Palm Sunday – Year B

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John J. Lydon, O.S.A.
Vicariato San Juan de Sahagun
Trujillo (La Libertad)
Peru

Readings
Mk 11:1-10 or Jn 12:12-16
Is 50:4-7
Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24.
Phil 2:6-11
Mk 14:1—15:47

Palm Sunday is a good summary of our faith. In it we mix both glory and suffering, two opposite sides of what is the same coin, and all of it makes sense in the context of Jesus’ mission.

The first reading for the blessing of the palms is the recounting of the glorious entrance into Jerusalem. Everything seems to be going so well. The crowds come out, the adulation rises in great cheers, people take off their cloaks with an enthusiasm that we generally see only at sporting events and political rallies. All this to welcome this prophet, wonder-worker, challenger of authority. They did not know that, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus began the journey to this triumphal entrance right after his transfiguration when he told his disciples of the destiny that awaited him. He walked toward that destiny, not because it was easy, but because it was his mission. Along the way his disciples argue about places of honor, so they would have loved the roaring crowds and the outstretched cloaks. But Jesus told them that he came to serve, not to be served, to give his life for the many (Mk 10:45). So Jesus enters the city in triumph knowing that it is a passing glory, while his disciples probably think they are riding a great wave.

The heart of the Palm Sunday celebration, however, is the other side of the coin, the side of suffering. We hear the reading of the passion. Mark offers several interlocking stories, all of which point to the mission.

First we hear about the woman who burst in to anoint Jesus and who is immediately criticized by all those gathered. Jesus puts them in their place: “Leave her alone,” he says. He comes to the defense of the defenseless, the poor, the marginalized, those who have no name.

Second, we hear of the betrayal by Judas. The ends justify the means. Judas wants something, money or whatever, and Jesus is the means to the end. Morality is so easily sacrificed on the altar of achieving the end that one wants. Morality is sacrificed by convincing oneself that the end is a noble endeavor. That is the thinking of Judas and it is not far from how we are often tempted to still think.

Third is the meal shared with his apostles. It is the Passover meal which celebrates God’s plan of liberation from what oppresses his people, and the making of the covenant (Exodus). Jesus uses that meal to make a new covenant with his people. He knows that his time is limited, he knows that the apostles still don’t “get it” and will be weak once reality comes upon them (as the story of Peter’s betrayal underscores), so he has to leave them something to sustain them in the darkness, in the valley, and he gives them, and us as well, his very self. His body and blood. His body, which unites us in one body of brothers and sisters where all walls of division necessarily must fall; his blood, given as both a cup of blessing and a cup of suffering. The cup unifies the joys and sufferings, the lights and shadows, of our lives and the life of the world. Jesus raises the cup and tells us that he or she who drinks from it will have life.

Then comes the time in the garden. Jesus began his public ministry in a desert and there he was tempted. Now at the end he is in a garden, and once again is tempted by the harshness of the fate that awaits him. Like at the beginning Jesus doesn’t fall to the temptation of doing the easy thing, but accepts doing the right thing, namely the will of the Father and fidelity to the mission he has from the Father. It is that unshakable conviction that sustains him and moves him forward to the next scene, his passion and death.

The passion in Mark is the shortest of the gospel accounts but ends with something unique. The centurion looking on at “how he died,” exclaims: “Truly this was the Son of God.” The act of faith that proclaims Jesus “Son of God” is only mentioned one other time in Mark, in the first verse which begins the Gospel, and now here because of the way he died. His death was the final culminating point of his mission. His death was the lesson of what “I came to serve” means. It is in his death that his life and ministry is understood, and this remains until today the touchstone of our own discipleship, our own call to service. “He who loses his life will gain it” (Mk 8:35), “Where I am, there will my servant be” (Jn 12:26). It is in his suffering and death that his “Sonship” is fully revealed, and in our dying to self that we are lifted up into that same inheritance.

We come to this Palm Sunday at what appears to be the ending of a pandemic that was in full swing at last year’s celebration. It has been a year that has shown the world both the sadness of death and misery, and the light of holiness from the many who manifested to us what joining Jesus’ call to service means. It is a pandemic that reveals also great injustice, as Pope Francis has underscored, and which nothing illustrates more dramatically than the sight of vaccines widely shared among the privileged nations of the world and lacking in the poorer nations. The readings of Palm Sunday bring together in one story the “glory” (vaccines being widely distributed in our country) and the “sorrow” both of what has been suffered during the year, and the ongoing suffering of the poorer nations and the lack of response of the richer ones to this drama. We run a risk of basking in the “glory” and thus losing the fullness of the mission.

The story of Jesus’ passion begins with his defense of the marginalized, then calls us to be one and to bring down the walls of division in his sharing of the one bread and one cup, moves through the temptation of taking the easy path, and the fulfills what service means by dying on the cross. It is only by bringing the “glory” and “suffering” together, that we can understand the proclamation and the meaning for us to look at the cross and say, “Truly this is the Son of God,” and to ask for the strength to be where He is.