Father Leslie Hoppe, OFM

April 2: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

God does not abandon us

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

This Sunday the liturgy presents us with two Gospel readings. The first is proclaimed during the special entrance rite for Palm Sunday. The second is Matthew’s Passion narrative that serves as the Gospel reading for Mass. The contrast between the two readings could not be stronger.

The setting for both narratives is Jerusalem at Passover time. Jews from Galilee, Judea, and across the Roman world were flooding into Jerusalem for the first of the three great pilgrimage feasts. There is an air of excitement as a pilgrim from Galilee enters the city along with a small entourage. Some people in the crowd greet him with cries of “hosanna” (a shortened form of the expression “save [us] please”). Others asked the reason for all the excitement. Those who knew identified the man entering the city on a donkey as “Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.” A few days later, another crowd gathered to witness the trial of that same man who stood accused of sedition by claiming to be the “king of the Jews.” The cries of “Crucify him!” replaced the “hosannas” of earlier in the week.

Was the charge against Jesus justified? Did Jesus or his followers claim that he was be the king of the Jews? The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem implies as much (Mt 21:3; Zec 9:9-10). Pilate’s query and Jesus’ refusal to answer (Mt 27:11) suggest that there may have been some basis for the accusation. The taunts by the Roman soldiers (Mt 27:27-31), by those being executed along with Jesus and by those who witnessed the crucifixion (Mt 27:38-42) mock any supposed  royal status for Jesus. Finally, the charge against Jesus that Pilate had written on a tablet and attached to the cross is an unintended but accurate testimony to the paradoxical nature of Jesus’s kingship.

In stark contrast to the welcome Jesus received upon his entry into Jerusalem is the abandonment voiced by Jesus as he was dying: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Both Mark and Matthew, the earliest of the four Gospels, preserve these words in Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue. This is strong evidence of their authenticity. As terrible as the torture Jesus endured in his final hours, the feeling of abandonment was the most painful of all. It epitomizes the core meaning of the cross and the terrible power of sin. During his ministry, Jesus sought out sinners, socialized with them, was accused of being one of them. The cross carries Jesus’ embrace of and identification with sinners to the extreme.

Both the lessons from Isaiah and from Philippians reflect Jesus’ embrace of the cross. When he began his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus warned his disciples about what awaited him there. Still, the plots to eliminate Jesus by both the religious and political authorities provide only the historical circumstances of Jesus’ final days. It is Jesus’ cry of abandonment by God that provides the theological significance of his suffering and death. Sin is turning away from God — a turning away that leaves us alone. The cross is the sign both of the power of sin to keep us apart from God, and, at the same time, the sign of God’s determination to lead us back because Jesus’ suffering and death was for us — for our sake.

Today the cross is the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith. Many of the early Christians, however, viewed the cross as an unwelcome reminder of Jesus’ shameful death. Neither Luke nor John includes Jesus’ cry of abandonment in their respective accounts of Jesus’ final moments. Some early theologians even suggested that Jesus only appeared to suffer and die. The witnesses of the crucifixion saw just a phantasm, since, as the Son of God, Jesus could not have been subjected to such an ignominious death. Eventually, Christians came to recognize the significance of the cross in their own lives with God and they came to embrace the cross.

Though Jesus felt the absence of God as he was dying on the cross, we know that God was there with Jesus — that God had not abandoned or forsaken Jesus. How often have we felt that God had abandoned us? Our faith tells us that despite our feelings, God never abandons us. God is never closer to us than when we feel that God is far away.


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