Palm Sunday - April 9th, 2017
In preparation for Easter some years ago, I had the privilege of an early Lenten retreat on the events of Holy Week as I read and pondered what was at that time Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s latest book: “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, USA, 2011). This book should be required reading for every bishop, priest, pastoral minister, and serious Catholic who would like to meet Jesus of Nazareth and deepen one’s knowledge of the very person of Jesus and the central mysteries of our faith that we celebrate this week. I could think of no better way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter than to read this masterful text. I recommend it to all those who have found these biblical reflections helpful for your personal prayer and preaching of the Word of God.
Each year during Holy Week, we accompany Jesus up to Jerusalem amidst the crowds crying out “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” A day filled with exceeding praise and jubilation, but looming on the horizon is a wave of hatred, destruction and death. We, too, are caught up with the crowd acclaiming their Messiah and King as he descends the Mount of Olives – coming not with the trappings of a royal motorcade but on a beast of burden. What striking images of royalty, humility, and divinity all packed into this paradoxical scene of Jesus’ entering his city! Full of enthusiasm, they welcome him on Palm Sunday as the King of Peace and the Bearer of Hope. Full of hate, five days later, the people demand his death on the Cross.
The Gospel Passion narratives recount how the sins of some of the people and their leaders at the time of Jesus conspired to bring about the Passion and death of Christ, and thereby suggest the fundamental truth that we are all to blame. Their sins and our sins bring Christ to the Cross, and he bears them willingly. And we must learn from what happened to Jesus and ask ourselves not only about the identity of those who tried, condemned, and killed him long ago, but also what killed Jesus and what vicious circles of violence, brutality, and hatred continue to crucify Him today in his brothers and sisters across the human family.
Matthew’s Passion Narrative
This year we read Matthew’s Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:14-27:66). Matthew follows his Marcan source closely but with omissions (e.g. Mark 14:51-52) and additions (e.g. Matthew 27:3-10, 19). Some of the additions indicate that he utilized traditions that he had received from elsewhere; others are due to his own theological insight (e.g. Matthew 26:28, “…for the forgiveness of sins”; Matthew 27:52). In his editing Matthew also altered Mark in some minor details. But there is no need to suppose that he knew any passion narrative other than Mark’s.
As we listen to Matthew’s account, we are caught up in Jesus’ encounter with destiny made inevitable by the strong commitments of Jesus’ mission from God and the fierce resistance of the power of death. In the first chapter of “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week” entitled “The Entrance into Jerusaelm,” Pope Emeritus Benedict invites us to consider Zechariah 9:9, the text that Matthew and John quote explicitly for an understanding of “Palm Sunday”: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:5; cf. Zechariah 9:9; John 12:15). Benedict writes (p. 4):
He [Jesus] is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and a king of simplicity, a king of the poor. And finally we saw that he reigns over a kingdom that stretches from sea to sea, embracing the whole world; we were reminded of the new world encompassing kingdom of Jesus that extends from sea to sea in the communities of the breaking of bread in communion with Jesus Christ, as the kingdom of his peace. None of this could be seen at the time…
The Meaning of Hosanna
“Hosanna” was originally a pilgrim blessing that priests addressed in the Temple, but when it was joined to the second part of the acclamation “who enters in the name of the Lord,” it took on Messianic significance. It had become a designation of the one promised by God. It now becomes praise of Jesus, a greeting to him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one awaited and proclaimed by all the prophets.
We can ask why the word “hosanna” was preserved for us in Hebrew. Why didn’t the Gospels translate it into Greek? The full translation of “hosanna” could read: “Help [or save], please, O Son of David. Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes. Help [or save], please, O Most High.” The crowd's welcome of Jesus with cries of “hosanna,” for help, and the waving of palm fronds, thereby invoked the liturgical formulas of Sukkot, which had already been politicized by its use in the festival of independence, the first Hanukkah. The use of this liturgical formula to welcome Jesus was clearly purposeful. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem was followed by his cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:14-16). This was plainly a scenario in emulation of the Maccabean liberation, calculated to stir Messianic hopes. When the crowd called “hosanna” and waved palm fronds, they knew full well what they were doing.
In the hosanna acclamation, we find an expression of the complex emotions of the pilgrims accompanying Jesus and of his disciples: joyful praise of God at the moment of the processional entry, hope that the hour of the Messiah had arrived, and at the same time a prayer that the Davidic kingship and hence God’s kingship over Israel would be reestablished (“Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week,” pp. 8-10).
“Hosanna” as an urgent plea to help and save is universally valid. It is perennially appropriate to the human situation. It is a one-word prayer with potential political impact to unsettle oppressors everywhere, now as in ancient days, and should thus be translated and understood.
The prophet from Nazareth
In the beginning when people had heard of the prophet from Nazareth, he did not appear to have any importance for Jerusalem, and the local inhabitants did not know him. The crowd that paid homage to Jesus at the gateway to the city was not the same crowd that later demanded his crucifixion. In this two-stage account of the failure to recognize Jesus – through a combination of indifference and fear – Benedict XVI says that we see something of the city’s tragedy of which Jesus spoke a number of times, most poignantly in his eschatological discourse.
Unique emphases of Matthew’s Passion
For Matthew, the ultimate turning point in Jesus’ history was his death and resurrection. At the very instant of Jesus’ death, a death suffered in fidelity to his mission, new life breaks out: the earth quakes, the rocks are split, the tombs are opened, and the saints of old are raised from their tombs to march triumphantly into God’s city (Matthew 27:51-52). In writing these words, Matthew evokes the great vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. God breathes spirit into the bones, and they rise from the dead to become a new people. Matthew believed that out of the death of Jesus came new life for the world; out of the seeming death of the Jewish Christian mission to Israel, the early community rose to envelop the Mediterranean world and to forge a new people from Jew and Gentile. Death-resurrection was not only the pattern for Jesus’ destiny but would also be the pattern for the destiny of the community itself within history.
What does Matthew’s passion say to us today? I am convinced that it offers us distinct biblical lenses through which we can look upon this current moment of the history of the Church and the world. We receive our marching orders and pastoral plan for mission, not only from the Church but also from the world in which we live. The tremendous biblical drama found in Matthew’s passion teaches us that what we often consider to be “secular events,” even those that are destructive, damaging, and even terrorizing and blinding, move us forward into God’s future for us, and set the stage for God to reveal himself to us.
Greeting the Lord in the Eucharist
I conclude with Benedict XVI’s words on this Palm Sunday’s Gospel scene:
The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us toward his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; as a pilgrim, he comes to us and takes us up with him in his “ascent” to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body. (Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week, p. 11).
[The readings for Palm Sunday are: Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; and Matthew 26:14-27:66.]