Palm Sunday: 4-9-17
Peace be with You,
Last weekend, as we celebrated the Fifth Sunday of Lent we were given a glimpse into the philanthropic heart of Love, giving us deeper insight into the motivation of the Incarnation of the Son of God. There we saw the Son of God, yes God himself, moved to tears at the loss of human life and the misery it brings to the living (cf. John 11:32-35). These tears became our looking glass into Life itself; the Life which at the beginning of time called all things into existence from nothing (cf. Gen. 1:1-27); revealing to us the generosity of Love; a Love which in the beginning lacked nothing and yet deigned to share existence out of sheer goodness. Out of sheer Love for Life the Father called all into being through the Word (cf. John 1:3); at once forging an everlasting bond between Creator and creation which not even the self-assertion of creation over Creator could thwart; for though the mind of the creature would turn away from the Love which sustained its existence, Love could not forget. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…” (Is. 49:15-16). Today, the very hands which molded the universe and fashioned each one of us as a unique object of his love stretches out the arms which sustain all in existence and fastens them open so that we might see that he has set us as a seal upon his heart (Song of Songs 8:6) making his passion for us fierce as the grave and hotter than a raging flame which not even the waters of all the earth could quench (ibid., 8:6-7).
Perhaps unlike any other Sunday of the liturgical year Palm Sunday provides us with a microcosmic experience of the whole of our lives. We can see this more clearly if we take note of the dynamic encounter with the Word of God afforded to us by the liturgy itself. We begin our celebration with a reading of the gospel story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Before moving forward it is worth noting that immediately previous to this scene, Matthew places the healing of two blind men by Jesus (20:29:34). What might Matthew be trying to tell us? What would he have been trying to tell a reader of the first or second century AD? It is with this story that he sets the stage for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the entire scene meant to evoke the prophecy of Zechariah, who in the 6th century BC proclaimed “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9). Matthew seems to be trying to tell us two things. First, this indeed is the savior king foretold by the prophet Zechariah; in fact, Matthew is so set on helping us to see that this prophecy is being fulfilled with this scene from the life of Jesus that he follows a faulty translation from the original Hebrew into the Greek which had replaced one donkey with two, and thus, Matthew, wishing to show just how Jesus fulfills the plan of God down to the letter depicts Jesus riding on two animals simultaneously (quite a feat!). Second, Matthew knows that this scene, however obviously regal it would have seemed to a Jew in the 6th century BC (or us today) will no longer evoke royalty in a day when emperors rode on chariots surrounded by military guard (or for us who are used to seeing world leaders appear from the inside of a billion dollar jet). Matthew here is echoing the first words spoken by Christ between the lines: “metanoeite!” i.e. change your way of thinking, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (cf. Matt. 3:2 & 4:17). In short, by prefacing this story with the healing of two blind men by Christ, Matthew is begging us to see what the mind’s eye cannot as we make the scene present to our imagination; he is begging us to see that this humble man is in fact all that we desire, the fulfillment of our deepest hopes that we dare not even speak aloud, this man is God with us, Emmanuelle, and he has come to free us from all that holds us back from the happiness for which we were created! BUT we will not see it, it will pass us right by in an instant if we do not see him with the eyes of faith, not by the sight of the body (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7).
Do not think for a moment that this may have been necessary for the people of the first and second centuries AD and no longer necessary for you and I. Do not say to yourselves “well, they needed to prove that Jesus was really the Messiah, but I believe in him, I go to church on Sunday, Matthew doesn’t need to convince me.” But you see he does! How many of us don’t walk into the church on Sunday feeling accomplished just for being there, just for showing up. We may even feel especially refreshed because the reading have moved us or the sermon has invigorated us and if we are really lucky, something deep inside was touched just for an instant in receiving the Eucharist. Yes, for a moment all may be changed; the night becomes as day and our lungs are filled with the breath of new life…and then we get to the car and we all know it’s downhill from there. In the blink of an eye you have gone from your best possible self to some vague knockoff who is annoyed with and embroiled in the messiness of life. For Matthew, this is absolutely unacceptable; how could we be so blind! Those feelings that you couldn’t describe a moment ago that made you think that you could really make a difference and that you had the ability to change not only you but those around you, like you would walk out those doors and set the world ablaze just by walking in it; that’s how Matthew thinks living a life with Christ should be! And he wants you to live in that eternal moment of unity with Christ! Why!? Because he knows what happens when we don’t and he is about to show us in painful detail.
