Spirituality of the Readings
“Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion” has two main sections, which present a jarring contrast. Often we do not notice this, because the first is so short. Let us look.
(1) Jesus as King:
First the presider blesses the palms, and then processes with them into church. Many of us have thought of this important moment simply an addition to the regular mass. But it is much more.
First, an extra Gospel is read during this time. It depicts Jesus as a King. He rides an animal that was always used for the entrance of royalty into a city: a colt, or as translations often have it, “a donkey.” The disciples spread cloaks on the animal’s back, while crowds along the way lay their cloaks onto the roadway. They strew palm branches out in order to soften the kingly person’s way.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”!
Jesus is being portrayed as the true king of our lives! Priest and ministers process into the church and to the altar, which can be seen as a commemoration of Christ’s entrance to Jerusalem.
(2) Jesus as Slave:
Now the Mass begins. For its Gospel we hear the Passion Reading according to Mark. We feel the jarring contrast. Soldiers are ridiculing the so-called king, shouting in their rough voices the equivalent of “You fool, you think you are the King of the Jews”! They are not praising him, as the people had along the way, but ridiculing this poor, outlandish captive. They jam a mocking crown on his head. “King, are you”? They wrap a fake purple robe around his wounds—the color usually reserved for rulers. They cackle like clowns and they spit on him.
What a kingdom this had turned out to be! Why would the King of Kings allow such degradation to take place?
Look to the First Reading.
I did not refuse, did not turn away.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who tore out my beard.
My face I did not hide from insults and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
These words, written centuries before the New Testament, seem to depict a passive surrender. Would this have been appropriate for a king? You or I would have shouted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? The Responsorial Psalm says exactly these words. Jesus will say them from the cross.
Are they words of a king?
Look to the Second Reading. It gives a deep reflection on this question. It is the famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2. Jesus did not regard being equal to God as something to cling to—for safety or for honor or for whatever other reason. God would exalt him later. He would give himself for the sake of others, no matter what it cost. He was to become like a slave, obedient even to death on the cross.
This is a complete opposite of kingliness as we think of it. For our televised, pleasure seeking world, it is like a mockery of kingship.
But would we rather have had a self-centered ruler, one who looked out for himself only, while claiming to do everything for the people? We can understand self-interest, but we hope against hope for someone who will take our side, no matter what it costs.
Jesus is that true leader. He lets go of everything in allegiance to God and in service of the people.
Let us be silent.
John Foley, SJ
**From Saint Louis University