The iron stove glows red with fire,
The gospel reading for this Sunday is the passion of Jesus, St Matthew’s version. The story of his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which is read during the ceremony of palms, is not merely a highly significant event in the life of Jesus, it gives us the key to interpreting all that subsequently happened to him. Meditating on this story is therefore an excellent start to Holy Week.
To understand this event it is essential to read two passages from the Old Testament:
– Psalm 118, a song of thanksgiving as a victorious pilgrim enters Jerusalem and the temple;
– Zechariah 9:9, 10, where the prophet paints a picture of God’s chosen one coming to save his people.
Verses 1 to 3 of Matthew’s text show us that Jesus made a deliberate choice to enter Jerusalem according to his own value system, and he was conscious that he was in line with Zechariah’s vision.
You can meditate on the story from the point of view of Jesus: when have you experienced someone – perhaps yourself – making the choice that Jesus made? You can focus on the crowds instead: how does it feel to welcome someone (an experience or a reading) that clearly comes “in the name of the Lord”?
The climax to the story in verses 10 and 11 is significant too: this is the kind of thing that happens when God’s messenger enters a city.
“We must develop absolute patience and understand the fears of others.” …Nelson Mandela
Lord, we thank you for the great public figures of our time
who have chosen the way of nonviolence,
– Gandhi and his successors in India,
– Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement,
– Nelson Mandela,
– Caribbean people who resisted slavery and colonialism by peaceful means.
They have been for the modern world Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey.
Like him they fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah,
coming to the children of Zion with humility,
banishing chariots and horses and all the bows of war
and proclaiming peace to all.
It is through people like these that your empire will stretch from sea to sea,
from the River to the ends of the earth.
“Forgive us, Lord, that we speak more of your death and ours, instead of the life and victory you have won for us all.” …Archbishop of Khartoum, 1994
Lord, we thank you for the times that you sent us someone who transformed our lives:
– a great leader emerged in our nation or church community;
– our family life was disintegrating and a counselor brought us all together;
– we read a great book;
– a friend gave us back our courage.
We felt a great joy, like the people when they saw Jesus entering their city,
we welcomed this messenger who came in the name of the Lord,
and cried out “Hosanna in the highest heavens!”
Lord, give us the gift of final perseverance,
that like Jesus we may come to the end of our lives
faithful to what you have called us to be,
and enter Jerusalem as he did,
knowing that we come in your name and welcomed by all the saints.
Lord, we pray for nations that are suffering from civil war.
Send them leaders who will come to them humbly as Jesus did,
banishing chariots and horses and the bows of war
and proclaiming peace for their nations,
so that their people may come out in great crowds
to celebrate and shout with all their hearts,
“Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heavens!”
“God does not want to be an idol in whose name one person kills other people.” …Closing message of the African Synod, 1994
Lord, we pray for the Church. Often we are tempted to enter the modern world with the methods that prevail there,
putting our trust in money or advertising or threats.
Help us, like Jesus, to deliberately choose our way,
concerned only that we are fulfilling the prophecies
and that we seek the blessings of those who come in your name.
Lord, we thank you that in many countries today the Church is taking a radical stand,
rejecting horses and chariots and all the apparatus of earthly power
and identifying rather with the lowly.
Naturally the whole nation is in turmoil,
but when people ask, “Who is this?”
the crowds can answer truthfully,
“This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Introduction to the Celebration
The text in the Missal (p. 123: ‘Dear friends in Christ …‘) cannot be bettered. However, care should be taken to read it as if it were one’s own notes so as to stress the notion that we are entering into the Great Week, accompanying Christ in the Paschal Mystery.
If one does preach, then the brief comments should be directed to introducing the week as a whole rather than particular comments on the readings. This could take its starting point from the gospel outside – that Christ has arrived at, and entered Jerusalem, and that ‘his hour’ has arrived. As Christians we are sharers in this event.
