Palm Sunday and Looking to the Passion: Embrace Suffering Like Christ Embraced the Cross
User’s Guide to Sunday, March 28, Palm Sunday
Readings (Year B): For the Palm Procession: Mark 11:1-10 (or John 12:12-16).
Mass Readings: Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47.
We begin Holy Week with the Sunday that is called both “Palm” and “Passion” Sunday. “Palm Sunday” refers to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when the crowds hailed Jesus like a kind of god-king. We reenact this event before Mass actually begins. “Passion Sunday” refers to later in the same week, when the same crowds succeeded in having Jesus crucified. We relive this event during the Gospel reading. We move from triumph to despair in less than an hour. What does it all mean?
Let’s look at the Scriptures. At the procession with palms, we read from Mark (or John) about Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem to begin the last week of his earthly ministry. Jesus makes the effort to ride into the city seated on a donkey’s colt. Why? Because, 1,000 years before, David’s son Solomon, who went on to become Israel’s greatest king, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to be crowned as ruler (1 Kings 1:38-40). And 500 years earlier, the prophet Zechariah prophesied that one day a righteous son of David would enter Jerusalem the same way as Solomon: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Your king comes to you … humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Jesus intentionally fulfilled this prophecy, quietly signaling to attentive observers that he was, indeed, the promised king.
But Jesus’ coronation would be unlike any other in human history. Our first reading from Isaiah begins Mass with an ominous vision: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard” (Isaiah 50:6). Isaiah himself never suffered such abuse; he was speaking in the person of the “servant of the Lord,” the royal savior God would send one day. Our Psalm is similar. It describes tortures that David, the author, never experienced in his lifetime: “They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones. They divide my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.” Yet this Psalm is what scholars call a thanksgiving Psalm: Although it begins in despair (“My God, why have you abandoned me?”), it ends with salvation and celebration (“In the midst of the assembly I will praise you!”). This gives us the background to understand Jesus’ cry from the cross in the Gospel.
Our second reading is what scholars call the “Christ hymn” from Philippians 2:6-11. St. Paul may be quoting an early hymn or creed.” He says Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped; rather, he emptied himself …” This image of “grasping” or “seizing” reminds us of the ancient myth of Prometheus, who traveled to heaven and “seized” fire from the stingy gods. Jesus is not like Prometheus, and the Father is not like the ancient gods. Jesus does not need to “seize” anything from the Father, who gives love and grace generously.
The Gospel is the Passion from Mark 14-15. Jesus cries from the cross, “My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Some are disturbed: Did the Father reject Jesus in his agony? But this is the first line of Psalm 22, which served as its title in ancient times. Jesus surely knew the Psalm ends in salvation, victory and celebration. The suffering is real but not final. Even on the cross Jesus knew he had the victory. The cross was his throne where he was acknowledged as “King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26). Our “crosses” are our thrones: We share Christ’s victory when we embrace our sufferings like he embraced the cross.
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