Palm Sunday is already upon us. These readings launch us into the most solemn of all weeks, Holy Week. There’s so much to uncover, it can’t possibly be done all at once. But we’ll zero in on some keys that will help unlock the beautiful and great mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection – the events that are the very foundation of our faith. We have one extra reading this week to open mass, the procession:
The procession: Luke 19:28-40
This is read at the entrance to the church.
In this passage, Jesus enters Jerusalem. He comes to the city where he will be wrongly accused, put to death, and fulfill the mission for which He was sent. Let’s rewind 10 chapters. This is where we see Jesus begin “the home stretch” toward Jerusalem: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. When a prophet was asked to do something significant, the phrase used was “to set his face.” For example, Jeremiah said of Jerusalem, “I have set my face against this city, for evil and not for good” (Jer 21:10). Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, set to the cross.
The colt Jesus demands from the village has meaning, too. A colt without blemish and that had not been ridden was fit for sacred use. Zechariah prophesied the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a colt. “Behold; your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, humble, and riding on a donkey” (1 Kgs 1:33-44). The people all knew what they saw when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. With palms in hand, they were experiencing a prophetic fulfillment – it was a momentous event, and it was happening right before their eyes. Thus the words of praise they all exclaim. “Glory in the highest!”
Lyrics from a popular Lenten song come to mind, “Jerusalem My Destiny.” We must all “set our faces” or “fix our eyes” on this week.
I have fixed my eyes on your hills/Jerusalem, my Destiny! Though I cannot see the end for me, I cannot turn away./ We have set our hearts for the way; this journey is our destiny. Let no one walk alone. The journey makes us one.
Listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSep3JfI85I
1st Reading: IS 50:4-7
Isaiah writes 4 “Servant Songs” and all appear in part 2, the book of consolation. These songs describe the service, suffering, and exaltation of the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah. This “Servant” is a royal figure, representing Israel in its ideal form; He is the high priest, atoning for the sins of the world. Isaiah predicts that this Servant of the Lord would deliver the world from the prison of sin. We are in the 3rd Servant Song today.
He writes, “That I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them… I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.” And at the end, “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” Listen closely to your reader. How are we sometimes like the Suffering Servant described here? How do we fall short? What can we do to conform ourselves to be more like this ideal Servant of the Lord?
Responsorial: Psalm 22
My God, my God, Why have you abandoned me?
Psalm 22 is powerful – I encourage you to read it in its entirety from your bible. Jesus quotes it from the cross. As a Jew, Jesus knew the psalms by heart. As God, and in a divine way, Jesus inspired them to be written. He was intimately connected to these words …of dogs that surrounding him, those who’ve pierced his hands and feet, and on and on.
But the psalm shifts with verse 3, “But you O Lord, be not far from me. O my help, hasten to aid me. I will proclaim your name to my brethren, all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him, revere him all you descendants of Israel!” What begins with torture and humiliation ends with praise and glory. This serves as a model for us about we can regard and endure suffering: From pain to praise.
2nd Reading: Philippians 2:6-11
We remain in Philippians, the letter Paul wrote from jail. The verses right before this reading speak to the importance of selflessness. Paul says, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interest of others.” The next verses are today’s reading.
This phrase “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” This has always given me a furrowed brow. What does this mean? Let’s dig in. We know Jesus is the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies. You may have heard it said that “Mary is the new Eve.” Well along those lines, Jesus is the new Adam. This is worth some contemplation. How is Jesus the answer to Adam?