By the very fact that you hear these words spoken to you, you are one of the twelve; called by the Son of God to come and follow him (cf. Matt. 4:19), to see and hear what many righteous people longed to hear and see and didn’t (cf. Matt. 13:17); you have been blessed with the opportunity to encounter Christ; but what comes next is entirely up to you. “Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him to you?’” (Matt. 26:14-15). At this point you should be outraged; yes, that’s right, I have insinuated that maybe, just maybe, there is something of this character inside of you and I, but isn’t there? Ask yourself for a moment, why did Judas do this? He had immediate access to Jesus and he was willing to throw it all away, for what, thirty pieces of silver?!? WHY!? Sadly, Judas had an idea of who Jesus should be that is not that unfamiliar to many of us today. Jesus is the Son of God, right? Can do all things, right? That must mean that if I’m in good with him that things will go my way, right? That I should be a great success, have a beautiful and peaceful family and have monetary security and social mobility…right?! This is the kind of message televangelists specialize in, it’s something akin to what we might call the Gospel of prosperity, and it is a farce. Is it attractive? Absolutely, Judas bought it hook, line and sinker. You see this is exactly what he wanted from Jesus, he expected Jesus to fulfill all the prophecies he had heard growing up about who the messiah was and what he would accomplish: gather the tribes of Israel, establish a new Kingdom and definitively conquer all of Israel’s enemies and when this wasn’t shaping up, he thought he might give Jesus just a little encouragement, just a little nudge to do what he needed to do. Now ask yourself, how do I pray? Do I pray for the things mentioned above, or do I pray the prayer of Jesus in the garden, ‘Father, not my will, but yours be done’ (Matt. 26:42; cf. Matt. 6:10)? The type of life characterized by the former type of prayer leads down the path of Judas, a place of disenchantment, regret, self-loathing and hopelessness, for no matter what the existential outcome, you will have abandoned the Truth, a choice which always leads to death (cf. Matt. 27:5).
“Peter declared to him, ‘Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…even if I must die with you, I will not deny you’” (Matt. 26:33 & 35). A sentiment any follower of Jesus feels now and again; a good and normal feeling when confronted with the very face of Love and Life itself, and yet how quickly this fades, how quickly we look away and fall asleep, bewitched by dreams of quick and easy success (cf. Matt. 26:40). Yes, our spirits are willing but our flesh is weak (cf. Matt. 26:41) and the moment we are confronted by the world and the time comes for us to profess the faith we know to be true we play the fool. ‘Jesus was nice, how did you become so judgmental, don’t I have the right to be happy, to live life the way I see fit?’ How often don’t we hear these words and others like them, and just as often crumple up and say, ‘well you must have misunderstood, yes, I follow Jesus but not like in a weird way that holds to the idea of absolute truth or something like that.’ You see this is exactly the position Peter found himself in, the card-carrying leader of the Apostles and the Rock upon which Jesus would build his Church, he was so excited to know the Savior and so convinced he had what it took to be a true follower, an individual worthy of adoption as a son of God (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). Yet, when confronted by the world he denied Him in whom his own true identity had been found. Jesus had called him the Rock, and given him his own unique calling (cf. Matt. 16:18-19), his own unique mission wherein he would find his truest identity, his truest self, and in an instant all of that was put at stake; and so it is with all of us, for we cannot deny Christ without one and the same time denying our very selves (cf. Matt. 26:69-75).
My friends, today we take a hard look in the mirror. Called together to celebrate our Savior and King, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Church holds before us our means to Life to the very fullest (cf. John 10:10). But this is not a magic show; grace is not cheap, it has been bought with a great price (1 Cor. 6:20 & 7:23). That price was the very life of the Son of God made flesh, Jesus Christ, who out of love for you and I gave the fullest measure of devotion, stretching himself out on a tree for all the world to see that in order to find life we must first lose it (cf. Matt. 16:25). And yet, the only way this works is if we lose it in the right place. You see our God does not wish us to be self-denying for its own sake, for what good would that do us? Instead, he wishes us to deny ourselves in the sense that we give ourselves completely to him because it is precisely through him, with him and in him that we find the fullness of life. In his humiliating death on the cross, the Son of God become the Son of Man emphatically cries out to us that to be fully human means to resign oneself to Love itself, the will of God; for it is only by humbling ourselves that God enables us to avail ourselves of the priceless grace earned for us with the precious blood of Christ and so enter into the dynamic Life of Love. It is for this that Love has called you into existence, and today, true Love looks down from the cross to you, his Beloved, and with arms wide open says, “I love you this much! And the only thing that can keep you out of these arms is you because I will not force you to love me in return. I never have, and I never will, I come only that you might have the chance.” The next move is yours; may God grant you the grace to look lovingly into the eyes of Love and affix your attention there all the days of your life; for only in his eyes will you find the reflection of your true self, beloved of Love Itself.
Your servant in Christ,