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Lift Up Your Heads

Palm Sunday

Liturgy of the Palms
Ps. 118:1-2, 19-29
Matt. 21:1-11

Liturgy of the Word
Isa. 50:4-9a
Ps. 31:9-16
Phil. 2:5-11
Matt. 26:14-27:66
or Matt. 27:11-54

V. Respicite et levate capita vestra.
R. Quoniam appropinquat redemptio vestra

This occasion presents an extraordinary challenge to the preacher. The normal momentary silence before the beginning of the sermon should, perhaps, be extended just a bit, not as a false gesture of profundity but as a momentary rest from the tidal wave of emotion stirred by the reading of the Passion. As with all suffering, and consummately so in the case of the Messiah’s death, explanations and objective analysis should be avoided at all cost. We are in the thick of a horrible and horribly beautiful story.

At first the day begins with what feels like a happy scene. Parishioners take to the streets with their blessed palms, welcoming Jesus as he comes into the city. Even then, however, we see a “city in turmoil” (Matt. 21:10). And we hear the crowd saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matt. 21:11). This is an affront to power, foreshadowing everything to follow.

The betrayal of Jesus is universal. “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (John 1:10). Judas, however, is the narrative focus of how deeply personal betrayal is. We can only betray from the inside; we must be counted a friend. At supper, Judas dips his hand into the common cup and touches Jesus. He steps forth in the darkness, calls Jesus “Rabbi,” and then kisses him. “Then all the disciples deserted Jesus and fled” (Matt. 26:56). Peter denied him three times, as Jesus foretold. The backdrop, the scenery and people, seem to fall away as Jesus stands more and more in his absolute loneliness and his searing silence. “He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Phil. 2:6-7).

His humanity trembles at all that unfolds. “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). He “threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want’” (Matt. 26:39). Thus the king of glory goes to Golgotha’s tree. He dies, but not merely as we die. He takes death as a curse, as abuse, as ridicule, as total rejection — and in the midst of it all he brings his consuming love.

What happened? They arrested him and took him; they spat on him and struck him and slapped him. They bound him. They flogged him and stripped him, adorned him in purple ridicule, crowned him with thorns, mocked him. The crucifixion is hardly mentioned: “And when the soldier had crucified Jesus, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots” (Matt. 27:35). And then, with a few words, the story unveils the depth of human depravity. “The soldiers sat down there and kept watch over him” (Matt. 27:36). They watched. And they enjoyed it.

Our story is about Jesus. Around Jesus we see disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, scribes and elders, soldiers and the crowd. We are these people. We have each turned away, and in many ways, from the Lord of all Love. And yet he comes to us; he is going to Galilee.

Suggesting Easter, but not saying it, I recommend this. Take his body from the cross. Wrap him with all your affection. Place him in the new tomb of your own body. Now wait.

Look It Up
Read Isa. 50:4-9a. An unsolved riddle until, in the fullness of time, Jesus.

Think About It
It will not hurt you to admit that however faithful you try to be, you have turned away from the Lord of Glory. Admitting this, you see only his grace and love.


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