Palm Sunday – A

Readings: Is 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 27:11-54

HOSANNA TO THE KING OF KINGS!

After five and a half weeks of preparation, we now enter into the climax of the Lenten season viz. Holy Week, the chief week of the Liturgical Year. Today is the first day of holy Week and it is called “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” In a way, the whole week from today until Easter Sunday should be seen as one unit – viz. the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, which is the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we are in Liturgical Year A, our Gospel Readings of today are taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

Everyone responds to tragedy differently. Some give up, some curse God, and some amaze us with their resilience. Not everyone is tested. But for those who are, the following people are models on how to turn disaster into success.

  • After almost giving up on getting pregnant, Shelly Schupbach and her husband, Todd, were blessed with a smiling baby boy, Nash. Their lives were filled with the joy of baby firsts. Then on June 19, 2014, Shelly dropped off her precious five-month-old son at the babysitter’s while she went to work. That was the last time she saw him alive.Todd and Shelly received phone calls at work telling them that Nash had stopped breathing in his sleep. At the hospital, the nurses gave CPR until Shelly was willing to let go. “As a mother, you just want to hold him, and rock him, and tell him it’s going to be okay,” said Shelly. “It was the hardest day of my life.”Later, the death certificate delivered another crushing blow. The cause of death was positional asphyxia. As Shelly wrote on her blog: “My worst nightmare confirmed. He suffered. It was preventable. I dropped him off at the place that would take his life. I smiled at him, and he smiled back, and I walked away not knowing that decision would change my life forever.”But Shelly and Todd didn’t want their son’s legacy to be one of sadness. Nash was the baby with the gigantic smile who spread joy to everyone who knew him.As Nash’s six-month birthday approached on July 9, 2014, family members decided to honor him by doing random acts of kindness in his name. They agreed to do that on the ninth of every month at least until his first birthday. With each act of kindness, they would hand out a card with the baby’s picture and the words “Have a Nash day.”

    The idea took off on social media, and soon people all over the US were participating in “Have a Nash day.” Then someone in Spain posted, and the Schupbachs realized it had gone international. Now, Shelly’s excited about Nash’s birthday again because of all the people who are honoring her son.

  • One day in July 2000, Sharon Everett, a 51-year-old wife and mother from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, was returning home from the grocery store. Unknown to Sharon, pool chemicals in the shopping bags behind the driver’s seat had leaked into other products she was bringing home. As she turned into her driveway, the interior of her car exploded into flames.By the time firefighters got her out of the car, almost 60 percent of her body was covered with third-degree burns. Her ears, eyelids, lips, nose, and hair were destroyed.Sharon doesn’t remember the fire. But her husband and five adult children remember her five-month, drug-induced coma and how emotionally overwhelming it was to take care of her when she finally came home seven months later.Through it all, Sharon remained strong and uncomplaining. She had the loving support of her family and her community. But still, as her daughter, Katie, explained, “You feel so helpless, like you’re the only ones who’ve ever been through this traumatic injury.”Katie learned of the Phoenix Society, a support organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan for burn patients. She urged Sharon and the rest of the family to go to the society’s 2001 World Burn Congress. There, Sharon met other burn survivors who were living amazing, happy lives.

    She began to volunteer at her hospital’s burn clinic and provide sensitivity training to people who interact with burn survivors. In 2011, Sharon and her husband, George, received the harman Award for outstanding leadership in support of the Phoenix Society.

    Sharon still has her down days. But as she counsels other burn survivors, “Your life may be changed, but it’s not over. And in some ways, it’s going to be so much better than it was before.”

  • Steve James was inspired by the generosity of his daughter, Brittney. In 1998, then-16-year-old Brittney chose to sponsor a Kenyan boy, Newton, through the Christian Children’s Fund. She hoped one day to meet the young boy in person. But she never made it to Kenya. In 2001, Brittney was discovered dead in her apartment. She was only 19.To honor her memory, Steve went to Kenya to meet Newton six months later. He also gathered supplies and medical equipment to take on his trip. As a certified registered nurse anesthetist, Steve wanted to use his medical skills to help Kenyan patients.But he wasn’t prepared for the scope of the suffering he encountered. When he returned to the US, he told everyone about the problem of unmet medical needs in Kenya. Steve and his wife, Greta, founded Kenya Relief to help.“There were times when we would pass out medicine from the back of a van,” remembers Steve. “On one trip, we saw 800 patients a day, a total of 2,400 people . . . Unfortunately, we were unable to fully care for them because of limited resources.”A decade later, James and his team created Brittney’s home of Grace, a 60-acre orphanage outside of Migori, Kenya. Dozens of children are cared for there. Even adults receive medical care. Kenya Relief kept expanding with separate dormitories for boys and girls, a library, a cafeteria, and more. Steve was also determined to build a school and a hospital.