If the situation calls for a meditation rather than a homily, then a suitable meditation is provided in the Christ-hymn (the second reading) as a way of interpreting the events narrated. However, rather than re-reading it directly from the lectionary it can be broken up into its verses and read with pauses. The version used in the Office is better for such use than either the RSV or JB. Better still, have it sung by a soloist and simply introduce it as the earliest Christian meditation we possess on what we have just recalled about the death of Jesus.
Less than one week later, however, the crowd, according to Matthew’s Gospel, insisted that Jesus be crucified. Their attitude towards him had changed fundamentally and irrevocably. We might well ask: Why? The reason was that he had challenged them to change their lifestyles in imitation of his example, although some scholars suggest that the basis for Jesus’ death was his actions in the Temple which had infuriated them. In any event, what a fickle and unreliable people!
Many of us today would not admit to being fickle or to having a superficial faith. We claim to be very different from those people who demanded Jesus’ death because we think that we would have behaved differently towards him. However, we forget that it was our sins and the sins of all people that Jesus took on himself when he was crucified.
In contrast to us, God is loyal, steadfast and completely dependable. Fortunately God’s love for us is not dependant on our positive response to him. God’s love for us in Christ is unfaltering. Jesus died ‘for our sins’ (1 Cor 15:3). In doing so, he emptied himself totally for our sake, and for the sake of all people of every time and place — although his self-emptying also includes the Incarnation (see Phil 2). Thus he brought us life on the cross even though he lost his own life there. In the face of human betrayal he proved that God’s love for us is endless.
There are so many questions. But, then, Holy Week is the week for questions in the lives of Christians everywhere.
Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it. (Jn 26:39)
He has endured the cross
Our gospel today is long; it is the first of two readings of the passion and death of Jesus; we hear many sayings and notice events that are familiar to us and to all Christians. Maybe during the week we could take time to reread the gospel account, and watch what happens, going a bit behind the externals.
We will see Jesus being mocked, tortured, hurt, ridiculed, beaten and killed. We notice his fear in the garden of his agony, and also his willingness to go to the end for what he believes in and sees as his mission in life. We see him being treated unjustly, and a notorious thief being chosen over him for release. We see him on the cross, when he seems to feel neglected by his Father.
We notice also the help he received – the silent sympathy and love of his mother, Simon’s help carrying the cross, the sympathy of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’, and even the faith of the Roman who said he was a good man, a ‘son of God’. We wonder about how he felt with the mockery and with the help he received.
We can identify with much of his suffering, in our own lives and the lives of people close to us. He is the one who ‘has endured the cross and despised its shame’ (Hebrews).
We can often take comfort and consolation from the fact that he identifies with the suffering of the human race, and that his resurrection is the basis of our faith, hope and love.
The Passion: Matthew 26: 14 - 27: 66
While the Blessing and Procession of Palms commemorates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Liturgy of the Word focuses on the passion and death of the Messiah. In his Passion narrative, Matthew frames his account in the context of the First Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Matthew portrays a Jesus who is totally alone, abandoned by everyone, but who is finally vindicated by God (the portrait of the Messiah depicted in Isaiah and Psalm 22).
Scripture scholars believe that Matthew (and Luke) adapted their material from the evangelist Mark, whose Gospel is generally believed to be the first to be written. Almost 80 percent of Matthew’s Passion account is identical in vocabulary and content with Mark. Matthew, however, adds several details not found in Mark’s Gospel, including the death of Judas, Pilate’s washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death, Pilate’s wife’s dream (in Matthew’s Gospel, divine guidance is often revealed in dreams – Joseph’s dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt, the magi’s dream to flee Bethlehem), the posting of guards at the tomb after Jesus’ burial.
