holy cross sermon for palm sunday, year c, march 24, 2013

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s liturgy is unique in the Christian year. It begins with the liturgy of the palms, wherein we listen to the narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on the foal of a donkey, and wherein we reenact it – and not merely reenact it like actors on a stage, but by this reenactment we also PARTICIPATE in these mysteries, by means of the liturgy that Jesus himself has given us for this purpose.

Speaking of Jesus’ ascent to Jerusalem, Pope-emeritus Benedict, reminds us that the whole purpose of Jesus’ “going-up” to Jerusalem, and his entrance into the city, is so that he can be crucified. Likewise, by the somewhat jarring juxtaposition of the two Gospel readings we have heard today – the first recounting his entrance into the city, and the second recounting his passion and death – the Church confronts us with the necessary link between the mystery of Palm Sunday and that of Good Friday:

The ultimate goal of Jesus’ “ascent” is his self-offering on the Cross, which supplants the old sacrifices; it is the ascent that the Letter to the Hebrews describes as going up, not to a sanctuary made by human hands, but to heaven itself, into the presence of God (9:24). This ascent into God’s presence leads via the Cross – it is the ascent toward “loving to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1), which is the real mountain of God. (Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth vol. 2)

Recall that Jesus had said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “the hour is coming, and now is, when [neither on this mountain, nor on Mount Zion will you worship the Father, but] the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him,” (John 4.21, 23). A part of the mystery of Palm Sunday is the revelation of Jesus as the true pilgrim-worshipper of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the one who goes up to Jerusalem to worship the this God, by presenting himself to God as an acceptable sacrifice, “a lamb without blemish or spot,” (1 Peter 1.19) on the altar of the cross. The hour is coming, and now is.

The mystery of Palm Sunday is thus a fitting entrance into Holy Week, because here Jesus is shown to be the victorious King who triumphs by means of his radical humility – the “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain,” (Rev. 5.6) with whom and in whom, all creation is summoned to the rightful worship of the Most High, to give God thanks and praise.

At the Liturgy of the Palms, we heard from the Gospel of St. Luke:

When [Jesus] drew near to Beth’phage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here. If any one asks you, `Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, `The Lord has need of it.'” So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them. (Luke 19.29-32)

Encouraged by the Gospels themselves, we see in this passage the fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah, where it says:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9.9)

“Triumphant and victorious is he,” yet “humble.” This too is a strange juxtaposition. Victory and humility seldom go together in our world, and the Gospel’s simultaneous application of them here to Jesus already points toward his cross, where our Savior will triumph victoriously, precisely by means of his radical humility.

Our Lord’s contemporaries, who were witnesses of these things, who were familiar with the Torah and the Prophets, would have seen these actions of Jesus as prophetic, and would have understood their symbolism. For those with eyes to see, Jesus is, precisely by these actions, claiming to be a king. And not just any king, but THE King foretold by Scripture – “he who is to come” (Luke 7.19).

And Pope Benedict draws our attention to Jesus’ fulfillment on Palm Sunday of an even more ancient prophecy than the one from Zechariah. In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob, as he was dying, prophesied over each of his 12 sons, for whom the twelve tribes of Israel would take their names. Over his son Judah, Jacob said:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his ass’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes…” (Genesis 49.10-11)

Those witnesses who knew the scriptures would have understood these actions of Jesus, this gesture toward a tied-up colt, which Jesus requisitions like a king, and on which he rides into the royal city – they would have understood the significance of these actions, as though Jesus were saying, “I am sovereign Judah; I am the King of Jerusalem; I am the King of Peace, to whom is due the obedience of all peoples.”

Again, Benedict says that 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… 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, but in retrospect those things that could be indicated only from afar, hidden in the prophetic vision, are revealed.

But the question remains: what does this mean for us? Firstly: today Jesus is revealed as our rightful King. Together with the crowds, we have waved our palms and greeted him: blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord; Hosanna to the Son of David! And if he is indeed our King, then we must do what he says – but always remembering that the obedience that he elicits from us is not a servility, but the obedience of love (cf. John 14.15). As we obey our king, we become agents of his victory in the midst of a world that has yet to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. And we do this as we allow the mysteries of Holy Week to blossom and to bear fruit in our lives – as agents of Jesus, as ambassadors and heralds of his Kingdom. We can show the world, yet under the dominion of sin and death, that there is another path, the one that Jesus has revealed, and which he himself IS. We show this through our fidelity to our King, which entails a conspicuous commitment to his priorities, to peace, simplicity, and poverty.

As we enter this Holy Week, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, as we prepare with a joyful penitence for the Paschal feast, just one week away, let us ask Jesus to come anew into our hearts, to remake us in his likeness, and to use us as agents of the Kingdom he inaugurates today.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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