Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Sermon for Palm Sunday

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In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

As I was looking toward the celebration of Palm Sunday, I could not help but call to mind those striking and famous words of contradiction from the opening of Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities. Today, with the crowds of Jerusalem, we welcome the king who enters the royal city in triumphant procession—yet he rides not on a stallion, but on a donkey. Today we wave palms with the crowds who cheer “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.” And yet, only days from now crowds of people will shout out all the more to the Roman governor, “Crucify him!”

The words of Psalm 118 capture well the evolving tensions of Palm Sunday as the liturgy moves from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem to St Mark’s account of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Jesus approaches the city, he sends two disciples ahead to procure a colt. The fact that the colt had never been ridden contributes to the purity of his prophetic action.

The triumphal entry account contains a number of messianic references. The Mount of Olives was associated with the arrival of the Messiah. High dignitaries were met outside the city and escorted through the gates, and garments were thrown on the ground before a king in the Old Testament. As Jesus rode into the city, the shouts of “Hosanna!” expressed the hope of the crowd for the coming messianic kingdom of David. Even the colt on which Jesus sat calls to mind Zechariah 9:9, “your king comes ... riding on a donkey.”

This is a royal procession, yet Jesus enters in humility as the Lord’s Anointed. The events to come show exactly what kind of Messiah he is: one who rules through suffering and death rather than conquest and violence. Here he is the Lord of his own destiny as he “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11) at the Temple and obediently followed his Divine call as the Son of God.

It is all downhill from there. The moment of triumph ends quickly, as Jesus’ actions in Jerusalem, beginning with the cleansing of the temple the next day in Mark’s gospel, incur the mounting opposition of the religious authorities, who seek a way to arrest and kill Jesus. The clash of good and evil will only grow more intense as Jesus ‘betrayal comes. Jesus took his three closest friends with him to Gethsemane to pray. Mark tells us he “Began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” Jesus tells Peter, James, and John, “My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death; remain here and watch.”

In agonizing prayer, Jesus fully embraces the Father’s will for him and for us. His closest friends have fallen asleep, and now he is arrested. A kiss of greeting was normally a sign of respect and affection; now it vividly signifies betrayal and treachery by one of his own. From now on, Jesus is totally alone—just as he had predicted.

Jesus invites us, his closest friends, to come with him again to spend time with him in prayer this Holy Week as we commemorate the mysteries of our redemption. Make it a Holy Week. On Monday, we hear the story of some tender last moments as Mary of Bethany says her goodbye by pouring perfume on Jesus—preparing him for burial. On Tuesday, Jesus stands in the Temple courts, driving out the money-changers, clearing all polluting vices from his Father’s house of prayer and our hearts. On Wednesday, we read of the betrayer and the other disciples who examine their consciences and ask, “Is it I, Lord?”

On Thursday, the night in which he was betrayed, we give thanks for the Holy Communion—the sacrifice that makes us acceptable to God and the gift that nourishes our bodies and souls for eternal life. Confessions will be heard every day this week. Mass will be said each evening until the cross of our salvation is venerated on Good Friday. And then we wait with the women during Jesus’ Sabbath rest.

The suffering of Jesus ultimately has eternal purpose. It was a mission that he fully embraced in the garden of Gethsemane as his betrayal was at hand, yet it is also something he has been driving toward for quite some time. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, and he now he enters it as a humble servant. St Paul later wrote to the Church in Philipi, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

As Jesus looked out over the city from the Temple mount that Palm Sunday, he looked out with love for his people and with the knowledge of what lay ahead. For during this Holy Week, the triumphant Lord and the sacrificial Lamb will be revealed to be the same Jesus.

Charles Dicken’s historical novel is about an epic clash of good and evil, the haves and have nots in the years leading up to French Revolution, culminating in the Reign of Terror. It tells the story of two men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who look very much alike but are entirely different in character. At the end of the story, Carton has substituted himself for Darnay in order to spare his life and give him a future.

Riding toward the guillotine, about to offer up his life for his friends, Carton’s face and demeanor was of a man who had found his purpose. Looking out over Jerusalem that Palm Sunday, I can help but wonder if Jesus might have whispered to himself something like what Sydney Carton did at the close of Dicken’s novel, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

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