    “There’s no better place to leave a legacy than Kenya,” said Steve. It’s a sure bet that his daughter would agree.

  • There is a tale told of that great English actor Macready. An eminent preacher once said to him: “I wish you would explain to me something.” “Well, what is it? I don’t know that I can explain anything to a preacher.” “What is the reason for the difference between you and me? You are appearing before crowds night after night with fiction, and the crowds come wherever you go. I am preaching the essential and unchangeable truth, and I am not getting any crowd at all.”Macready’s answer was this: “This is quite simple. I can tell you the difference between us. I present my fiction as though it were truth; you present your truth as though it were fiction.”

A very important lesson we must learn from all these is that, as life unfolds it presents us with its different dimensions. The same people who sing our praise in good times might be the same people to castigate us in future. Today, the same people applauding Christ by singing: “Hosanna to the son of David,” might equally be the same people to shout: “Crucify him!” This is the mystery and dialectics of life. It is a mystery because at times understanding it is beyond our imagination. It is dialectical because these two aspects of life help us to understand who we truly are, and what we mean to people.

Now, today’s celebration is a lengthy one, and it is divided into two distinct parts – the Procession with Palms and the holy Mass proper.

LETS take a moment to look at the palm of one’s hands. These palms could be used for loving or for slapping people.

He continued that the very same people whom Jesus loved and who waved palms for him were the very same ones who betrayed him and who demanded his death with clenched fists.

In contrast, Jesus gives with open hands to us in the Eucharist. Jesus’ love for you and me is total and unconditional. Jesus hands are always open.

Take a moment to look at your hands. As you go through life, are your hands open or are they closed? Open your hands. Open your heart. Open your hand and your heart to God and to people.

The theme for today’s celebration is: Your attitude must be Christ’s. When we talk about attitude, we also talk about people and who they are, because attitude is inseparable from people. Just like what happened in today’s gospel. When the people saw hope that Jesus would lead them to liberation, they shouted: “Hosanna!” But when they saw that Jesus wouldn’t follow their expectations, they shouted: “Crucify him!” Attitude could not exist without the people and we could not have the knowledge of people without their attitude. Someone says that what you say and do is what you are.

Actually, there are eight types of people with their respective attitudes:

First, people are like wheelbarrows. They don’t go anywhere unless pushed. They are the people who lack initiative, dependent, and no plan for their lives. They are the easy-go-lucky people.

Second, some are like canoes. They need to be paddled. If you do not tell them what to do, they are immobile. You must be always in her/his side to remind or to monitor this person.

Third, some are like kites. You must keep a string on them or else they fly away. Just like the rat, when the cat is away, it goes its way.

Fourth, some are like kittens. They are contented when they are petted and patted. There are some people who need to be appreciated always every time they perform a work. If we cannot, they are discouraged or in other words, attention-seeker.

Fifth, others resemble footballs, no way to tell which way they will bounce next.

Sixth, some are like balloons. They are full of air and ready to blow up. They only see the mistakes in others.

Seventh, some are like neon lights. They flash on and off.

Eighth, there are those few who are like good watches open face, pure gold, quietly busy and full of good works. They are the people who work without expecting any payment or return. They just work and participate without strings attached. Just for the greater glory of God.

What are we going to do with the remaining seven types? Even though, how bad a man is, there’s still a spark of goodness found in him which if it can be fanned by the grace of God, it will become a salvation. What we are going to do is to encourage them and to correct even if they don’t listen to us. This is our human nature that we should encourage them to be better persons and not teach them to be bitter. This is the type of attitude that we should develop. Can we do this?

In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear about the ‘suffering servant of Yahweh.’ It is easy for us as Christians to identify this servant with Jesus. When he was made to suffer, despite his innocence he did not rebel or seek revenge against his enemies. He trusted that God was at his side and knew that he would “not be put to shame.” On this Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, we honor ‘the Suffering Servant’ who laid down his life for us.

The Second Reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is a Christological hymn, which is a summary of ‘the great mysteries of our redemption,’ and it rightly serves as a preview of the events of holy Week. It describes how Jesus, though Son of God, “emptied himself’” of divine glory and took the form of a man like us except in sin. Out of love and obedience, he willingly accepted his death, “even death on a cross.” Because Jesus humbled himself and did not cling to any of his special privileges as God’s Son, “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above all names.” We are called to have the same attitude of humility and obedience as Christ our Lord had.

