Hosannas, abandonment, and the true destination: Palm Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21:1–11:

When Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me. And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.” This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: Say to daughter Zion, “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them. The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Normally, this week we would have already set our plans for Holy Week. I often lector at my parish, and other times (or occasionally at the same Mass) serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. My approach to Holy Week would be to lay out a dense schedule of commitments to serve at each of the major Masses of the week, my way of participating in all of the preparations for the triumph of the Messiah.

A large part of that preparation usually involves the anticipation of seeing our dear friends and family. We normally celebrate our freedom from sin and death in joy with each other. This year, however, the streets are empty and our celebrations are muted. Like many others in this country and around the world, we avoid gathering with anyone, remaining in our homes except for occasional trips to acquire food and other essentials.

So how do we welcome the Lord in His Holy Week in a time of such rational fear over our health and safety? We can start by recalling how Jerusalem greeted Jesus — and how soon they turned on him for not delivering on their expectations. This year, perhaps more than ever, we can recall that Jerusalem was not Jesus’ destination, nor is this world ours.

Our first reading today from Isaiah, after the opening Gospel reading above, reminds us of the usual reception prophets had when speaking the Lord’s truth. Prophets came not to tell the Israelites and Judeans that everything was going to be all right on their present course, but to warn them when they turned their backs on the Lord. God used the prophets to call out to His people to renew their faith and trust in Him, and not in the material comforts and petty politics of this world. The usual response to this was derision, disbelief, and abuse:

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.

This last point — I shall not be put to shame — puts Isaiah’s mission in precise context. The whole point of plucking beards and spitting is public humiliation, a form of violent shaming of an individual. It is meant to strip him of credibility and to build communal condemnation. Isaiah, however, emphasizes what matters most, which is not being put to shame with the Lord. This world will not judge Isaiah in the end — God will judge, and Isaiah’s strength perseverance in the face of this abuse will matter most. Isaiah puts his faith in the Lord, and the Lord will repay it.

Similarly, our responsorial psalm today emphasizes this as well, and might be even more applicable to our moment. The refrain is echoed in the Passion, as Christ recites Psalm 22 on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Although this sounds like a rebuke of the Lord, the full psalm itself is a pledge of faith and love in God, and a recognition that He never abandons us. We might feel lost in darkess and evil may befall us, but the Lord still loves us and wants us to seek Him.

The psalmist also echoes Isaiah in this passage: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” He laments his many humiliations, his illnesses, and the danger he acutely feels from all of them. And yet, even though the psalmist laments the feeling of having been abandoned, he nevertheless remains faithful to the Lord, proclaiming His glory.

The psalm itself ends with a shout of triumph, and a warning to those who think they can “keep themselves alive” without the Lord:

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

This is especially remarkable in light of Christ’s recitation of this psalm from the cross. It is a declaration that the journey is not complete, and that the destination foreseen by the Judeans in Jerusalem missed the point. The Messiah did not come to just shake loose one city from a foreign occupation, but to save the entire world from its forced occupation by sin. The fate of this world matters less than our future in the Lord, and the circumstances here should be of lesser concern than our relationship with Him for the next life.

In our entrance Gospel reading, all of Jerusalem came out to hail Jesus as the Messiah, only to see the temple authorities and the Romans put him to death days later. Most, although not all, turned their backs on Jesus when He did not measure up to their idea of a warlord Messiah to reconquer Judea and Israel from their occupiers. Their hosannas turned to jeers and their reverence turned to humiliation because they misunderstood the destination and the purpose of Christ’s mission and call. Jesus died in the most humiliating and painful fashion possible in that time, but it was His death in that fashion that conquered death. That conquest matters most, because it points us to the Lord as our destination, and this world as the road we travel to reach Him.

We are living, hopefully briefly, through some dark days of an occupation of a much different sort. It is easy to see the darkness and feel as though the Lord has abandoned us. We should remember why Christ came among us, though, and remember that this world is our road rather than our destination, and the Lord calls us to travel through it in faith — and in hope.

May the Lord keep and bless you all!

The front-page image is a detail of a mosaic from the Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily (12th century).

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.