This Sunday is Palm Sunday so, in addition to an initial Reading at the beginning of Mass, we also hear a long Passion narrative after the Second Reading. Rather than provide commentary for all these Readings (since I would also quite like to get some sleep this week!), I will not be providing any commentary for the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Palm Sunday: 1st April, 2012
We are about to enter Holy Week. All our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and alms-giving have been preparing us for this moment, to walk these final few miles with our Lord to Calvary.
Our Mass begins with an account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He is welcomed as royalty, but in a few short days the crowds which shouted “Hosanna in the Highest!” will be shouting “Crucify Him!”. Their hatred fulfills the prophecy spoken of by Isaiah in our First Reading.
In the Second Reading from the letter to the Philippians St. Paul describes in poetic terms Christ’s humiliation and final exaltation. This is also the theme of this week’s psalm which was the prayer on the lips of Christ as he hung on the cross. The psalm speaks of one scorned, pierced in hands and feet, surrounded by enemies, all hope appearing lost… Nevertheless, the psalmist trusts in God and, like Christ, in the end, is vindicated.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me
- Henry F. Lyte
Procession With Palms: Mark 11:1-10
This passage from the Gospel of Mark is known as “The Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem”. As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have made pilgrimage to Jerusalem many times, but this final entrance is rather different from those in the past…
When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately on entering it, you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone should say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ reply, ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.’”
So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it. So they brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks over it. And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!”
- Why did Jesus come to Jerusalem? (Aside from the crucifixion)
- What do you know about Bethphage and Bethany?
- Why does Jesus send some disciples to fetch a donkey?
- What is the significance of Jesus’ prediction about the colt?
- How do the people of Jerusalem react when Jesus rides in? Why?
- Why do people cut off branches and lay their cloaks on the road?
- What does “Hosanna” mean? What is the significance of the other things the bystanders say?
When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem, …
Jesus was visiting Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover (Exodus 12:1-13). Passover recalls the time when God rescued Israel from Pharaoh’s slavery. On that night in Egypt, the Israelites killed an unblemished lamb and ate it, covering the door posts with the lamb’s blood and were thus saved from the Angel of Death. Passover prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, the unblemished Lamb of God, who was killed on Calvary, whose flesh we eat in the Eucharist and whose blood grants us eternal life.
…to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, …
“Bethphage” (pronounced “BETH-fuh-jee”) means “House of unripe figs”. In the Bible, the fig tree is a symbol of Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular. Interestingly, on the day following these Gospel events, Jesus curses the barren fig tree for failing to produce fruit (Mark 11:12-25)…
Many Bible dictionaries say that “Bethany” means “House of figs” (this is also what the Talmud says). However, many scholars would argue that “House of misery” is more likely. Either way, it was at “Bethany” that Lazarus was raised from the dead (John 11) and Jesus’ feet were anointed (Matthew 26:6-13).
These locations are to the east of Jerusalem.
…he sent two of his disciples…
This sounds very similar to the preparations for the Last Supper (Mark 14:13-15).
…and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately on entering it, you will find…
Jesus demonstrates supernatural knowledge.
…a colt tethered…
There is a slight discrepancy in Matthew’s account of this event since he mentions “a donkey tied…with her colt”. St. Augustine says that this need not be a discrepancy – it’s just that Matthew gives more detail that the other Gospels leave out:
…there is no disagreement, though one Evangelist mentions one thing, and a second mentions another; how much less should a question be raised, when one mentions one, and another mentions that same one and another - St. Augustine
Other Church writers saw deep symbolism in the two creatures, on representing the Jews and the other representing the Gentiles:
The colt, however, was not necessary to Him, but He sent for it to show that He would transfer Himself to the Gentiles. – Theophyl
…on which no one has ever sat.
It is appropriate that an unridden animal would be used for religious purposes.
St. Bede also sees a spiritual meaning in this:
…no man had yet sat because no wise doctor had, by teaching them the things of salvation put upon them the bridle of correction, to oblige them to restrain their tongues from evil, or to compel them into the narrow path of life - St. Bede
Untie it and bring it here.
This was not Jesus’ usual manner of entry into Jerusalem:
Now that…the cross was at hand, …[the Lord] did those things which were about to excite [His enemies] against Him with a greater openness; therefore although He had so often gone up to Jerusalem, He never however had done so in such a conspicuous manner as now - St. John Chrysostom
If anyone should say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ reply, ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.’”
Again, Jesus is demonstrating supernatural knowledge.
So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it. So they brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks over it.
Everything happened as Jesus said.
The description which follows finds parallels with Psalm 118, a psalm used in the Passover liturgy:
LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success! - Psalm 118:25
2. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you – Psalm 118:26
The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. - Psalm 118:27
In the next chapter of this Gospel Jesus quotes this very psalm when He speaks about “The stone which the builders rejected…” (Mark 12:10-11)
And he sat on it.
