Palm Sunday: Passion and Triumph in Our Time

Holy Week begins with a two-fold feast. It has two names: Palm Sunday of the Lords Passion. And it’s Eucharistic liturgy includes two gospel readings: the one about Jesus’ royal entrance into Jerusalem accompanied by “Hosanna”s and palm branches, and the other about Jesus’ bitter passion accompanied by betrayal, condemnation, and mockery. These readings describe separate events recorded in separate parts of the Gospel of Matthew (the first in chapter 21, and the second in chapters 26-27). By proclaiming these two gospel readings in the same Mass, however, the Church connects them and invites us to consider them together.

One way we might consider these two gospels is to focus on their differences. The first is triumphal: Jesus enters the holy city acclaimed as king. The second is sorrowful: Jesus is tortured and put to death. This contrast is heightened by the way in which the faithful are often invited to participate in the proclamation of these gospels. During the procession with palms, the people join the “crowd” that accompanied Jesus in singing “Hosanna to the Son of David.” In the recitation of the Passion, they again join the “crowd,” but this time they are shouting, “Crucify him!” Emphasizing these stark contrasts might lead us to hear these two gospels as combining to tell a story of tragic reversal. Jesus seemed to be headed toward victorious enthronement as messianic king only to suffer defeat through the betrayal of false friends and the twisted accusations of his enemies. What began in triumph ended in tragedy.

But this is not how we are invited to understand these gospels. Instead, we take our cue from the introduction to this liturgy in the Roman Missal, which says, “On this day the Church recalls the entrance of Christ the Lord into Jerusalem to accomplish his Paschal Mystery.” The reason why Jesus entered into Jerusalem, we are to understand, was to accomplish his Paschal Mystery. Our principle in interpreting these gospels together is continuity, not discontinuity. The second is not the reversal of the first. It is the fulfillment. Jesus’ royal triumph was not undone by his passion and death. It was accomplished.

These gospel readings are indeed different and contrasting. But their differences do not reverse each other. They reveal each other. The Church gives us these gospels side-by-side so that we hear them as mutually illuminating. Jesus’ Passion shows us what kingship really means. The Messianic king is characterized by his humility not just by riding on a donkey but by dying on a tree. His crown is a crown of thorns. When Jesus caries his cross to Golgotha it is a royal procession. By emptying himself unto death, Jesus reigns supreme. His cross is his throne.

We are invited to see triumph and sorrow together in the Paschal Mystery of our Lord. We are invited to see that in our own lives too. Because our lives are no longer our own. Like Saint Paul, we now live “by faith in the son of God who has loved [us] and given himself up for [us]” (Galatians 2:20). For the Christian, as for Christ, the passage from apparent worldly success to sorrow and loss is not a story of tragic reversal. It is a story of taking up the cross and following Jesus in the accomplishment of his royal victory.

In 2020, our celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion comes at a time of unique tragedy and widespread sorrows of many kinds. Coronavirus has affected our lives, our families, our communities, our country, and our world in more ways than we could have imagined just weeks ago. How are we supposed to understand our story? How can we read it as anything but a sorrowful and tragic reversal of so many good things that now seem lost? Could there by any reason for this short of cruelty?

We could ask the same questions about the Passion. It too is a story of immense sorrow. And recognizing it’s triumph doesn’t make it less sorrowful. The sorrows of our present time are unique and unprecedented. But in the light of Christian faith, all sorrows are included in sorrowful Passion of our Lord, who has shared our weaknesses in every way (see Hebrews 4:15). Our sorrow, with all its particular tragedy and loss, has been taken up into his sorrow. It’s part of what he has come to suffer with us. It’s also part of what he has accomplished for us. And it’s part of his invitation to suffer with him and so to reign with him.

The Passion is not a story of evil becoming good. It’s the story of good defeating evil by suffering it with love. There is great evil in this story – the greatest, in fact. There is great evil and real sorrow in our time. We are invited to suffer through it with Jesus and with all our brothers and sisters in whom Jesus’ suffering is revealed to us. When we do that we will read our unique story of sorrow as part of Jesus story of sorrow, which is always also the story of the accomplishment of the triumph of the King of Love.

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