Today’s Gospel of the Passion of Jesus Christ stands on its own. It really doesn’t need a lengthy sermon to understand it. Therefore, I am only going to make a few comments on the reading. There are four passion gospels in the bible, passion meaning suffering. This year, we will read about Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion from the perspective of St. Matthew.

Matthew does not present Jesus’ death as something that must happen so that God can forgive our sins. Instead, Jesus’ death is presented as the inevitable outcome of what can happen when truth stands up to power, when people choose personal safety over justice, when politicians misuse their power in order to advance their own agendas or when a prophetic voice challenges the conventional wisdom of the day. I am always amazed at how quickly friends and supporters “distance” themselves from those who are being attacked in order to be on the ‘winning’ team or to save their own hides.

We are seeing this practice being played out in our national political arena. But be aware, it also happens in schools and in the work place, and even on the internet, as people engage in internet bullying.

Matthew presents Jesus as the meek king who exercises his kingship by suffering evil rather than retaliating. “The way of non-violence, non-retaliation, love of enemies, is to be pursued to the end. What Jesus has taught, he lives out, at the cost of his life. Just as he practiced the prayer he taught his disciples, so also he practices non-retaliatory self-giving. The sword is a symbol not only of mob violence or self-defense, but also of government itself. Jesus represents a redefinition of kingship; the way of God’s kingdom is to absorb evil rather than inflict it, and bring the spiral of violence to an end. Even though I have read this gospel many times, it still leaves me pondering about human nature and our desperate need for salvation. Is there something or someone outside of our wounded ego that can save us from ourselves? In God alone, my soul in silence waits.

Today’s gospel brings up many questions for me, such as:

- Why do disappointments have so much power in our lives such that we are willing to break off relationships with our friends and family? Sometimes in our disappointments we alienate those who do not meet our expectations. Other times, we go even further with gossip, ridicule, or betrayal. This was certainly the case with Judas who did not approve of Jesus’ pacifism and lack of national interest. So disappointed was he with Jesus’ performance in the end that he sold him to his executioners. Does the end ever justify the means? Certainly, Judas thought so. What do you think?

- Why are we so attached to our physical lives that we hurt or deny those we love? Perhaps it has to do with our biological drive to survive. But I also think that self-centeredness has so dominated our lives that we allow fear to mess up our moral compass. Peter is a case in point. At the first sign of confrontation, he runs the other way. Courage is fear that has said its prayers.

- Finally, why are the Sadducees and the Pharisees more concerned about blasphemy than they are about the impending death of an innocent man? Sometimes, when we are zealous or so sure about our beliefs (whether they are political, personal, or religious), we often allow our viewpoint to edge out the truth. Instead of focusing on what is true, honorable, just, and pure, we limit our thinking to our personal preferences. No wonder we are still waiting for the kingdom of God to be fully realized on earth!

The passion gospel according to Matthew is similar to Mark’s gospel with a few exceptions:

1. Matthew is an interpreter of Scriptures. He wants to connect the prophetic words of the Old Testament to Jesus’ story. So he offers a theological explanation of certain events with the phrase: “This has taken place so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.”

2. Matthew is the only evangelist that mentions Judas’ suicide. Unable to come to terms with betraying his friend, Judas commits suicide in an act of desperation.

3. In Matthew, a scarlet robe (not a purple one) is placed on Jesus along with a reed in his hand. The robe and reed are symbols of kingship, but in this case, are used to mock the so-called “King of the Jews.”

4. Matthew is the only one to mention Pilate washing his hands or the dream that Pilate’s wife had. Dreams are important avenues of insight in Matthew’s gospel. They are avenues of divine revelation.

5. Matthew’s gospel describes an earthquake, a splitting of rocks, and a release of the bodies of faithful Israelites who had previously died.

6. The thief in Matthew’s passion story is not repentant and it was a Roman soldier, not a follower of Jesus, who makes the first confession of faith at the cross: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

7. Finally, in this gospel, a guard of soldiers made sure the tomb was securely sealed so that no one could steal Jesus’ body.

During the period of silence that follows the passion gospel, reflect on how you as a Christian can bring peace to the world and stop the cycle of violence.

Triumph and Tragedy

Today’s liturgy combines both a sense of triumph and tragedy. Very importantly, we are reminded at the beginning, that we are about to commemorate the triumph of Christ our King. We do this through the blessing of palms, the procession and the joyful singing. And the celebrant wears red vestments. We need to keep this in mind as we proceed in the second half to hear the long tale of the sufferings and indignities to which Jesus was subjected. A tale not relieved — yet — by the proper end of the story: the Resurrection to new life. So as we listen to the Passion story unfolding let us keep in mind the hosannas as Jesus our King entered Jerusalem, his city. Very soon it will be difficult to recognise our King in the battered, scourged, crowned-with-thorns, crucified remnant of a human being.