This is a messianic fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy of the peaceful, “lowly” king:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey – Zechariah 9:9
Also, Jesus riding on a donkey is evocative of Solomon’s entry into Jerusalem for his coronation:
So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, … went down and had Solomon mount King David’s mule, and they escorted him to Gihon. Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. Then they sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing pipes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound. – 1 Kings 1:38-40
But whereas this son of David was crowned with gold, the other son of David was to be crowned with thorns.
Wherefore also the prophets so often call Christ by the name of David, on account of the descent according to the flesh of Christ from David - Pseudo-Chrysostom
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, …
This is like rolling out the red carpet. It’s the same treatment given to King Jehu:
They quickly took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, “Jehu is king!” - 2 Kings 9:13.
St. Bede also sees a symbolic meaning in these cloaks:
The garments thrown under the colt signify the flesh of Christian martyrs, who lay down their lives for the gospel and so proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ - St. Bede, In Marcum
…and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.
As noted above this is an allusion to psalm 118.
Let us also strew the way of our life with branches which we cut from the trees, that is, imitate the saints, for these are holy trees, from which, he who imitates their virtues cuts down branches. – Theophyl
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! …”
“Hosanna!” is a Greek transliteration of hosa-na (save, please). It was originally a plea for help, but came to express Messianic hope.
They cry out Hosanna, that is save us, that man might be saved by Him who was blessed and was a conqueror and came in the name of the Lord, that is, of His Father - Pseudo-Jerome
“…Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! …”
As noted above this phrase comes from Psalm 118.
It describes an ambassador, one who comes with the full authority of the one he represents. In this case, Jesus comes with the full authority of God.
“…Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! …”
Long ago God had made a promise to King David:
‘The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. - 2 Samuel 7:11-13
That promise is about to be fulfilled and elevated:
…we read in the Gospel of John that He fled into a mountain, lest they should make him their king. Now, however, when He comes to Jerusalem to suffer, He does not shun those who call Him king, that He might openly teach them that He was King over an empire not temporal and earthly, but everlasting in the heavens, and that the path to this kingdom was through contempt of death.
Observe also the agreement of the multitude with the saying of Gabriel, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David”; that is, that He Himself may call by word and deed to a heavenly kingdom the nation to which David once furnished the government of a temporal rule – St. Bede
“…Hosanna in the highest!”
They saw in this event the saving work of God.
Reading I: Isaiah 50:4-7
This is the third “Suffering Servant” song. In light of the New Testament we identify the “Suffering Servant” as Christ.
The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
- What situation does Isaiah describe?
- What does it mean to have “a well-trained tongue”?
- How is the “Suffering Servant” treated in this passage? What parallels are there with Jesus?
- Why does he say he is “not disgraced”?
- What does it mean to set one’s face “like flint”?
The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, …
His speech is guided by the Lord. This reminds me of the third chapter of St. James’ epistle:
Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. - James 3:2
…that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.
The “Suffering Servant” is to rouse and encourage the People of Israel.
…Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;
The “Suffering Servant” speaks the message given to him. This is exactly what Christ did:
“Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” - John 14:10
…and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
Like the prophets who came before Him, Christ is mistreated:
“[Pilate] had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified… [The soldiers] spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again” – Matthew 27:26, 30
…and Christ gave them no resistance.
The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; …
God will support and save His Servant.
…I have set my face like flint…
The Servant will be Steadfast in completing His mission.
…knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
Jesus trusted His Father and was praying Psalm 22 (this week’s Psalm) as He was being crucified.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Christ dies with the opening lines of this psalm upon His lips. The psalm begins with a description of the suffering of the psalmist and concludes with a hymn of praise to God for His saving work.
R. (2a) My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
All who see me scoff at me;
they mock me with parted lips, they wag their heads:
“He relied on the LORD; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, if he loves him.”
Indeed, many dogs surround me,
a pack of evildoers closes in upon me;
They have pierced my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.
They divide my garments among them,
and for my vesture they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, be not far from me;
O my help, hasten to aid me.
I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you:
“You who fear the LORD, praise him;
all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him;
revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”
- When is this psalm quoted in the New Testament? Which bits specifically?
- What is the challenge given by the mockers?
- How do we see Christ in this passage?
- How does the psalm end?
R. (2a) My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
This refrain of the psalm asks why God has appeared to abandon His servant. However, this is not the case, as we will find out at the end of the psalm.
All who see me scoff at me; they mock me with parted lips, they wag their heads: “He relied on the LORD; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, if he loves him.”
All those around the psalmist are mocking him. Christ, too, was mocked:
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. – Mark 15:29-32
Indeed, many dogs surround me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me; They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones.
This is a vivid description of crucifixion.
