Sunday, April 5, is the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year A). Mass readings: Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66.
As a boy, I remember getting excited upon entering the church on Palm Sunday since it was the only Mass during the year at which we received a “door prize.” Of course, when I matured in my understanding of the faith, I came to understand that this was really a sacramental token meant to focus attention on a central detail of the Gospel accounts (Mark 11:8; Matthew 21:8). In any case, the excitement that I felt upon receiving the palm quickly faded once we got a few minutes into the proclamation of the Gospel, which was (and still is) the lengthiest Gospel reading of the year. As my legs grew tired and my older brother continued to pester me by tickling the back of my ear with his palm, I wondered why the reading had to be so long. That, I think, remains a question that crosses many people’s minds, and it is worthwhile to address.
Most generally, the answer to this question lies in the distinctive character of this liturgy, which is reflected in the name Passion Sunday. This Sunday commemorates all of the many aspects of Our Lord’s passion, i.e., his suffering and death for all humanity — not only Our Lord’s physical suffering, but also his emotional and even spiritual suffering. Alongside the bodily pains Our Lord suffered on his way to Calvary, he also experienced emotional pains related to being betrayed and abandoned by his friends as well as the spiritual desolation of being rejected by his fellow Israelites, especially the religious leaders of Judah.
Of these various aspects of Our Lord’s passion, it is perhaps this last kind that we think about the least. The spiritual sufferings that Our Lord endured through his rejection by the chief priests and elders was no less real than his physical and emotional suffering. We can come to appreciate this more fully if we take a couple of small, though significant, details from Matthew’s description of Jesus’ trial into account. First, Matthew is explicit in attributing a sinister and unjust motive to the members of the Sanhedrin: They “kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death” (26:59). Second, Matthew suggests that they persisted in this endeavor for quite some time when he mentions that although many false witnesses came forward, it was unusable since none agreed in their testimony (26:60). Ironically, the members of the Sanhedrin were concerned with fulfilling the prescripts of the Deuteronomic law that two witnesses had to agree to convict someone of a crime (Deuteronomy 17:6-7 and 19:15-20), even while they were actively eliciting false testimony against Jesus. Thus, from Christ’s perspective, the very people whom he had come to save and with whom he desired to share a deeper knowledge of his Father conspired to kill him and were willing to pervert the Law to do so. The very gift that Christ’s heavenly Father had given them as a means of remaining close to him thus became the means of their alienation from him, and that caused Christ a great deal of spiritual suffering.
Now, we have the opportunity to contemplate the depths of Christ’s passion — particularly the spiritual desolation he suffered — when we read the Passion narrative in its entirety. Thus, as we grasp in our hands the symbol of Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem while listening to the account of his passion, let us pray for a more profound understanding of the spiritual desolation that Our Lord endured, that we might also appreciate more fully the salvation that he won for us on his way to the cross.
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.