Adam fell short. He did not fulfill the purpose God intended, which was full friendship with God. Adam (and Eve, too) disobeyed God’s command. In doing so, Adam regarded equality with God as something he could “grasp” or attain. Adam thought equality, or at least some form of it, could be had. The serpent tricked Adam and Eve into thinking they could be more like God if they ate of the fruit of which tree? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As Adam and Eve literally “grasped” for the fruit, they figuratively “grasped” for a level of knowledge that was not to be theirs. Jesus however, does not display the same behavior. Instead of grasping for more, he humbly obeys God’s command. He rights the wrong. Even though it means he will die a terrible death, Jesus displays supreme selflessness. Jesus emptied himself. He lays down his life for us. And then what happens? God turns the situation upside down by greatly exalting him. He bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke 22:14-23:56
At a Lenten bible study, a few years ago we walked through a book called The People of the Passion. We noticed how “backwards” some things seem in the passion narrative. For example, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. We associate a kiss with love, or the “kiss of peace” at mass. It’s interesting that Judas would betray the son of God, sending him forth toward the crucifixion itself, with a kiss. It was more like a kiss good-bye. The other theme we discussed concerned Jesus’ responses during the trials. Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus replies, “You have said so.” We sat around the table discussing what a strange and indirect answer that was. Why is that all he said? One woman said, “I think his responses were unclear in order to stir the hearts of those who were questioning him. To try to get them to see what they already knew in their hearts, and act on that truth.” I thought that was brilliant.
I watched a post from Dynamic Catholic’s “Best Lent Ever” series this year about “Holy Moments.” Matthew Kelly surmises that most of us see holiness as an unattainable goal. How can we achieve holiness if we’re not saints? We’re not saints yet, but we’re called to become one. And saints in heaven now all started out pretty broken in their human lives, but what set them apart was their thirst for holiness. They never gave up, they trusted God’s guiding hand, and they knew the path to heaven was real. When they fell they reached for Jesus’s hand. When they despaired they called on His spirit. When they suffered they knew it had purpose. They became holy by experiencing and creating one holy moment at a time. A holy moment is one of love. Kindness. Compassion. Care-giving. Forgiveness. A moment where God is present and we’re responding to what He wants us to do – not what we want to do.
Below, I’ve listed 12 elements of Jesus’ life, most referred to in The Passion account, that seem upside down. Allow them to penetrate your heart. Maybe 1 or 2 will be a bridge to your own life to see what God wants to turn upside down in you that will in turn, glorify Him. Time and again, I’d find a perspective in the passion that I’d never considered, that seemed so upside down. This struck me. It led me to think…what signs are we missing that God is so obviously telling us? What if we could let God turn us upside down? What might happen to us, to our families, to our faith? Amazing things, I presume.
1. Born in a Stable
Jesus, the king of kings, Lord of Lords, was born in a stable. A lowly, dirty, stable amongst animals, hay, and a trough served as his manger. No one had room for Jesus in their inn. Are we one of the inns in Bethlehem, or do we let God in no matter what we have at that time to offer Him?
2.Rides on a Donkey
Jesus rides humbly on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Earthly kings in the region would be set atop beautiful stallions or tall horses. They’d come with an entourage and be clad in royal gowns wearing extravagant jewels. How are we doing with humility? Do we feel the need to make a grand entrance wherever we go? Or can we walk into rooms, situations, and relationships with humility and check our ego at the door? Are we “real” with people?
3.Jesus was Abandoned
Despite the fact that Jesus asked his disciples to stay faithful, he knows a betrayer sits with him at the last supper. Judas will Abandon Jesus. He will not call Jesus “Lord” – he will call him “Rabbi.” This shows he’s lost his faith that Jesus is the true Messiah. Are we able to confess that Jesus is Lord with our mouths and in our actions? Or do we occasionally abandon Him?
Jesus’ disciples often “don’t get him.” Jesus tells them he will soon be sold for 30 pieces of silver, and they say to him, “Lord, Look! There are 2 swords here!” In other words, “Lord look! We will fight this battle with you, we will defend you!” Jesus replies in frustration, “It is enough.” He’s frustrated by their lack of understanding. The disciples don’t understand that the battle is a spiritual one, not a physical one. How often do we misunderstand Jesus? Probably frequently. But Jesus doesn’t give up on them – not ever. And we must always return to Him with hearts at the ready. “Lord, help me hear what you want me to hear. Help me see what you want me to see.”
