Spirituality of the Readings

The Man Who Would Be King

We have arrived at a special liturgy this Sunday, known as “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” If you were tempted to think of it as just another Mass but with a few additions, think again. Passion Sunday is a very deep vision of the heart and soul of Christianity.

The Procession with Palms precedes the Mass. In it we hear the First Gospel reading, and it states the premise: Jesus is kingly, making a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. He chooses a donkey to ride on, carrying out the words of Zechariah 6: “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” The sign of a king was humility, and therefore in Israel the customary mount for a king in procession was a donkey.

People cheer wildly and “the whole city [is] stirred to its depths.” They cover his pathway with palm branches and even spread out their own coats upon it. He must not be sullied by the common roadway. He is their man. He is their king!

Then Mass begins. The First Reading is a passage from Isaiah, called the “Third Song of the Suffering Servant,” one that Jesus knew well. “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue,” it says, “that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them” This he did, and was applauded for it.

So far, so good. But then the same reading gets interesting. It says, “I have not rebelled, have not turned away. I gave my back to those who beat me. … ” 

Jesus allowed even his own body to receive brutal scourging. Like the Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, Jesus “set his face like flint” toward the humiliation that was to come (see also Luke 9:51-55).

So the kingship of Jesus was to mean suffering and humiliation, not just publicity and grandeur.

The Second Reading has the words to a Christian hymn quoted by Paul, bringing out the same contrast. On the one hand Jesus had every right to be known as the very greatest human being ever born. In the desert temptations, Satan had tempted him to think this way. But on the other hand he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” He “humbled himself and became obedient unto death.” Is this what it means to be a true king?

The next verse of this ancient hymn says that God did exalt Jesus, but only because Jesus emptied himself out. God did not take away the passion or relieve him of the cup he was to drink. God showed that the greatness of kingship consists of love that is willing to pour itself out for others. Kings, queens or leaders must work for the actual good of actual people no matter what the cost. Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is about this contrast: kingship of splendor/fame versus kingship of service to others. The two Gospel readings present this vision.

All this is brought to a head in the second Gospel story, telling of Jesus’ passion and death. What better way to show us what God’s kingship is really about. At last, Jesus was doing the thing he had preached about, giving himself for others. Now he was showing true kingship!

Are you ready for Holy Week?

John Foley, SJ

Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson