Palm Sunday – March 26, 1972 – CNR
The Church begins today our celebration of the week we call holy, holy for its re-presentation of the deeds that manifest the holy love of our God, his holiness at once the manifestation and the remedy of our sinfulness.
The liturgy of this Sunday does not present a contrast, as we move from the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem and our songs in praise of his kingship to the more sombre lessons of the Mass. Nor are we to concentrate on the fickleness of the crowds, crying “Hosanna” today and “Crucify him” a few days later. We are to see, rather, in today’s celebration the key to the Church’s recollection in Holy Week. For to see in today’s liturgy only a contrast between honor and shame or in this week’s celebrations only a sequence of defeat and victory is to miss the point. This week it is only victory that the Church celebrates, only honor it sees in her Savior.
“Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Your king comes to you without display.'” The words in which Matthew sees the entry into Jerusalem in prophecy can serve to interpret the meaning of the whole week; for, after today, we do not have to wait until Easter Sunday to see our King again. Good Friday is not a temporary abdication of his honor and power; in the language of St. John, it is the hour of his glorification; in St. Paul’s words, this weakness is the very power of God. We do not recall another example of the familiar sequel of a happy ending to a sad story; we are part of a re-definition of joy and glory.
Let us try to make that the focus of our thoughts during this week. Let us try to make the week “holy,” which means different, set apart, having-to-do-with-God, and therefore having-to-do-with-what-is-most-important-about-us. Let us permit the holiness of God revealed in Jesus Christ to rebuke the poverty of our response to him, to comfort us with the assurance of reconciliation, and to challenge us to a faith, hope and love more worthy of the faithful love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.
In all of the Gospels can be discerned a movement towards Jerusalem, a movement towards the place where Jesus was to meet his death. It is a movement of purpose, for by the time the Gospels were written, certainly, the death of Jesus was seen, not as a tragedy unforeseen, but as God’s own purpose working at once judgement and grace on man. So Mark’s account begins: “And when they drew near to Jerusalem.”
They are at the Mount of Olives, associated in the Jewish tradition with the coming of the Messiah, and the first instructions of Jesus are that the disciples bring back a young, unused colt, for Zechariah had predicted this would be the way the Messiah would take possession of the holy city. And with that the procession can begin, a triumphal procession, Israel’s Messiah and King coming to his city, for the struggle and for the victory.
With this procession we symbolize our own faith and our willingness to follow after the Lord. The Gospels speak of discipleship as “following” the Lord and as taking up the cross after Jesus. And the simple act of following along in this procession is an embodiment of the decision both for discipleship and for the cross. It may be for us a sign of our desire to enter fully into the representation of the saving mysteries in this week we call holy, and, more deeply still, a sign of the basic and central decision that defines our Christian existence, to be those who call the one crucified Savior and Lord, to find wisdom and power in his passion, to define ourselves, our whole life long, by a life lived in similar self-forgetting and service.
The first real day of Spring may perhaps enable us especially today to know that the way of the cross ends in the resurrection, that its darkness is already illumined by the light of Easter. Let us, then, although we follow after Christ in order to die wit him, we sing joyful and triumphant songs today, songs which better than sober praise can move us again to step behind the Lord to follow along on his way.
PALM SUNDAY – APRIL 4, 1993 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
With our ceremony and with this Mass, we enter into the week we call Holy. The adjective is so familiar that it can become merely conventional: the week before Easter. But it is a special adjective, one which loses its actual meaning if it becomes merely conventional. “Holy” means other, set apart, belonging to God, and for that reason different. This week is called holy because God is uniquely present and active in it: in it are celebrated, in it are still powerful, the events through which we have been redeemed for God.
That is the power, already at the beginning of this holy week, of the encapsulation of Christian faith we have heard in our second reading. It seems likely that St. Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn: already, less than twenty years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, a hymn was being sung that celebrated his life, death and resurrection in exalted and unequalled terms. In hearing it ourselves, in making it our own hymn, we leap over two thousand years of history and connect with our earliest brothers and sisters in the faith and, beyond them, with the One who for our sakes became man, endured the slavery of death, and has become Lord and Savior to the glory of God.