They divide my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots. But you, O LORD, be not far from me; O my help, hasten to aid me.
The soliders cast lots for Jesus’ clothes:
Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get – Mark 15:24
I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you: “You who fear the LORD, praise him; all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him; revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”
The psalm does not end on a despondent note. Rather, it ends with praise of God!
Reading II: Philippians 2:6-11
Our Reading from the letter to the Philippians is known as the “Carmen Christi” or “Hymn of Christ”. Scholars think this to be an early Christian hymn because of its rhythmic form and use of parallelism. St. Paul quotes this hymn while exhorting the Philippians to humble themselves and serve one another, using Christ as his example. A modern day version of this would be if a pastor, preaching a sermon on grace, would quote:
“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see”
The pastor draws upon a hymn that everyone knows in order to teach a point. St. Paul is most likely doing the same thing. Through this deeply rich theological hymn Paul is trying to impress upon the Philippians that they should model Christ’s humility. If the all-powerful, infinite God can humble Himself and take the form of a finite human, suffer and die, then those in the church can humble themselves before one another.
The “Carmen Christi” is broken into two sections. The first section bears a strong resemblance to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), describing Christ’s incarnation (“…being made in human likeness”) and humiliation (“…humbled himself…”). The second section describes Christ’s vindication and exultation (“God exalted him to the highest place”).
We are actually extremely fortunate that Paul (by the providence of God) included the “Carmen Christi” in his letter, since the words are loaded with theology about Christ (Christology), despite the fact that the letter to the Philippians isn’t doctrine-centric.
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those 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.
- What is this passage commonly known as?
- What does it describe? Are there sections to this passage?
- What does it mean to “not regard equality with God something to be grasped”?
- What does it mean when Paul says that Christ “emptied himself”?
- In reference to the Readings last week, how do we understand Christ’s obedience?
- What is described in the second section?
- What is “the name which is above every name”?
- What does it mean to say “Jesus Christ is Lord”?
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
In this translation Jesus is being described as being “form” of God and coming in the “form” of a slave. Other translations use the word “nature” instead. In modern theology both of these terms have very specific meanings. However, it is worth noting that the same Greek word (“morphe”) is used to describe both the incarnate and pre-incarnate Son.
The word which is rendered “grasped” is the Greek word “harpagmos”. It is not found anywhere else in Scripture but we find it in secular Greek, used in the context of robbery. There are four main interpretations of word:
1. Jesus didn’t consider equality with God something he had to aggressively acquire since it belonged to him by nature and right.
2. Jesus didn’t consider it something he had to cling to at all costs
3. Jesus didn’t have to seize something he did not already posses.
4. Jesus didn’t see this power as something to exploit for personal gain.
I actually quite like (gasp!) the NAB rendering of the Greek since it alludes to a reversal of the Fall:
“…God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5
Adam grasped at godhood but the New Adam (Christ) did not.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, …
Because of Christ emptied Himself, we reap the reward:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” – 2 Corinthians 8:9
The humility here is expressed in Jesus’ “kenosis” where he “emptied himself”, or as some translation have it, “rendered void”. It is not that the Son ceased being God when He became incarnate, but that he accepted certain limitations of the human condition and restricted his rightful exercise of certain divine abilities while on earth. St. Gregory of Nyssa described as a compressing of the Godhead within our smallness.
…coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, …
Jesus humbled Himself throughout His life and finally at His death. Like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, though righteous, He submits himself to violence and His life is poured out for others.
…even death on a cross.
It is important to realise what an ignominious death crucifixion really was. The Romans usually reserved it for slaves and rebels.
Because of this, …
Because of Jesus’ obedience and sacrifice…
…God greatly exalted him…
In this latter section we see what happens to the humbled Christ – He is exalted. He is raised from the dead and enthroned in heaven full of glory and majesty. Those who imitate His humility will be exalted in a similar fashion. In this, I’m reminded of Mary’s “magnificat”:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” – Luke 1:52
…and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, …
Paul is placing Jesus at the centre of Isaiah’s prophecy:
“By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear” - Isaiah 45:23
…of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, …
Paul shows that all of creation will recognize Christ when he talks about every knee bending in “heaven…earth and under the earth”. In the Jewish outlook this encompasses all of the world, including the angels and saints in heaven, humans and animals on earth, together with the dead and demons of the underworld.
…and every tongue confess…
This confession connects with oath sworn in Isaiah’s prophecy.
…that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
“Jesus Christ is Lord” was an early confession of faith in the church:
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. - 1 Corinthians 12:3
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved - Romans 10:9
The term “Lord” (“Kyrios”) is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) for the God’s name (“YHWH”). It was also the term used in Roman emperor worship. It was for this confession of faith that Christians were persecuted and for which, as we saw in the case of St. Polycarp, Christians died.
For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living - Romans 14:9