Palm Sunday 2020
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, gathered through livestreaming from all corners of the archdiocese, and all who are joining us this morning, we now enter into this holiest of weeks at this strangest of times. Thank you for joining us in this walk from life to death to new life.
It would have been easier, today, if the Gospel we heard at the start of today’s Mass, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, would have been the only Gospel we heard this morning. We could be pondering what it was like to be there, a great prophet coming, a king, arriving on a donkey; we could have pondered how the people of Jerusalem viewed Jesus, the many different attitudes towards him; and what led to people laying down palm branches before him. It could have been enough to start us gently towards what would eventually happen there. But the Church does not allow us to sit there for long. Instead, we hear the recitation of the Passion, this year from St Matthew’s Gospel. And we are pulled and drawn, willingly or unwillingly, into Holy Week. The church doesn’t let us rest with the procession into Jerusalem because there is a deeper mystery to be pondered, a paschal mystery. And in today’s liturgy it is, above all else, the tensions in the readings, the seeming contradictions, that move us towards Good Friday and Easter.
The procession of joy welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem soon turns into a procession to Calvary. The crowds go from laying down palms before him to shouting ‘crucify him’. At the beginning of our celebration Jesus is proclaimed a king - ‘behold, here comes your king, humble, riding on a donkey’ - and at the end of our gospel a crown is given him, but it is a crown of thorns. At the beginning, at least in St Luke’s account, we remember the wonderful words of Jesus, ‘if every tongue were still, the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.’ At the end the stones are silent, and Jesus is buried in a rock, in the tomb.
The first reading speaks about a disciple who is chosen by God - ‘Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;’ ‘that I might know how to speak to the weary.’ But soon that servant is being beaten and spat upon.
These tensions run throughout the readings: we move from promise to pain; the one who comes to bring us to fulness of life is poured out, empties himself; the God who never forsakes us cries out with the words of the psalm, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The eternal Word is silent before Pontius Pilate; the source of life is put to death.
The Church doesn’t let us sit with a procession of palms because it wants to draw us into the depths of the mystery at the heart of our lives - a mystery that has to do with God’s way of transforming the world, and transforming us.
As we launch into Holy Week, permit me to offer you three brief thoughts.
First, in the liturgies of today and the coming days, we are invited into a vortex of pain. It does so because it really happened, 2000 years ago. And because it also happens in our lives, and in our world. The pain of the COVID-19 pandemic is all around us. Lost jobs, insecure future, isolation, depression, confusion, healthcare workers risking their own health, a general disruption of our lives. The pain of the pandemic is all around us. We don’t like pain and we don’t like to sit with pain. But pain is all around us, and if we are to find redemption, meaning and purpose in this life, we need a meaningful response to pain and suffering....
The liturgies of Holy Week assure us that God walks with us in our pain. We might want to get to the Resurrection quickly, but we need to sit through the passion today, and again on Good Friday, without getting to the Resurrection. We know it is coming - the apostles didn't - so we have that help. But there is no shortcut through the dying; at least God did not design the human condition with a shortcut through it. We live that in a small way liturgically and it can help us live it in our lives.
Secondly, in Jesus, what we see in these Gospel accounts and liturgies is a love fully given. For us, most often, our passion is not chosen, and there isn't an escape hatch. We must endure. With Jesus, fully God, there is a choice, there is a temptation. Jesus doesn't choose suffering. He chooses love. But when love becomes costly, when love becomes crucifying, when the Father saw what was happening to him, he didn't pull the plug and say, ok, enough. ‘Come down from the cross,’ they mocked. And of course God could have made it so, but that would have meant stepping back from the Incarnation. God in his great mercy doesn’t do that.
This is love's finest hour, its most radiant and most costly hour. It is the moment when we come know the radical depths of God's self-gift, of God's redeeming love. It is the moment when God takes upon himself all the shortcomings of the human race, all the outright failures, all the stupidities and misguided priorities of our lives, all the wrong choices, all the darkness in our world, and says, ‘yet do I still love you; even now do I still desire to redeem you.’
Third, we are not to be passive observers in what we celebrate this week, even though we watch from our own homes. In the Eastern rite there is a tradition of symbolically processing into the tomb on Good Friday, and the journey could be a fruitful one for us too. Enter in. Bring your sorrow, your suffering. Bring your grief, your brokenness. Bring your struggles, your longings, your unfulfilled hopes. Bring them into the depth of meaning of the last supper, when Jesus takes bread in his hands... And into the betrayal; into the loneliness of Gethsemane; into the trial, the lies, the denial from his friends, into the passion; into the suffering, and the love revealed there. Enter into the tomb.... and wait, wait for the power of God to come, to bring life.
And do that so that you know a little better how to be his disciple; how to live and love as one, how to speak as one, how to carry pain as one; how to undo the power of death, how to be an instrument of resurrection, in our broken and confused world. Enter in. Do not be afraid. Life reigns here. God has the last word. Enter in, so that you learn something of how to live a paschal life here and now.
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