The events we are to celebrate this week are holy; they make the days before us holy days, celebrated by particularly holy and solemn rites. If we share the holy gifts won for us by the death and resurrection of Christ, let us make an effort to make these days genuinely holy–other, different. Let us allow them to bring us back into the center from which every Christian gift and privilege flows, to place before us again the spring from which our lives flow and the criterion by which they should be measured, to move us to our own participation in Christ’s death by repentance for our sins, to open ourselves to the power of his resurrection in new and transformed lives. A holy week deserves a holy people.
PALM SUNDAY – APRIL 9, 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
With this liturgy we enter upon the week we call Holy. “Holy” means different, other, set apart, and different because having to do with God, having to do with what is primary and central and ultimate, with how we understand our origin, our centering focus, our destiny. This week is Holy because it concentrates on all this as revealed and communicated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A very ancient hymn guides us, the one which St. Paul quotes in the passage we heard as our second reading. It sets out the basic Christian story: of the descent of one equal to God into our human condition, of his share in our life to the depths of death itself, of his exaltation beyond all created things to receive the name which only God may bear: “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
It is an extraordinary story, and one which we will not really consider “holy” unless we pause to prevent our familiarity with it from hiding its significance. This is what makes what we do during this hour different from what we do all the other hours of the week. This is what makes the community we constitute here different from all our other associations. This is what is supposed to inspire and empower the difference we represent, the difference we are supposed to make in the world.
This is where the Christian difference lies. No other communities except the Christian churches gather and hold together because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ. And we do not in the end gather for any other reason. Here is our center: it does not lie first of all in our views of society or any particular views of individual or collective morality. If we Christians are supposed to be different in all those particular areas–as indeed we should be–all those difference must in some way be implications of what we celebrate this week, this Holy Week. This week is about foundations, about the center, about goals.
Because the story around which it revolves is holy, this week deserves to be kept holy: to be kept differently, to be lived differently. It is a week in which to try to reconcentrate ourselves around Jesus Christ in acknowledgment of the sin from which he came to free us, in gratitude for the forgiveness his dying words assure us, in renewed commitment to the new and different life his resurrection displays and enables. Today’s liturgy invites us. We can paraphrase the Commandment: “Remember thou: Keep holy the Lord’s week.”
PALM SUNDAY – MARCH 28, 1999 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
With the commemoration of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem we enter upon Holy Week. It is called “holy” in something like the original sense of that word–which meant different, set apart, something in the fashion of what is meant at a Jewish seder when a child asks: “What makes this night different from all other nights?”
What makes this week different from all other weeks, of course, is what St. Paul set out in the passage we heard in our second reading. In what is probably the oldest Christian hymn we know of, the mystery of salvation is set out in concentrated form: the self-emptying of the Son of God, his appearance in our nature, his obedience, even to the point of death, and death on a cross, and his exaltation above all things, and his being given the name above all other names, so that he may be proclaimed to be Lord. This is the historical origin of Christianity–the remarkable development already complete within a generation of the death of Jesus of Nazareth by the cruelest form of execution.
It is also the permanent origin of Christianity–meaning now our Christianity, yours and mine. What sets us apart is here concentrated–what we believe was the real truth about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus–what St. Paul elsewhere sums up in the words: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” This is the interpretation of what was going on in his short life that marks Christians out, but not simply as a statement about the historical past, but as a statement also about ourselves: in him we–you and I–were being reconciled to God, so that his resurrection, his exaltation, is our resurrection–we are no longer in our sins–and we are given new names, beyond our merit, as sons and daughters of God.
This week concentrates the whole mystery–the mystery of Christ, and the mystery of our own being. Holy because of him, this week seeks to become holy in ourselves–that is, set apart, lived differently, especially through participation in the sacred triduum, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
PALM SUNDAY – APRIL 16, 2000 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
Just a few words. We are not engaged, this holy week, in rehearsing ancient history, a festive entry into Jerusalem, tense days at the feast, a disciple’s betrayal, an arrest, a condemnation, an unjust execution–all that a historian of the ancient world might reconstruct. All of that comes before us, yes, but it comes before us as with all the concreteness of a dishonest kiss and of blood and pain because we believe that it all concerns us–tua res agitur, the old Latin tag says to each of us–this concerns you; this is your story.
