Introduction: 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 His trial, culminating in His crucifixion, death and burial. The Holy Week liturgies present us with the actual events of the dying and rising of Jesus. Just as Jesus did, we, too, must lay down our lives freely by actively participating in the Holy Week liturgies. But let us remember that Holy Week can become “holy” for us only if we actively and consciously take part in the liturgies of this week. During this week of the Passion — passionate suffering, passionate grace, passionate love and passionate forgiving – each of us is called to remember the Christ of Calvary and then to embrace and lighten the burden of the Christ Whose passion continues to be experienced in the hungry, the poor, the sick, the homeless, the aged, the lonely and the outcast. The African-American song asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed Him to a tree?” The answer is yes, a definite yes. Yes, we were there in the crowd on both days, shouting ‘Hosanna!’ and later ‘Crucify Him!’
First reading, Isaiah 50:4-7: Today’s first reading, the third of Isaiah’s four Servant Songs, like the other three, foreshadows Jesus’ own life and mission. In the middle section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 40-55, there are four short passages which scholars have called the Songs of the Suffering Servant. These four songs are about a mysterious figure whose suffering brings about a benefit for the people. In the original author’s mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. However, Jesus saw aspects of His own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs, and the Church refers to them in this time of solemn meditation on the climax of Jesus’ life. In today’s Psalm, the Psalmist puts his trust in Yahweh for deliverance and salvation. The context of this day’s worship also conveys Jesus’ confidence in God’s protection in the midst of His trial and crucifixion.
Second Reading, Philippians 2:6-11 is an ancient Christian hymn representing a very early Christian understanding of Who Jesus is and how His mission saves us from sin and death. It is a message that Paul received from those who had been converted to Christ. “Jesus was Divine from all eternity. But he didn’t cling to that. Rather He emptied Himself and became human. He accepted further humbling by obeying [the constraints of the] human condition even unto death by crucifixion. So, God highly exalted Him, giving Him the highest title in the universe.” Christians reading this passage today are joining the first people who ever pondered the meaning of Jesus’ life and mission. We’re singing their song and reciting their creed during this special time of the year when we remember the most important things Our Lord did.
The first part of today’s Gospel describes the royal reception which 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. Two-and-a-half million people were normally present to celebrate the Jewish feast of Passover. Jesus permitted such a royal procession for two reasons: 1) to reveal to the general public that He was the promised Messiah, and 2) to fulfill the prophecies of Zechariah (9:9) and Zephaniah (3:16-19): “Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion…. see now your King comes to you; He is victorious, triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey…” (Zech. 9:9). (The traditional “Palm Sunday Procession” at Jerusalem began in the fourth century AD when the Bishop of Jerusalem led the procession from the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Ascension). In the second part of today’s Gospel, we listen to 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 story like Peter who denied Jesus, Judas who betrayed Jesus, Pilate who acted against his conscience, Herod who ridiculed Jesus, and the leaders of the people who preserved their position by getting rid of Jesus.
Exegetical notes on part I of today’s Gospel: 1) Jesus rides on a lowly donkey: In those days, kings used to travel in such processions on horseback during wartime, but preferred to ride a donkey in times of peace. I Kings 1:38-41 describes how Prince Solomon used his father David’s royal donkey for the ceremonial procession on the day of his coronation. Jesus entered the Holy City as a King of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. The Gospel specifically mentions that the colt Jesus selected for the procession was one that had not been ridden before, reminding us of a stipulation given in I Samuel 6:7 concerning the animal that was to carry the Ark of the Covenant.
2) The mode of reception given: Jesus was given the royal reception usually reserved for a King or military commander. I Maccabees 13:51ff describes such a reception given to the Jewish military leader Simon Maccabaeus in 171 BC. II Maccabees 10:6-8 refers to a similar reception given to another military general, Judas Maccabaeus, who led the struggle against the Roman commander, Antiochus IV Epiphanes and liberated the Temple from the Romans in 163 BC.
3) The slogans used: The participants sang the “Hallel” Psalm (Psalm 118), and shouted the words of Psalms 25 and 26. The Greek word “hosiana” originally meant “save us now” (II Samuel 14:4). The people sang the entire Psalm 118 on the Feast of the Tabernacles when they marched seven times around the Altar of the Burnt Offering. On Palm Sunday, however, the people used the prayer “Hosanna” as a slogan of greeting. It meant “God save the King of Israel.”
4) The symbolic meaning of the Palm Sunday procession: Nearly 25,000 lambs were sacrificed during the feast of the “Pass Over,” but the lamb which was to be sacrificed by the High Priest was taken to the Temple in a procession four days before the main feast day. On Palm Sunday, Jesus, the true Paschal Lamb, was also taken to the Temple in a large procession.
5) Reaction of Jesus: Before the beginning of the procession, Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41-42), and when the procession was over, He cleansed the Temple (Lk 19:45-46). On the following day, He cursed a barren fig tree.
Life Messages: We need to answer 5 questions today: 1) Does Jesus weep over me? There is a Jewish saying, “Heaven rejoices over a repentant sinner and sheds tears over a non-repentant, hardhearted one.” Are we ready to imitate the prodigal son and return to God, our loving Father, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation during this last week of Lent and participate fully in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection?
2) Am I a barren fig tree? God expects me to produce fruits of holiness, purity, justice, humility, obedience, charity, and forgiveness. Am I a barren fig tree? Or, worse, do I continue to produce bitter fruits of impurity, injustice, pride, hatred, jealousy and selfishness?
3) Will Jesus need to cleanse my heart with His whip? Jesus cannot tolerate the desecration of the temple of the Holy Spirit in me by my addiction to uncharitable, unjust and impure thoughts words and deeds; neither does He approve of my calculation of loss and gain in my relationship with God.
4) Do I welcome Jesus into my heart? Am I ready to surrender my life to Him during this Holy Week and welcome Him into all areas of my life as my Lord and Savior, singing “Hosanna”? Today, we receive palm branches at the Divine Liturgy. Let us take them to our homes and put them some place where we can always see them. Let the palms remind us that Christ is the King of our families, that Christ is the King of our hearts and that Christ is the only true answer to our quest for happiness and meaning in our lives. And if we do proclaim Christ as our King, let us try to make time for Him in our daily life; let us be reminded that He is the One with Whom we will be spending eternity. Let us be reminded further that our careers, our education, our finances, our homes, all of the basic material needs in our lives are only temporary. Let us prioritize and place Christ the King as the primary concern in our lives. It is only when we have done this that we will find true peace and happiness in our confused and complex world.
5) Are we ready to become like the humble donkey that carried Jesus? As we “carry Jesus” to the world, we can expect to receive the same welcome that Jesus received on Palm Sunday, but we must also expect to meet the same opposition, crosses and trials later. Like the donkey, we are called upon to carry Christ to a world that does not know Him. Let us always remember that a Christian without Christ is a contradiction in terms. Such a one betrays the Christian message. Hence, let us become transparent Christians during this Holy Week, enabling others to see in us Jesus’ universal love, unconditional forgiveness and sacrificial service.
6) Can we face these questions on Palm Sunday? Are we willing to follow Jesus, not just to Church but in our daily life? Are we willing to entrust ourselves to Him even when the future is frightening or confusing, believing God has a plan? Are we willing to serve Him until that day when His plan on earth is fulfilled? These are the questions of Palm Sunday. Let us take a fresh look at this familiar event. We might be surprised at what we see. It could change us forever.(Source: Fr. Anthony Kadavil)