Sunday, April 14, the Church commemorates Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Mass readings: Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22: 8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56.
Today as we celebrate Palm Sunday you might notice a couple of distinctive aspects of our liturgy. On the one hand, it is the only Mass during the year at which we receive a token representing a detail from the Gospel accounts (Mark 11:8; Matthew 21:8). On the other hand, there is the lengthiest Gospel reading of the year, recounting the entire passion and death of Our Lord, which is oftentimes proclaimed by multiple people, including the congregation. But why exactly do we maintain these practices? And why do we need to have two Gospel readings during our celebration?
These two elements of the liturgy serve to tie together Our Lord’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and his suffering and ignominious death on a cross. It is important for us to keep these two realities united in our minds so that we understand that in which the Lord’s triumph — and our salvation — consists.
In the Gospel reading that accompanies the procession, we hear that upon cresting the Mount of Olives, the disciples proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” If you think that this sounds a bit like a liturgical prayer, you’re right. This excerpt from Luke 19 is actually an adaptation of a line from Psalm 118, which was known to have been used in the great pilgrim feasts of Passover (pesach) and Booths (sukkot). The part of the Psalm that the disciples recited is a ritualized welcome for pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem to worship at the temple, but they changed it by replacing “he” with “the king.” The disciples are proclaiming that this is no ordinary pilgrimage, but the pilgrimage of a king coming to bring justice and peace. This royal pilgrimage is recognized also by the people who spread their cloaks — and according to Matthew (21:8) and Mark (11:8), palm branches — on the ground before him, which is an unparalleled and extravagant expression of the esteem they have for Jesus. Further, Jesus’ approach from the Mount of Olives, from the east, underscored the significance of this pilgrimage, since it was believed that this was the direction from which the messianic king would come. Thus, in this procession, the disciples and the people are proclaiming without restraint that Christ is the Messiah, the anointed one, who would re-establish justice and peace on earth. Our liturgical practice of blessing and carrying these palms is a way in which we too join in this proclamation.
Of course, neither the disciples nor the people fully knew what they were proclaiming in that moment, for they, like the Pharisees, were thinking of the Messiah in terms of an earthly king whose triumph would be the re-establishment of an earthly, visible kingdom by expelling all the enemies of the Jewish people.
However, Jesus’ triumph consisted of his passion, death and resurrection, for by these sacrificial actions he established a heavenly kingdom of everlasting peace and justice into which all of his disciples can follow.
Thus we proclaim every last detail of Our Lord’s passion today in order that we might appreciate more fully the significance of our earlier proclamation of the Lord’s messianic kingship in the procession before Mass.
For it is precisely in these details that we see his great love for us — that conquering love through which Jesus the Messiah triumphed by destroying the dominion of sin through his obedient death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.