It concerns us because we believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the hinge of history, the moment in which what St. Paul said reaches its climax: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The death of Christ was not simply his execution, it was his self-sacrifice, his bearing of the weight of the world’s sins, borne out of love for us and in fidelity to a God whose way of salvation even he did not fully comprehend. If we can stand in peace before God, reconciled to him, if we can call him Father, if we can know his love and even begin to return it, if we can at least try to imitate that reconciling love with others, if we can hope to have that reconciling love shown even to us, we owe it all to what this holy week celebrates.
And this week concerns us also because we are supposed ourselves to be involved in the drama. You have died with Christ, St. Paul said, and you have been raised with him. He was referring, of course, to our baptism, our own initiation into God’s way of salvation. And to us whose baptism is long since past, it means that our Christian lives are supposed to be a continuing death to our sinful selves and our resurrection to new life. And celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection is supposed to be a celebration of our death and resurrection, the end of whatever hold sin may have on us, the living of a new life beyond what we have been able so far to accomplish. Lent was supposed to have prepared us for this twofold celebration. If it has not done that, we still have this holy week to make sure that when we participate in its three great feasts we are not there as neutral spectators, but as people who know that their own fate is at stake, their own condition is being described and defined, their own freedom is being won, their deaths and lives are at issue. Nostra res agitur–this concerns us; this is our story.
PALM SUNDAY – APRIL 13, 2003 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
We gather here this morning to begin the celebration of the week that we call Holy. Holy because of the things God has done during this week; holy because of the obedient love of Christ in his passion; holy because of his conquest of death; holy because of the baptism into Christ of new members; holy because of the conversion to which it calls all who participate; holy in their dying to sin, holy in their rising into fuller life in Christ.
There is nothing automatic about any or all of this; there isn’t any sort of mechanism of grace. From beginning to end it is a work of freedom: of God’s freedom in the sending of his Son to bring life to humanity; Christ’s freedom in his self-surrender on our behalf; our freedom if we respond in genuine repentance, faith, and joy. Our salvation is a work of freedom–God’s freedom and ours. This is the reason for urging you to try to make this week holy. Holy in the original sense as “set apart,” “different,” different because pertaining to God, belonging to God. Not that other weeks shouldn’t for the Christian be different, but because what Christianity is all about is so well concentrated in this week: what it is as God’s work, what it is as our response.
From God’s side we know what makes this week holy. Whether it will be holy from our side depends on our freedom, our willingness to renew our baptismal commitments by associating ourselves with, participating in, the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Palm Sunday – April 4, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
We begin Holy Week today. The week is called holy because it is different, or supposed to be different, from other weeks, and the difference consists in the events commemorated, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, events which we Christians believe brought about our salvation. In these events, as St. Paul so neatly put it, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” This week is holy because it has to do with the holy deeds of a holy God.
It is inevitable, I imagine, that many a sermon this week is going to include a mention of the film, “The Passion of the Christ.” I haven’t seen the movie and have no intention of seeing it, since I don’t have much of a stomach for blood and gore. What I want to say a word about, however, is a misunderstanding of the passion that I find among some of those who have seen the movie and described it as a religious experience. The misunderstanding concerns the meaning of the sufferings of Christ.
There have been, and no doubt still are, theologians and preachers who regard the sufferings of Christ as the price God the Father demanded before he could love us and forgive us our sins. Some of them have painted a picture of a God who takes an almost sadistic pleasure in the agony of Christ, as if God were counting the lashes of the whip or the drops of blood until he had decided there had been enough pain. Something like this was the way it was put to me a few months ago by a man who had decided he could no longer believe this, which he considered to be the “central myth” of Christianity. It is not.
At least three things are wrong with this view of God and our redemption through the cross and resurrection of Christ. First, God did not require his Son’s sufferings before he could love or forgive us. “God so loved the world,” St. John said, “that he gave his only Son so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” “The proof of God’s love for us,” said St. Paul, “is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The love is there from the beginning, and it does not have to be earned, much less bought with blood. It is love, not anger, that initiates the work of Christ and accompanies it until the end.
Secondly, it is not the physical, emotional, or mental sufferings of Christ in themselves that redeem us, but the love with which he endured them. The punishment and eventual execution of Jesus of Nazareth was a great evil, and we should perhaps not forget that when we look at a crucifix, we are looking at a particularly horrific instrument for executing the death penalty. The only thing that redeems the cross, the reason that we hang it upon a wall and trace it upon our bodies, is that this great evil was met by an even greater love, a love that extended, as we just heard in the Gospel, to those who had committed the evil. Where sin abounded, grace has superabounded, as St. Paul said. It is that love, much more than the deep sufferings of Christ by themselves, that should occupy us this week.
