Today is called both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday in Christian worship. It opens both Jesus’ short lived triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his and our own entry into the events of the most holy week of the year, the last week of his life before crucifixion, the week of Jesus’ passion, culminating in crucifixion and finally, oh finally, in his rising. Let us begin this journey together. Let us take up our palms and wave them.
Palm Sunday celebrates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on a donkey in fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9-the people rejoice as their King and Savior was to come riding on a young donkey) where he was greeted with a cheering crowd of followers and others, the ordinary people, the people Jesus cared for always, probably not many of the religious or political leadership. The people shouted and waved palm branches (in recognition of God’s provision for the Light to finally shine -Psalm 118:27) and threw leafy branches and their garments on the ground where he rode on the back of a young donkey, also covered with their garments. They exclaimed “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!” “Hosanna” is an expression of praise that literally meant “Save” in Hebrew. The people were praising God for Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah who was promised, the one who healed them, taught them, loved them and included even the outcasts and strangers among them and brought hope to them. This was a day of triumph for Jesus and for the people who loved him, the poor and ordinary folks, not primarily the big shots who would soon get their way with him, but the ordinary people.
The poet Mary Oliver, in her book Devotions, in her deep understanding of all of Creation from leaves of grass to animals to people, ponders on the donkey. She says:
“On the outskirts of Jerusalem/the donkey waited./Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,/he stood and waited…./he let himself be led away./Then he let the stranger mount./Never had he seen such crowds!….Still he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient./I hope, finally, he felt brave, I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly on him,/as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to forward”.
Indeed both Jesus and the little donkey had nowhere to go but forward on that ride. How blessed was that little donkey for carrying him, and how blessed are we if we too can carry him forward as we are chosen and called to do that.
In some Christian churches Palm Sunday is celebrated without the forward look to the passion of Holy Week that takes place in the RC Church in the same Mass or Service. This can be very good, to allow Jesus and all of us to savor the triumph, the victory of his teachings, his ministry and his work among the people who returned his love. While he knew what was ahead, this same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, and at the death of Lazarus and grief of his friends Mary and Martha, also must have cherished this moment of acceptance. Perhaps he wept silently within his heart for both sadness and joy, or perhaps for a few moments, his heart was glad. I hope so. For me Palm Sunday is a challenge of living in the moment. Of accepting and enjoying the joys there are, even while knowing suffering is inevitable in all lives. A moment of thanking God for all of the good in our lives, of knowing good will ultimately reign. Of knowing that life is the victor not death. That is not to diminish the pain life entails, but it is to put it in perspective. That even the worse pain of death and loss will give way to life again because of Christ who went through such loss, grief, rejection, betrayal, belittling, injustice, and physical misery of the greatest order. And, I think the latter is the reason that in the RC church an in depth Passion of Christ account is given in the same Mass. This year the Passion is from Mark’s gospel-Mark 14:1-15:47. Reading the Passion account together as a congregation with roles for all of us, also gives us a chance to have an overview of the week ahead that ultimately will end not on the cross, or in the grave, but in the resurrection. This week will end in Life but we still have to get through it.
Perhaps the actions and words from the cross are the most important words and acts we have from Jesus. Both the cross and the empty tomb, the resurrection, are the heart and center of our Christian faith. It is not possible to have rising from the dead without death. We can never minimize the cross. Nor should we enshroud it and forget about the resurrection. Rising again is what Jesus was all about and the hope of our lives.
On the cross we see Jesus, after extreme torture, hanging in great pain with two men, one on each side. In various translations of the Bible, these men are described as criminals, robbers, thieves, rebels and revolutionaries. Perhaps they were all of those things. At least if they were rebels or revolutionaries, Jesus was in like company. For indeed, his life and teachings were absolutely revolutionary. While he taught and embodied all that the Law gave and asked of people, he also put it in perspective as he put loving one’s neighbor even above sabbath law and other laws. And he put ordinary, poor, foreign and outcast people, most especially including women, above the religious and political structures that, after all, left such people out. What a revolutionary he was! What a revolutionary religion true Christianity is and should be. That is Christianity that is lived, not only spoken or quoted. And so there he was on the cross, in that day intended to be the most shameful death, and in Luke 23:34 he says “Father/Abba, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”. Wow! Pause and think that over. Focus on his love. Focus on the love of God in the gift of Jesus. Focus on Christ’s loving all of us. No exceptions.
In both Mark 15: 34 and Matthew 27:46. Jesus cried out in a loud voice “Eloi/Eli, Eloi lama sabachthani-“which means, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”” All three of the synoptic Gospels have Jesus crying out in a loud voice at the end, Matthew and Mark without a description of words he may have said-just loud crying out. Luke (23:46) has Jesus calling out in a loud voice “Father/Abba into your hands I commit my spirit”. John(19:30) captures just the end of that and says, after being given vinegar/cheap wine for his thirst, “It is finished; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” The agony of the cross is conveyed in the terrible thirst and the loud cries but the words of feeling abandoned, forsaken, finishing the job Jesus came to do and committing his spirit to his Abba’s(Daddy’s) hands, say more and deserve a closer look.
