiah 50:4-7
Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Philippians 2:6-11
Luke 22:14-23:56

As is our tradition, our gospel readings for Palm Sunday come from our Lectionary Cycle, which this year is from Luke (Cycle C).  This Sunday’s Mass begins with a prelude and procession which includes a passage from Luke’s gospel.  This is the story of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem.  As we read, we realize this was no spur-of-the-moment idea, but a moment that was carefully planned (as evidenced by the colt being ready for them).  His disciples reveled in the moment, but Jesus knew that it would be his last time entering the city.

Our first reading from Isaiah foreshadows the trouble to come.  In this well known verse from second Isaiah we are witness to the misery that comes with being a prophet of the Lord:  that of being given the gift of a “well trained tongue” but cursed with an audience who doesn’t care for what you have to say.  Yet it is the Lord who gives him strength to endure, because he “shall not be put to shame.”

Fittingly, our Psalm is what could be called “the leader’s lament” as we sing “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  As a tribute to King David, this Psalm reflects the misery any leader (or prophet) can feel in their times of need… a sense that the God he serves has abandoned him at the time when he is needed most.  While our faith teaches us that God never abandons us, our humanity has us never escaping this feeling of being left alone, that even our God has left us.

Our second reading is a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Here Paul, at his poetic best, gives us a most excellent summary of the Christian experience.  When I hear this passage I can’t help but to think of the Prayer of St. Francis:  “It is in giving that we receive.”

Our Gospel, in which we play a part, is the story of the Passion according to Luke… a story we will visit again on Good Friday with the Passion according to John.  It’s a long reading, so it is customary in most parishes to proclaim this as a choral narrative.  Even we as the assembly take our part in this play as the voice of the crowd.  Admittedly, as followers of Jesus, we are not comfortable with our part.  Shouting “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  It makes us feel like one of the villains.  Yet there is a profound theological point being played out.  It’s not “they” who killed Jesus, it’s “we” who killed Jesus.  The collective we of humanity.  For years we tried to pass this blame off to the Jews (perhaps one of our greatest sins as Church), but as followers of Christ we have to admit our own culpability in this tragedy.  Ignoring what we know, what we’ve been taught as right, only to follow the crowd.  Group-think run amok amid selfish interests.  We do it every day, looking the other way when we see need and injustice, telling ourselves that this is someone else’s problem.  Even Jesus’ closest disciples abandoned him.  Thankfully, blessedly, we have a God not of vengeance, but of reconciliation… a God of abundant second chances.  As we play our part this Sunday as the crowd, we should not shy away from the troubling lines we have to read, but instead, revel in the opportunity to take stock of our lives, admit our mistakes, and seek out God for his forgiveness.

Final thoughts:
Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week… our Catholic “high holy days” culminating with the celebration of the Triduum.  It begins with Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, followed by Good Friday, and concludes with the Easter Vigil.  This is one continuous Liturgy meant to be celebrated in its entirety.  When we leave our services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, we do not have the customary “dismissal.”  Instead, we are left with a moment of silence… a service that remains unfinished.  We are left waiting until we take up the next part of the service.  For the last part we then gather at the steps at the entry to the Church on Holy Saturday, at sunset, to sit in Vigil.  We bless the fire, we bless the Easter Candle, and we gather as family and listen to our story.  Then, like the miracle of the Resurrection itself, we sing Glory to God and celebrate Jesus’ victory over death.  Forget Easter Sunday my brothers and sisters… this is where the real action is.  Celebrating the Triduum in all its fullness is like taking a 3-day retreat.  All of us, especially those preparing for their Sacraments, should indulge in this Liturgical feast.


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