Finally, the work of redemption did not end on the cross. If that had been the end of Jesus of Nazareth, we would not be talking about him now, much less meeting in his name. It was because suffering and death were not the last word about him, but resurrection and life are, that his disciples were able to gather again and began to preach of forgiveness and of the new life now open to us in him. The resurrection is integral to the Christian understanding of redemption; in fact, I would say that if the resurrection is not part of one’s understanding of redemption, then one has not understood Christianity. St. Paul put it very powerfully in the fifteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians when addressing people who had spiritualized the resurrection or even denied it altogether. “If there is no resurrection of the dead,” he said, “then Christ did not rise, and if Christ did not rise, then our preaching is in vain and so is your faith…. If the dead do not rise, then Christ did not rise, and if Christ did not rise, then your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins.” In short, without the resurrection, there is no Christianity, and the death of Jesus of Nazareth means no more than that of any of the thousands of others who suffered the same agonies.
Why Christ had to suffer we do not know. “Why?” was his own question on the cross. That he did suffer we know, and also that he suffered in order to remain faithful to the mission he had come to fulfill. That mission was to embody God’s love for us, and he fulfilled it by his fidelity and by his forgiveness, and it was because of that fidelity that he was raised up and given the name above all other names. That is the full mystery that we are celebrating during this week that is holy. And, of course, this celebration cannot be complete without our own participation in that mystery, by renewing our baptismal vows, the commitments made as in baptism we entered into the death of Christ so that we could enter into his resurrection by the new life it has made possible and real. Renewing our baptismal vows does not have to wait until the Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday. It is something, in fact, that we ought to be doing every day, and ought to be doing particularly during this whole week, in repentance and sorrow for our sins and in a renewed Christian commitment, undertaken in the assurance of God’s love so powerfully, so totally, embodied in Jesus Christ.
Palm Sunday – April 17, 2011 – St. John’s
We are brought, during this week we call “holy,” back to the originating events of Christianity, to what was most distinctive about it as it began, to what still constitutes the heart of what it affirms about God’s dealings with us human beings. One scholar, James D. G. Dunn, has written recently, “‘God raised him from the dead’ is probably the earliest distinctively Christian affirmation and confession. It is presupposed again and again in the earliest Christian writings.” “As a historical statement we can say quite firmly: no Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus. As Jesus is the single great ‘presupposition’ of Christianity, so also is the resurrection of Jesus. To stop short of the resurrection would have been to stop short” (Jesus Remembered, 826).
That he was raised from the dead, of course, supposes that he died, and within two or three years of that death, disciples of Jesus had shaped something like a short creedal formula that narrates the events we celebrate this week. It was taught to St. Paul himself. Writing to the Corinthians, he reminds them: “I handed on to you what I myself received: that the Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” At the end of almost two thousand years, it has been handed on to us, and it is because of what it tells about God and about us that we are gathered here today and will be in the course of this week.
For that statement about Christ’s death compels us not to imagine this commemoration as an exercise in historical reconstruction. It says: “The Messiah died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.” “According to the Scriptures” means in fulfilment of the Scriptures, not in the sense of fulfilling one or two isolated texts, but in the sense of bringing the whole of God’s dealings with mankind to fulfilment, to a climax, the fulfilment of the prophecies of God’s washing our sins away, of instituting a new covenant, of setting our relationship with him on an entirely new and different footing. In other words, from the beginning the story is a story relevant to us: Christ died for our sakes.
That indicates how we should approach this holy week: as one involving us, for whose sake Christ died and was raised from the dead. If it involves that generic “us,” it has to involve the specific “you” and “me” who comprise this “us.” Every one of us has to say: this is my story. It is on account of my sins that Christ died; that his death and resurrection enable me to escape from them; it is to me that the promise of a new life is extended in this narrative of what happened two thousand years ago. If we can engage this week’s celebration with this mind, then the events of so long ago cease to be events simply of long ago and become events in these celebrations and in our hearts and minds, events present in power and light for our lives.