Palm Sunday Homily 2020
On Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, General of the Union Army, at the Appomattox Court House, Appomattox, Virginia. This surrender ended the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. State against state, brother against brother, it was a conflict that literally tore the nation apart. Five days later, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, was shot and mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre. It was Lincoln who wrote the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in the U.S. forever. It was Lincoln who wrote and gave The Gettysburg Address. Lincoln hated war, but he was drawn into this one because he believed it was the only way to save the nation. On Palm Sunday, the war ended. Triumph. On Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln became the first U.S. president to be assassinated. Tragedy. Welcome to Holy Week. Welcome to the triumph and the tragedy of the six days preceding Easter. (Surrender location corrected by Fr. Richard W. Frank)
The Church celebrates this sixth Sunday of Lent as both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. This is the time of year we stop to remember and relive the events which brought about our redemption and salvation. What we commemorate and relive during this week is not just Jesus’ dying and rising, but our own dying and rising in him, which will result in our healing, reconciliation, and redemption. Attentive participation in the Holy Week liturgy will deepen our relationship with God, increase our Faith and strengthen our lives as disciples of Jesus. Today’s liturgy combines contrasting moments, one of glory, the other of suffering: the royal welcome of Jesus in Jerusalem and the drama of the trial, culminating in crucifixion, death and burial for the Christ.
Today’s first reading, the third of Isaiah’s four Servant Songs, like the other three, foreshadows Jesus’ own life and mission. The Refrain for today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 22),”My God, My God, why have You abandoned Me?” plunges us into the heart of Christ’s Passion, The Second Reading, taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is an ancient Christian hymn representing a very early Christian understanding of who Jesus is, and of how his mission saves us from sin and death. The first part of today’s Gospel describes the royal reception Jesus received from his admirers, who paraded with him for a distance of two miles: from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem. In the second part of today’s Gospel, we listen to/participate in a reading of the Passion of Christ according to Matthew. We are challenged to examine our own lives in the light of some of the characters in the Passion story – like Peter who denied Jesus, Judas who betrayed Jesus, Herod who ridiculed Jesus, Pilate who acted against his conscience as he condemned Jesus to death on the cross, and the leaders of the people who preserved their position by getting rid of Jesus.
The responsorial Psalm is a beautiful prayer “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It may seem like as Jesus was dying on the cross, in desperation, He was crying out to his Father. This cry of Christ was misunderstood even by the bystanders at the crucifixion. Jesus called out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? Bystanders thought he was calling on the prophet Elijah for help. Jesus was not calling upon Elijah. Nor did he think that God had forsaken him. He was praying.
This cry of Jesus is the fourth of the seven “words” Jesus spoke while hanging on the cross after his crucifixion. But did Jesus really think that God had forsaken him? How could God abandon God? During the time of Jesus, it was a tradition that faithful Jewish people memorized the scripture passages and often use them as prayer. An example is The Magnificat: Mary’s Hymn of Praise for Our Lord. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” is taken from Psalm 22. Please take the Bible and read it! What a beautiful prayer of David! Jesus would have prayed that prayer every day!
While Jesus was being crucified, he had spoken his first “word”: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). He asked his father to forgive those who were nailing him to the cross, even justifying their actions. His second “word” was to the penitent criminal who was hanging on a cross near him. When he admonished the other criminal for asking Jesus to save himself and them, and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom, Jesus replied, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). Then, seeing his mother and his Apostle John standing by the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to John, saying, “Woman, behold, your son,” and to John, “Behold, your mother” (Jn 19:26-27).
Having taken care of those matters, Jesus knew that it was time to turn his mind to his approaching death. It was time for prayer, and that meant the psalms. In this case, it was Psalm 22 in particular. It’s the psalm that begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If this had been Jesus calling to his Father in abandonment, he would have called out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” He always called God Abba (Father) when he prayed, as he did when he asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him. He did so again with his final word, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
In his book Jesus of Nazareth: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote: “Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all who suffer under ‘God’s darkness.’ He takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself—and in so doing he transforms it” (p. 214). Psalm 22 begins with that lament of extreme anguish, but it ends with assurance of God’s triumphal reign: “All the ends of the Earth will worship and turn to the Lord; all the families of nations will bow down before you, for kingship belongs to the Lord, the ruler over the nations” (Ps 22:28-29).
That is followed by “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots” (Ps 22:19). They cast lots for Jesus’ tunic because it was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. John says that this was done in order that the passage of Scripture might be fulfilled, and he quotes Psalm 22:19. John wrote about this so precisely because it was known that the Jewish high priest’s garment was woven from a single thread, and he was alluding to Jesus’ high priestly ministry, accomplished on the cross.
This is the ministry of the priests. He is called to taken upon himself the suffering and sorrows of the people of God and change and transform them into the mystery of salvation. This is especially relevant this year as the people of God are deprived of the sacraments and facing this unprecedented tragedy and possibly suffering from God’s concealment. As the priests and ministers are faithfully doing this, after the model of Jesus, I encourage all of you to think about your responsibility as God’s people who share the universal priesthood of the Eternal High Priest. Let’s not waste our limitations, but rather embrace them and change them into the mystery and means of salvation as Jesus did.