Father Donald Senior, CP

April 5: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Why have you abandoned me?

Mt 21:1-11; Is 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 26:14—27:66

With Palm Sunday we begin Holy Week, the climactic point in the church’s liturgical year, with its solemn celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Palm Sunday, of course, recalls the entrance of Jesus the Messiah into the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple, which is the very center of Jewish life. While Jesus enters as a “king” into the city founded by David, his royal demeanor is unlike that of earthly kings. Fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, he is mounted on a donkey, a humble king not bent on adulation but ready to give his life for his people. While the crowds are enthusiastic now, we know the full story and that Jesus will be rejected and die alone on the cross.

The true spirit of Jesus who gave his life for the sake of the world is reflected in the hymn embedded in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, the second reading for today. “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. … he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

One of the unique features of the Holy Week liturgies is the active role we assume as the congregation when hearing the Scriptures read. On Palm Sunday, we, in effect, join the crowds welcoming Jesus with our palm branches. On Holy Thursday we have our feet washed as Jesus did for his own disciples as a sign of his life-giving service.

As we listen to the Passion narrative of Matthew on this Sunday and that of John’s Gospel on Good Friday, we take the part of the crowds calling out for Jesus’ crucifixion. In doing so we imitate the earliest Jerusalem Christians who reenacted the events of Jesus’ final days in a spirit of prayer and remembrance.

Today we hear the Passion narrative according to Matthew. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew, in harmony with the spirit of Judaism, portrays Jesus as obedient to his father’s will. He rebuffs the lures of Satan at the very beginning of his public ministry and his teaching constantly refers to doing the will of God.

The unique prayer he teaches his disciples emphatically states: “Your will be done.” Attentiveness to that divine will guides Jesus through his ministry of healing and justice and ultimately brings him to Jerusalem. 

In his moment of anguish in Gethsemane, faced with the specter of rejection and death, Jesus echoes the prayer he taught his disciples: “Father … not as I will, but as you will.” Later at the very moment of his crucifixion, his opponents will mock Jesus for his seemingly futile trust in God: “He trusted in God; let God deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the son of God.’” 

Even as death closes in on Jesus, his final words are a tortured prayer, quoting the first verse of Psalm 22 (also the psalm response for today): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” Matthew describes the last breath of Jesus as an act of trust amid the confusion and agony of death: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.” God’s son yields to God the very life-breath that God created. 

Although the proclamation of Jesus’ Resurrection comes later, we see already that God is faithful and trustworthy. Nature itself erupts at the moment of Jesus’ death and the very soldiers who executed Jesus pay him homage.

Far less faithful in Matthew’s account are Jesus’ disciples: Judas will betray him, Peter will deny him, and all the others will abandon him. Only some faithful women stand by the cross. At the end of the Gospel, the Risen Jesus will gather his scattered disciples and heal their lack of faith and courage. 

This vivid Gospel account confronts us with powerful questions. How faithfully do we strive in the everyday decisions of our life to search for God’s will? How deep is our trust in God, even in the face of uncertainty and suffering? 


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