Why did Jesus have to undergo such a terrible fate? Basically, there were two reasons. One was political. Jesus had become the object of hate and prejudice by people who saw in him a threat to their religious authority and political standing. he had to be got rid of one way or another. But secondly, what happened was all in accordance with the Father’s will. That is not to say, as some people seem to imply, that God wanted to kill Jesus and engineered everything to happen that way. There are perfectly understandable reasons why Jesus’ behaviour led to his suffering and death.

At the same time, this behaviour was the result of Jesus’ unconditional love for every person he met — including his enemies. And Jesus’ love for everyone was a mirror of the same love of the Father. It was a love so intense that Jesus was ready to sacrifice his own life for it. “Greater love [agape, agaph] than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And, we might add, for those who have made us their enemies as well.

In doing so, Jesus identified with his Father’s will, namely, that all come to be aware of God’s unconditional love for them. It is St Paul who says that it is not altogether unusual for a person to die for good people. It is altogether unusual for one to give up their life for evildoers. And, basically, that is what all of us are in one way or another.

Eyes of Faith

What we see in today’s readings is God using perfectly human situations in order to convey, in dramatic fashion, his relationship to us. And it is only with genuine faith that we are able to see the work of God in the tragic death of Jesus. As Paul says, for many of the Jews it was a stumbling block and for many non-believers sheer nonsense.

Today’s readings also tell us that Jesus suffered. And he really did suffer. There are those who tend to minimise the sufferings of Jesus because “after all, he was the Son of God, he had a ‘Divine Nature’.” This is to deny one of the most central teachings of the New Testament that Jesus was one hundred percent a human being and, except for sin, shared our human experiences in every way. In fact, as a particularly sensitive human person, it is likely that, when Jesus suffered, his pain was more intense than that of others.

Jesus suffered obviously in his body and he underwent pain that we associate with the more barbaric forms of torture in our own day. But he must also have suffered psychologically and this pain may have been even more intense. He saw his mission collapse all around him in total failure. His disciples had all, for the sake of their own skins, taken to their heels. Would anyone remember anything he taught or did? There was, at this special time of need, a terrible loneliness. His disciples fell asleep in the garden when he especially needed their support. They ran off as soon as people came to arrest Jesus. Even the Father seems to be silent, the Father who could send legions of angels to rescue him – but apparently did nothing. There is the final poignant cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Yet through it all Jesus’ dignity, power and authority keep shining through, making his captors seem to be the ones on the defensive. After the prayer in the garden, Jesus stands up to face those arresting him full of an inner strength and authority. He stands in silent dignity before his judges, refusing to be intimidated. In the midst of his own pain and indignities, he can continue to think of the needs of others and can, after his own teaching, pray for and forgive his enemies.

How Were We Saved?

How did Jesus save us? Was it because he suffered and died for us? Was it because he made the ultimate sacrifice? Was it not because, in the words of the Second Reading from Philippians, he “emptied himself” totally and in so doing became filled with the Spirit of his Father. He clung to nothing; he let go of everything. (That is what we find so hard.)

At the moment of his death, Matthew in today’s Gospel reading says that Jesus “released the spirit”. It is a way of saying that he breathed his last breath and died. But it also has the other meaning that the life, sufferings and death of Jesus, when properly understood, released a power into the world, the power of the Spirit of God, a Spirit with which Jesus himself was filled. Jesus’ followers will soon become filled with that Spirit also.

Jesus’ disciples, energised by the power of their Lord and Master, will go through similar experiences to his. They, like Jesus in the garden, will be filled with fear but, later on, they will be filled with a fearless courage and joy. No matter who threatens them, no matter that they are thrown into jail or that members of their communities are murdered and executed, they will continue to preach fearlessly the Gospel of Truth and Love. The death of Jesus, which we commemorate today, was not in the end a sign of failure. It was Jesus’ moment of triumph and victory. The same can be said of the long line of martyrs and witnesses over 2,000 years.

So, as we participate in the liturgy of Holy Week, let us not concentrate simply on the sufferings of Jesus as if there was something good about suffering. Those sufferings only have meaning because they lead to resurrection, new life and new joy. The pain and sufferings of our lives are not the punishments of God, still less are they to be sought out. Suffering, pain, sickness are not in themselves desirable. They become, however, sources of good when they help us to become more mature, more loving, more caring, more sympathetic people — in other words when they lead us to be more like Jesus himself, when they lead to our own liberation and the liberation of others.

Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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