Matthew is writing his Gospel for Jewish Christians who themselves have suffered at the hands of the Jewish establishment. Many have been expelled from their synagogues and the temple for their insistent belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (the most controversial aspect of the Passion narratives historically) is pivotal in Matthew. Matthew alone names Caiaphas as high priest during the proceedings and describes in great detail the chief priests’ manipulation of Pilate and the crowds. Matthew presents to his Jewish Christian community Jesus as a model of suffering at the hands of the Jews (it is Matthew’s Passion account that includes the troubling line spoken by the crowds, “Let his blood be upon us and our children”). The tearing of the sanctuary veil symbolizes for Matthew's community a break with their Jewish past.
As is the case throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Gentiles and not the people of Israel first recognize the truth about Jesus: only Pilate and his wife recognize the innocence of the condemned Jesus.
The Gospel calls us to take on what Paul calls the “attitude of Christ Jesus” (Reading 1) in his passion and death: to “empty” ourselves of our own interests, fears and needs for the sake of others; to realize how our actions affect them and how our moral and ethical decisions impact the common good; to reach out to heal the hurt and comfort the despairing around us despite our own betrayal; to carry on, with joy and in hope, despite rejection, humiliation and suffering.
Matthew portrays a Jesus who has been totally abandoned by his disciples and friends. There is no one to defend him, to support him, to speak for him. He endures such a cruel and unjust death alone. Yet, amid the darkness, a light glimmers: The prophecy of a new temple “not made by human hands” is fulfilled in the shreds of the temple curtain; a pagan centurion confesses his new-found realization that this crucified Jesus is indeed the “son of God”; and a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, is embolden to break with his fellow councilors and request of Pilate the body of Jesus. The Passion of Jesus should be a reason for hope and a moment of grace for all us as we seek the reign of God in our own lives — however lonely and painful our search may be.
They stood together in the lobby waiting for the elevator. They said nothing. It was their first session with the therapist. Their nine-year marriage had hit a dry patch — it wasn’t a matter of anger or dissatisfaction, but a distance had begun to separate them. So they decided to seek help. As the floor numbers of the elevator dinged, his fingers slowly reached over and took her little finger. She clutched his fingers one by one, until she was cradling his entire hand in hers. They did not look at one another but continued to stare straight ahead. But they smiled. They were ready to go up to their Jerusalem.
The day had come for him to present himself to the county sheriff. Sixty days, the judge ordered. He was thankful that no one was hurt in the accident, but his alcohol level was well above the legal limit. He had had a few other close calls, but this one scared even him. The prospect of 60 days in jail terrified him, but he accepted what he had done and managed to find reason to be grateful that it wasn’t worse. With humility and resolve, he made his way to his Jerusalem.
On this Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem to begin the climactic work of his life. The resolution and faith in which Christ enters Jerusalem should inspire and reassure us as we enter our own Jerusalems: those experiences that, despite our reasonable doubts and fears, can lead us to new hope and fulfillment. In the events that take place in Jerusalem this Holy Week, God takes on our humanity in all its brokenness in order to heal us of that brokenness: to open our eyes to realize our need for one another, to open our ears to hear the cries for compassion, forgiveness and justice around us, to open our spirits to embrace one another in the midst of hurt and despair. God takes on the hopelessness of the cross in order to win for us the triumph of the empty tomb. In his Jerusalem, Christ transforms death from the final humiliation into the beginning of something much greater and sacred. In the Christ of Holy Week, we meet a God of such great love for us that he makes us whole in his compassion and enables us to bring that same reconciliation and healing to our own Jerusalems.
Maybe you have those questions, too. All of us have a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story further down the road. Maybe you can sing or hug or program a computer or speak Swahili or write a check.
Whichever, that's your donkey.
Whichever, your donkey belongs to him. It really does belong to him. Your gifts are his and the donkey was his. The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples is proof: "If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, 'Its Lord is in need.'" [Max Lucado, And the Angels were Silent, p. 54]
We need to answer 5 questions today:
5. "What did the Christian's God do then?
