Palm Sunday -A, 2011

Isaiah 50:4-7;  Philippians 2:6-11;  Matthew 26:14-27:66

(Note: everything in italic was omitted in actual homily)  What’s in a name?  A rose by any other name is still a rose.  True, on one level.  But words mean something.  They are not just haphazardly assigned.  They point to the inner core of the thing or the person named.   Take our celebration today.  We began in the cool of the early morning light at St Clare’s, meeting Jesus outside the city and bringing him to our own Jerusalem, this beautiful church, amid great pomp and celebration.

Hosanna!  Filio David.  Hosanna!  Filio David.

Then, all of a sudden, the mood changed.  Our Hosannas became muted by Jesus’ lament:  My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

We heard how the Lord’s servant gave his back to those who beat him and his cheeks to those who plucked his beard.  We saw the soldiers spit upon the sacred face of Jesus and crown him with a wreath of thorny branches.  And we have just secured the tomb, sealed it and set a guard.

My brothers and sisters, this is not the way our joyful procession and waving of palm branches was supposed to have ended.  The Son of David is our king.  Victory is what we want.  “Arise, O God, and let your enemies be scattered.  Let those who hate you flee before you.”  What kind of a king is this we have gotten instead?  Nothing but a dead human being.  No, no, no, we cry.  This is Palm Sunday, a day to rejoice, to shout and wave our palms in celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entry into the Holy City.

But somewhere along the line our worship aids have missed a significant change.  Today is no longer officially Palm Sunday, but Passion Sunday.  Old habits, like old names, die slowly.  But if we begin to call this entry Sunday to the Great Week by its new name, if we acknowledge that names do mean something and point to realities beyond themselves, then perhaps we will be able to understand better where the focus of today’s celebration belongs.

Each of the four main celebrations of Holy Week point to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus‘ passion, death and resurrection, under different aspects.  And I have been accustomed these past two years to follow one word or one theme through each of these four celebrations and try in this way to show the unity and continuity between them.  There can be something arbitrary about this, but it can also help us to see the richness of the Paschal Mystery for our lives.  In 2009 we took the Marian antiphon we sing at Vespers throughout Lent with its image of the wounds of Christ being the well-spring of salvation.  Last year we took the Greek word, paradidomi, “hand over”, and asked at each feast: who hands over, what is handed over and to whom is it handed over.

The preacher’s words are cheap after the powerful and poignant readings we have been given.

Let me just reflect on them with you through the lens of a question:  What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in the context of these readings?  How are we called to follow Jesus through the journey we begin today and through the Great Week?

What has struck me so powerfully is Jesus’ willingness to suffer.  Isaiah proclaims of the Lord’s servant: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back.  I gave my back to those who beat me.”  And then St Paul’s mighty proclamation: “Jesus humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  And both of these Scriptures find fulfillment in the Passion narrative we have just heard.

Being a disciple of Jesus is somehow going to mean following him in this way of suffering — becoming “obedient” in the words of Scripture.  But what is this obedience all about?  Why do we even call Jesus’ total gift of himself obedience?  Who was Jesus obeying?  What concrete command was given that he obeyed?

None that I have ever been able to discern.  For example, to me it is very suspect theology to say, as we often do, that the Father willed all the pain and suffering Jesus endured.  What then?

For me, the mystery of Jesus‘ obedience is the mystery of life itself.

“Unless the grain of wheat fall into the earth and die….”  This is what Jesus was obeying: there is no life without death; there is no fulfillment in seeking one’s own happiness apart from others.  We are not islands, but belong to and with others.  Whether that is a monastic community, a marriage and family community, or society as a whole.

And this is the great rule of life that Jesus has come to teach us, by word and most of all by example: that those who seek their life will lose it and those who lose their life will find it.  Or in the words quoted by St Paul: “It is better to give than to receive.”

This is the paradox in which we all are caught up.  We live by dying.  We gain by losing.  We become great by being the least of all.  We reign by serving.

Following Jesus then means giving ourselves for others, becoming obedient to life itself.  Not everyone sees life this way.  Omar Gadhafi certainly doesn’t.  Nor do so many others.  But we have to realize that this is not just a Christian “interpretation” of life, something we have thought up or that Jesus has conceived.  It is the very rule of life itself as lived on this earth.  Jesus was obedient to it and if we wish to follow him, to be his disciples, than that is how we are called to live as well.

In that context, and only in that context, we can say Jesus was obeying the will of God, the command of the Father.  We, too, are asked to do the same, to seek the will of the Father in all.  What we are ultimately seeking, together and individually, is this will.  We all have a part to play in this discovery.  There is no simple answer to our lives.  The Trappist brothers at Thiberine did not choose death; they did not choose to be martyrs.  But after much prayer they discerned what life was asking of them: to stand with the poor, with the defenseless, with the vulnerable, with their neighbors who were as afraid of the terrorists as they were.  So too, ourselves.  If we follow the true law of life as Jesus did — dying to live, losing to gain — together we will come to that beautiful place where we give deference to one another, give way to one another, not as doormats, but as co-workers and co-worshippers in what St Benedict called the school of the Lord’s service.

If we do this, my brothers and sisters, than this year’s celebration of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery will be grace and blessing for us.  For he emptied himself for our sake, that we in turn might learn from his example to do so for one another.

Who is ready for this?  We are so poor in ourselves.  And so, my brothers and sisters, we gather around the altar to partake of Jesus’ total gift of himself – the very emptying of which we have been speaking, his kenosis, and his Paschal gift.  We eat his body and drink his blood and in the strength of that food we find the victory we celebrated in our procession.  We can wave our palms high in gladness because we have learned through the Passion that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive.  May we know this in our lives.