By Father James Rodriguez
One of the options for the beginning of today’s liturgy involves the reading of a Gospel passage from which we get today’s tradition of waving palm branches. We sing “Hosanna” as the crowds did, not only welcoming Jesus, but also recognizing Him as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The Gospel that is read later, at the usual time, offers us a stark contrast. Like the chanting crowd, we turn away from Him, forgetting the marvels He has worked in our lives, and insist on trying to live without Him. As a whole, today’s readings serve not only as a challenge to this way of thinking that is endemic to our fallen nature, but also an encouragement to persevere and trust in the Lord who came to Earth knowing He would be betrayed. His love was and is greater than our sinfulness. This Palm Sunday is yet another opportunity to renew our relationship with Him.
The first reading returns us to the familiar voice of Isaiah as the “suffering servant” of the Lord. This section of his prophecy points to an aspect of the Messiah we would rather not face. We seek a liberator, as so many of the ancient Jews did, or a comforting teacher. While Jesus is certainly both of these, He is also something more, something vastly different from the conventional expectation.
In bearing our sins upon Himself, Jesus expresses God’s own willingness to suffer out of love for us. He carries the full weight of our sins, baring His back to the whips in the hands of His torturers and the hearts of sinners through all time – your sins and mine.
The Suffering Servant embraces this as the cost of love, placing complete trust in God, who never abandons His children.
Today’s psalm seems to contradict this trust and is often misinterpreted when Jesus prays it from the Cross. It is what is known as a Todah psalm, offered by ancient Jews in thanksgiving to God for mercies received. The cry of dereliction – “Why have you abandoned me?” – is a sentiment that we might be tempted to hold onto in moments of pain and suffering, making this line of Scripture yet another point where we can relate to Jesus and He to us.
However, we must not stop there, for we would then forget its context. This psalm ends in the absolute triumph of God and the vindication of the One who cries out to Him, realizing we are never abandoned at all. In moments of fear and darkness, we would do well to pray this psalm in its entirety, and thus relate even more to the Crucified One.
St. Paul, looking to this pivotal moment of history – Christ’s crucifixion – speaks of the humility with which the Lord suffered. He “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped,” but rather, as God, acted out of an all-encompassing love that far surpassed the animal sacrifices people had used up until then to express gratitude and contrition.
As the true Lamb of God, Jesus hands Himself over, and it is precisely this action that orients all of His miracles, His teaching, and the countless disciples throughout the ages who have found their freedom in Him.
As on Good Friday, the reading of the Passion is interactive. We are each given a part to play, recognizing that we are not mere spectators in the drama of our salvation. As a man configured to Christ by my priestly ordination, I read the part of Jesus. The parts of narrator, speaker, and choir are divided accordingly. All of us together engage in commemorating the single greatest moment in our history as a human family: the moment in which God Himself, having become man, gave His life on the Cross. The yearly retelling of this story solidifies our connection to it, and an honest reading yields a healthy dose of appropriate guilt.
As the word “betrayal” echoes throughout the opening verses, it may awaken in us sadness and remorse, but not before the Lord compassionately reminds us through His arguing disciples that “the kings of the Gentiles lord it over them … but among you it shall not be so.”
He challenges us to true humility, which conquers the hidden pride in thinking that our sin is too great for Him to forgive. He calls us to recognize His supremacy, which is most evident in His supreme act of love.
On this Palm Sunday, as we wave our palm and praise the Son of David, let us welcome Him into the contradictions of our divided hearts, begging Him to heal us and reconcile us with the Father, so that next Sunday we might truly and joyfully celebrate not only His resurrection, but ours as well.
Readings for Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50: 4-7
Psalm 22: 8-9, 17-20, 23-24
Philippians 2: 6-11
Luke 22: 14-23:56
Father Rodriguez is the parochial vicar at St. Teresa, Woodside.