On Marco Polo's celebrated trip to the Orient, he was taken before the great and fearsome ruler, Genghis Khan. Now what was Marco Polo supposed to do before this mighty pagan conqueror? One false move could cost him his life. He decided to tell the story of Jesus as it is recorded in the Gospels. It is said that when Marco Polo related the events of Holy Week, describing Jesus' betrayal, His trial, scourging and crucifixion, Genghis Khan became more and more agitated, more engrossed in the story, and more tense. When Marco Polo pronounced the words, "Then Jesus bowed his head and yielded up His spirit," Genghis Khan could no longer contain himself. He interrupted, bellowing, "What did the Christian's God do then? Did He send thousands of angels from Heaven to smite and destroy those who killed his Son?" What did the Christian's God do then? He watched His beloved Son die, that's what the Christian's God did then. For that was the way God chose for Jesus to ascend the throne of His Kingdom and to establish His Lordship for all time. Not at all the way we would expect God to demonstrate His might and power, but that's the way it was, and that is how we know what our God is like. In practical terms, that means that this suffering King who rules in love comes to lay His claim on our life. Our entire life is subject to His Lordship, not just a portion of it. To have Christ be our King means that we rely on Him for everything, most of all the forgiveness of sins.
6. Reminder of Maccabaean victory celebration:
An interesting as well as challenging old fable tells of the colt that carried Jesus on Palm Sunday. The colt thought that the reception was organized to honor him. “I am a unique donkey,” this excited animal might have thought. When he asked his mother if he could walk down the same street alone the next day and be honored again, his mother said, “No, you are nothing without Him who was riding you." Five days later, the colt saw a huge crowd of people in the street. It was Good Friday, and the soldiers were taking Jesus to Calvary. The colt could not resist the temptation of another royal reception. Ignoring the warning of his mother, he ran to the street, but he had to flee for his life as soldiers chased him and people stoned him. Thus the colt finally learned the lesson that he was only a poor donkey without Jesus to ride on him. As we enter Holy Week, today’s readings challenge us to examine our lives to see whether we carry Jesus within us and bear witness to Him through our living or whether we are Christians in name only.
8. The king on a donkey!
Some of you heard my story about the husband and the wife who had quarreled. It had been a pitched battle of wills, each digging heels in to preserve the position each had vehemently taken. Emotions had run high. As they were driving to attend a family wedding in a distant city, both were nursing hurt feelings in defensive silence. The angry tension between them was so thick you could cut it with a knife. But, then the silence was broken. Pointing to a donkey standing in a pasture out beside the road, the husband sarcastically asked, “Relative of yours?” The wife quickly replied, “By marriage!”
I read about one of the fastest growing churches in the world, with branches in 32 countries already. It is called the Winners Church, and according to its leaders, it lives by a motto that comes from America's religious culture. Here's the motto: "Be happy. Be successful. Join the winners." People flock to that kind of church, I guess. But it all depends, doesn't it, on how we define winning? I wonder what kind of church you would have if your motto were "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." Or about this one for a motto, "Those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake, will find them."
Surprising and inevitable. Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week are both surprising and inevitable. The truth is that we are not completely sure what to make of Palm Sunday...
C. Fr Jude Botelho:
Procession: The reading starts on a triumphant note, the celebration of a victory parade. Parades and processions have always been part of worship in Jewish and Christian tradition and they were the most normal way for people to acclaim the victories and triumphs of their heroes and heroines. When the parade is over the heroes fade away and are forgotten and Jesus whom we acclaim in today's victory procession will momentarily fade into his passion and death, but then he will rise again and live on. What is worth noting is the attitude of Jesus as He is about to enter into the final phase of his life. He meets his opponents openly as he triumphantly enters into Jerusalem. He does not merely tolerate and endure the passion rather he wholeheartedly chooses and accepts it. Far from being a defeat his passion starts as a victory, we see Jesus is in command of the situation rather than overpowered by it. He gives orders: Go to the village, find the donkey, if anyone asks say the Master needs it. And he went riding in and they acknowledged him. Hosanna to the Son of David!!! We remember that the palms we carry today will be burned and the ashes for next year's Ash Wednesday will be made from them. The sign of glory and the sign of conversion are made of the same stuff and meet in our flesh and lives.