The quotes given above are from current translations of the Bible (NAB,TIB,NKJV,KJV,NIV) used in Catholic and Protestant churches today derived from ancient Greek and Latin and Hebrew. But there is also a translation from the authorized Bible of the Church Of the East, the Peshitta which is translated from the ancient Aramaic which Jesus actually spoke. It is interesting and important to note that the “Eli, Eli” quote which has Jesus feeling abandoned by God, and which is taken by Jesus from Psalm 22:1, has a different meaning in the Aramaic. Psalm 22 does indeed have a feeling of both the Psalm’s writer, David, and the Messiah of prophesy, being forsaken but it also concludes with praise to God for caring for the poor and for God’s people, both Jews and Gentiles, of all nations, and, basically- for always coming through. I do not doubt that Jesus could feel forsaken on the cross when others taunted him saying “if you are the one, let God deliver you now”, or “come down from the cross.” Yet, I also believe that he deeply knew that he was not abandoned and that however we may feel, God does not abandon us either-ever. Psalm 22:1 in the Western Christian translations is “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”. But the Aramaic translation is : “My God, my God, why have you let me live? and yet you delayed my salvation from me…. (v.11) Be not far from me…”.” It is a prayer for God to be close. Or maybe to feel God’s closeness in the midst of the worst things one can go through. And , Matthew 27:4 and Mark 15:34 which reads forsaken in the Western translations reads “…Eli, Eli, lemana shabakthani! My God, My God, for this I was spared!” It is more like the “It is finished” of John 19 but even more is in it- like, “I did it” -this is why I was alive, this is why I lived, this was my purpose, and I have completed it. No matter how hard, I did what I came to do in loving you! And there is a satisfaction in this, a release in this so that Jesus could commit his spirit back to his beloved Father/Dad. “For this I was spared”…. Amen!
Now, “I was spared” is also older English usage- where one might say-“I was spared from…from what? from a terrible fate, for example. Or from an empty life, or from a foolish choice I may have made, or from a bad relationship that I managed to avoid, or , or ??? OR “I was spared for…the work that God had for me, for the good relationship, for the life and future God had for me…”. This latter seems to be close to the meaning of “For this I was spared”…what Jesus was spared from since he went through so much is not clear, but what he was spared for was humankind and this included the cross. Indeed, his whole life of love and including all in God’s love, his teachings and ministry and, finally, the cross were what he came to do. The cross was not all he came to do, but because of the politics and religiosity of the times, it became inevitable. So he had to include it as the final act of what he came to do. Yes, his crucifixion, horrible as it was, brought him and also us an at-one-ment with God. Within the context of the Judaism of his time he became an expiation for the sins of the world but what if he had been well received instead of a threat to the powers that be-his job may have been completed without such a death. Yet it remained to conquer death in its finality. Death would be conquered in three days as the account ends with his rising again and vanquishing death’s finality himself and for humankind. And it is for this that he was spared….Thanks to Jesus, the Christ, death ends in resurrection but that is yet to come. First we must go through the events of the Passion, the events of Holy week.
For what has my life been spared? For what has your life been spared? What is God asking of us to do with, as Mary Oliver says, our “one precious life”? Perhaps we can contemplate this as we go through Holy Week, the Passion, with Jesus. The answer will include that we are spared not to avoid pain and suffering-but to have the courage to go through it and come out on the other side. To rise again and to help others to throw off the shackles of injustice and to live Love fully- now and forever.
In his Palm Sunday homily today, Pope Francis encouraged us to preserve our sense of amazement and astonishment without which everything is dull and tasteless. As you go through this Holy Week, be amazed and be astonished at what God endured for the love of us. And then love as Jesus did.
Above, Michael Murray, a formerly homeless Veteran who found a home and a renewed relationship with God and the love of Jesus. Also in the pictures are our Deacon Hank Tessandori and Elder Harry Gary. Michael who was with our Good Shepherd Ministry since 2007, carries the cross on which our petitions are nailed for our Stations of the Cross in Fort Myers in 2014. Here we are in front of Lions Park where our ministry began and where many homeless were recently evicted from a tent city. Hopefully they were helped to real homes and not just pushed aside. Michael lived in his home happily and with peace, loving his neighbors and his cats for nine years, until his death in 2017. Continue to Rest in Peace, Mike. We miss you but know you are with our loving God living forever.
We wish you a most Blessed Holy week.
Pastor Judy Lee, RCWP
Rev. Dr. Judith A.B.Lee
Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Church, Fort Myers, Florida