Palm Sunday; Apr. 9, 2017
Matthew 26:14 – 27:66
Recalling how the Jewish people laid palms before Jesus as He entered Jerusalem, we too carry palms in recognition that Jesus is our Lord and King. This practice began in Jerusalem, where the early Christians re-enacted Christ's entry into their city on the Sunday before Easter each year. The solemn event eventually spread throughout the Church in the form of a procession. In Rome, the Pope would celebrate a Mass outside the walls of Rome during which he blessed palms. A procession would lead back into the city and end in a second Mass in St. Peter's or at the Lateran. The first Mass was eventually dropped, leaving a solemn blessing and procession. To this day, however, the rite of blessing follows the structure of the Mass up to the Eucharistic Prayer. While many of the rites and ceremonies of Palm Sunday have been simplified or dropped, it is still clear that this day holds a special place in the Church's calendar. But why is this?
Most immediately, the feast is important simply because of the event it commemorates: Christ's entry into Jerusalem. At the time, Jesus' journey to Jerusalem—and its accompanying miracles—had developed a great crowd which followed Him to the city, and excitement spread like wildfire all around Him. People were clearly speaking of Him in messianic terms already. Even the blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jerusalem called out to Jesus as the son of David. By the time He entered the city upon a donkey, the Jews were joyfully welcoming Him as the Son of David and he who comes in the name of the Lord. As the Gospels so consistently point out, Jesus' actions were bringing to fulfillment the many prophecies regarding the Messiah. There was an energy and a tension within the packed city walls that everybody was caught up in, regardless of which side they stood on. Many expected the revelation of God's power, the salvation of the Jewish people from the Roman government by force or by Divine intervention—and these welcomed Jesus with the welcome of a king.
Yet we know how Christ was to bring His kingdom about—we know that the triumphant entry into Jerusalem led to the hill of Calvary. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the most important week in history—it is the starting point of the culmination of God's plan of salvation. In this week, we Christians strive to put ourselves into the last events of Christ's mission, celebrating them not just in the signs of the Mass (which certainly carry the reality they refer to), but in a more direct way: as they actually happened in time, in all of their detail. This is why we read the entire Passion narrative on Palm Sunday. Rather than focusing on some aspect of Christ's Passion, we are asked this week to enter into the entirety of it, to reflect on each event within the context of Jesus' celebration of the Passover, agony, trial, torture, and death.
In effect, Palm Sunday is for us the doorway into Holy Week. It is the crest of a mountain, at which, wearied from the journey of Lent, we stop and examine the landscape below. At this crest, we see, as it were, a bird's-eye view of what lies ahead. We gain an awareness of where the path leads—we see the contours of the valley and onward to the next mountain. Then Holy Week begins, and we are plunged into the darkness of the valley—the twists and turns of the path. The end of the journey is hidden from our sight, and we are forced only to focus on the path directly in front of us, the difficulty of the climb. All images of the joy awaiting us are darkened. As far as we can, we try to unite ourselves to Christ in His time of agony—feeling the weight of God's absence, feeling the darkness of sin. Even so, we know that at the end of this path lies our goal—the mountain from which we are to enter the land of fulfillment—and the memory of this goal carries us onward through the Passion, through the silence of Holy Saturday, and into the greatest joy of the Church: the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morn. This Palm Sunday, as we gather to recall and re-enact the events of Holy Week, let us prepare ourselves to enter into the events of the Passion worthily and in a spirit of prayer. May this Holy Week unite us ever more closely to the One Who laid down His life for us: our Beloved, Jesus Christ.