5.Stay awake! (Fall alseep)
Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake in the garden. They can’t. They try, but they turn his request upside down and fall asleep. They don’t get the fullness of what’s happening. We too are weak. We make promises to God we can’t keep. We fall asleep, though we’ve promised to stay awake. Are you asleep in part of your faith life now? How is Jesus trying to wake you up?
6.The garden of death vs. the garden of Eden
Here we are, at the end of Jesus’ earthly life, in a garden at night. What a juxtaposition from the Garden of Eden, where God began human life with Adam and Eve. Where all was good, all was light, all was perfect. Jesus sits in the garden now at night. He awaits trial. He will die for the sins of Adam and Eve and everyone who followed. He’ll die for the sins we have committed. He’ll die for the sins of all who are to come but have not yet been born. The garden of Eden was turned upside down by sin. Jesus prays in a garden – a garden of His people – that desperately needs growth, light, renewal and life. The weeds are plentiful, the flowers slim. Jesus will transform this garden through His death. He will turn it right side up again.
7.Tell us why you’re not guilty! (Silence)
When questioned at the trials, Jesus often opens not his mouth (“like a lamb led to the slaughter, he opened not his mouth”). When God seems silent to us, could it be because we have some digging of our own to do? I don’t suggest that’s always true, nor that God isn’t present in that digging, but perhaps some of the time the answer lies within our very selves. How might we respond differently when God seems silent?
8.Mockery of Kingship
Though Jesus truly is the King of Heaven and Earth, he is mocked and dressed in rags. A crown of thorns is affixed to his head, and a reed (signifying a scepter) in his right hand. This is upside down. How do we respond when others mock Jesus?
9.Pilate is on trial, not Jesus
One chapter in our book is called “Pilate is put on trial by Jesus,” a title that caught my attention. Wait, I thought Jesus was on trial? But in the narrative, it rightfully suggests that Pilate, who stands before Jesus, the very God who created Pilate in his mother’s womb, is the one on trial. Will Pilate pass judgment on God’s son? Will he condemn him to death? Yes he will. In doing so, he’ll turn justice upside down. Pilate is a complex character from many perspectives. He tells the crowd repeatedly that he finds no guilt in Jesus, but he still hands him over. He washes his hands (literally) of this incident, but clearly he is pleasing a riot prone crowd. His priorities are upside down. Pilate’s actions scream: “He’s not guilty, but go ahead and crucify him.”
10.Freeing Barabbas, condemning Jesus
The Greek translation of “Barabbas” is “son of Abba” or “son of the father.” Isn’t that fascinating? So in the 2nd trial, those in power are choosing whether or not to free Barabbas, “son of the father,” or Jesus, Son of THE Father. How wrongly they chose.
The very name of the day He died is, at least in a sense, upside down: “Good Friday.” But we know the eternal good that came from that Friday, because without the events of this day, we would still be upside down.
12.The man who knew no sin, put to a shameful death
This is the biggest “Upside Down” of them all. Jesus, the sinless one, the one who never once did any wrong at all, is put to death on a cross, as a slave, beaten and bloodied for the world to see. And yet this event has been known by the Father all along, since the beginning of time. Adam and Eve turned the world God had created upside down. Jesus came so that we might be right side up again.
When we reflect on His teachings, so many seem backwards: Blessed are the poor in spirit, they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are you who hunger, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep, someday you shall laugh.” Such simple words, and yet so challenging. He goes on. Embrace your cross, it will save you. Love your neighbor, even if they hate you. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. Jesus ate among sinners and was a servant to us; He washed our feet. There is seemingly no end to Jesus’ call to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. He wants us to let him turn our lives upside down. Easter’s coming…a time for re-birth. Let’s let Him.
May you have a prayerful, quiet, Holy Week. May it be different than any other week of your year. May you delve deeply into the scripture of the Triduum. May you experience numerous holy moments as we transition from the 40 day season of Lent into the glory of the 50 day season of Easter.