The first reading from Isaiah describes the attitude and behaviour of the servant of Yahweh who foreshadows Jesus and all those persecuted for sake of justice and God's honour. This is not just a word of comfort and consolation but the rousing word of the good news, the imminent coming of the kingdom breaking into the lives of those bent under the weight of evil. This word teaches us how to resist without violence and how to rely on the strength that is always offered. Their shield that they grasped and held on to was God. Isaiah promised a servant of God, who would have a face like flint, to brave the pummeling, the spit and the ridicule, he would take on everything.
Look at my hand!
A vacationing family drives along in their car, windows rolled down, enjoying the warm summer breeze of the sunny day. All of a sudden a big black bee darts in the window and starts buzzing around inside the car. A little girl, highly allergic to bee stings, cringes in the back seat. If she is stung, she could die within an hour. "Oh, Daddy," she squeals in terror. "It's a bee! It's going to sting me!" The father pulls the car over to a stop, and reaches back to try to catch the bee. Buzzing around towards him, the bee bumps against the front windshield where the father traps it in his fist. Holding it in his closed hand, the father waits for the inevitable sting. The bee stings the father's hand and in pain, the father lets go of the bee. The bee is loose in the car again. The little girl again panics, "Daddy, it's going to sting me!" The father gently says, "No honey, he's not going to sting you now. Look at my hand." The bee's stinger was there in his hand.
As told in today's gospel by St. Matthew, whose account is probably the most authentic representation of what happened, the passion story is recounted not that we might feel sorry for Jesus because of what he suffered but that we might be touched by the love he had for us that motivated him to suffer the passion. As we go through the story we can be spectators or participants, we can look at it as a drama acted out or as something that I am part of right now, with people with whom I can identify. We can be part of the crowd or Pilate or Peter or Jesus.
Would you take his place?
After years of wandering, Clint Dennis realized that something important was missing from his life. He decided to attend Church. As he entered a church for the first time he noticed people putting on long robes. They were tying ropes around their waists and wrapping headdresses around their heads. "Come be part of the mob," a stranger told him. It was Palm Sunday and the church was enacting the Crucifixion in costume. He would be part of the crowd that shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Hesitantly, he agreed. Then another stranger hurried up to him. "The man who is supposed to play one of the thieves on the cross didn't show up," he said. "Would you take his place?" Again, Clint agreed and was shown the cross where he would look on as Jesus died. Just then, though, something about Clint's manner caught a member's eye. He turned to Clint and asked, "Have you ever asked Jesus to forgive your sins?" "No," Clint replied softly, "but that’s why I came here." There beneath the cross they prayed, and Clint asked Jesus to come into his heart. What the church didn't know was that Clint had been in prison for ten years. He was a real thief. Even after his release he had gone on stealing cars and trucks until he realized something was missing from his life.
The passion narrative starts with the betrayal of Judas Iscariot; in the face of this betrayal Jesus chooses to celebrate the Passover meal and give them his best gift: the gift of himself. When man is at his worse God is at his best! Jesus' way of responding to hurt and betrayal can be ours only when love has become the motive power of our lives. Even when Jesus is confronted by Judas who blatantly asks, "Not I Rabbi, surely?”, Jesus does not condemn him or embarrass him in front of the others. Even in the face of evidence Jesus refuses to judge, so unlike us. It is worth remembering that when we judge others we judge ourselves. After the celebration of the Passover sacrifice as they were leaving for the Mount of Olives Jesus predicts "You will all lose faith in me this night." But Peter is sure that he is not like the rest. There are many times when we can identify with Peter, we feel we are not like the rest of the disciples. We won't make the same mistakes that others make. Let's remind ourselves that our faith journey is not a competition to see who does better than others. The faith journey cannot be accomplished if we rely on our own strengths and capabilities, instead one needs to humbly acknowledge our inadequacies and rely on the Lord to see us through. As we go through the entire narrative of the passion what will strike us is that Jesus died a shameful death, reserved for the worst of criminals. Even though he died willingly and in a manly way, this manner of death would seem to wipe off with one stroke all the good he had done. If Jesus were truly the beloved Son of God, would God have allowed him to be overcome by his enemies? But God turned this human way of thinking completely upside down. By raising Jesus from the dead, God honoured Jesus more than anyone ever could have. He obliterated Jesus' shame with the glory of the resurrection. It is from this standpoint that one needs to reinterpret the passion. While it reports seemingly shameful events like the betrayal, the false witnesses, the trumped-up charges and the like, a careful reading shows that Jesus is master of his fate throughout the story. He knows that he is in the right; he trusts that God will vindicate him. Jesus is like every other innocently suffering person in the history of Israel: absolutely confident that God will set it all right. Today we dwell on the passion in order to draw closer to the person of Jesus and his great love for humanity and unflinching faith in the Father. To be like Jesus we have to be with Jesus. As we draw close to Jesus we are bound to change and become like the Son. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all to myself!"
Richard Matheson wrote a science-fiction story called "The Traveller." It's about a scientist called Paul Jairus, who is part of a research time that has developed an energy screen to permit people to travel back into time. The first trip is scheduled to take place a few days before Christmas and Jairus has been picked to make the trip. He decided to go back in time to the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary. Jairus is a non-believer and anticipates finding the crucifixion different from the way the Bible describes it. When the historic moment comes, Jairus steps into the energy screen and soon finds himself soaring back into time -100 years, 1000 years, 2000 years. The energy screen touches down on target and Calvary is swarming with people, everybody's attention is focused on three men nailed to crosses about 100 feet away. Immediately Jairus asks the Command Centre for permission to move closer to the crosses, they grant it, but tell him to stay inside the energy screen. Jairus moves closer and as he does, his eyes come to rest on Jesus. Suddenly something remarkable begins to happen, Jairus feels drawn to Jesus, as a tiny piece of metal is drawn to a magnet. He is deeply moved by the love radiating from Jesus, it's something he'd never experienced before. Then contrary to all his expectations, events on Calvary begin to unfold exactly as the Gospel described them. Jairus is visibly shaken. The Command Centre realises this and fears he's becoming emotionally involved. They tell him to prepare for immediate return to the 20th century. Jairus protests, but to no avail. The trip back goes smoothly. When Jairus steps from the energy screen, it's clear he's a changed man.
‘The Passion of the Christ’
In 2004, Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ created waves worldwide for its pathos and power. On viewing it, many ‘cold’ Christians’ faith was rekindled. James Caviezel who played Jesus said, “I had to prepare myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally for many months before playing the most demanding role of my career…. I couldn’t imagine that someone could endure such unbelievable and unbearable degradation and death for the sake of others.” He added, “All through the production as if ‘Someone’ was watching over me!” Playing Christ was a profound conversion experience for Caviezel. The most wonderful ‘witness’ of the Passion is Fr. Christudas, who on September 2, 1997, was beaten, stripped and paraded naked in Dumka, north India. His ‘passion’ continues since he is unjustly convicted for fabricated crimes. Christudas testifies: “I couldn’t bear the humiliation and pain until suddenly I felt one with Jesus who suffered everything, and even more than myself. Thereafter, I surrendered!” Does that ‘Someone’ who ‘watched over’ Caviezel’s action also ‘part-take’ in these ‘passions’?
Francis Gonsalves in ‘Sunday Seeds for daily Deeds’