A homily for Palm Sunday on Mark 14:1-15:47
by Abbot Erik Varden OCSO
The range of experience we are asked to embrace on Palm Sunday is tremendous: it literally make us tremble. We may feel we need to stand back just a little, for fear our hearts would burst. For before us is our Beloved betrayed, traduced, put to death.
Seeing Holy Week in chronological terms, we may find the reading of the Passion out of place. Should it not wait until Good Friday? Could we not linger, today, on the joyful return of the Lord to Jerusalem, a prospect so fervently longed for by the prophets? True, we do, at the beginning of Mass, enact a procession that is charged
with joy. The Psalms we sing are Psalms of triumph. They acclaim the majesty of God. The fact of bearing branches, of being outside, of shouting Hosanna, makes us feel exposed in an almost playful way. For an instant we abandon our composure. We are vulnerable, like the children whose gestures we imitate. Perhaps we should perform such acts of deliberate discomfiture more often, to recall the strangeness of it all: our faith in this God who is a man; who walks with us, speaks with us, rides on a donkey with us; who opens his arms in an embrace of love and lets himself be killed by us. That is the uncomfortable truth: Christ enters Jerusalem to be nailed to the Cross. For months he has been preparing his friends in predictions from which the veil has been progressively removed. They have stopped their ears, refusing to hear. Would we not do the same? This dear man, so good, so true, so irresistibly attractive, why should he die? Can it, must it really be? The disturbing truth is, Yes, it must. It is what the Gospel tells us: ‘He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer
many things, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.’ Brothers and sisters, have we the courage to face this plain truth: that we have it in us to abandon Christ and hand him over to his executioners? The account of the Passion is intrinsic to Palm Sunday. Our cries of Hosanna resonate
eerily. Meanwhile, the Lord proceeds with a firm purpose. He knows we will be the agents of that purpose. What does that say about us? What does it say about him?
Crowds are fickle. We see that daily, especially these days, with a general election on the horizon. What would be the point of political campaigning if minds could not be swayed? If we were firm in our convictions, should we be seduced by last-minute promises, easily made, easily broken? Yet the fact is, we are tickled by the
power seemingly bestowed when established figures bow down before us, pleading for our favour. The invitation to be part of a winning team is enticing. At the very least, we want to distance ourselves from the losers. This dynamic is starkly put before us in the Gospel. It merits meditation: the crowd that today cries Hosanna will six days hence, on Good Friday, cry: ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ Where would I stand in that crowd? Where would you? Would we howl with the wolves? Would we try to slink away unnoticed, to go home, draw the curtains, and turn up the radio to keep the shouting out? Or would we dare to step into the middle, stretch our hands out in turn, and profess, this side of Calvary, ‘Rabboni’? The price of faithfulness can be high
indeed; but would we incur the open, festering wound of infidelity? Would we spend the rest of our lives running away from our denial, drowning it in alternate waves of self-pity and self-loathing? Palm Sunday requires us to take a stand.
What man would knowingly walk into a mob that is set, as soon as the wind turns, on destroying him? No man would. The events of Holy Week manifest Christ’s stature as God. And what a God! ‘He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he was humbler
yet, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’ From Christ’s regal entry into David’s city, we follow him step by step in the full realisation of that ‘humbler yet’. The lowering will lead to exaltation. We know that in faith. Let us not forget, so did our Lord. His committal of himself into our hands, our violent hands, was made in faith. It was real and totally dark. We have just heard his terrible cry at the ninth hour. It resounds forever until the end of the world, with the assurance, ‘for this I came’. Brothers and sisters, as we embark on this great week, let us stay wide awake. Let us be watchful, stand firm. Let us not leave Jesus alone. No matter what our darkness is, he is with us within it if only we stretch out our hand. The Passion gives us proof that the strength of our glorious, all-conquering God is made perfect in weakness. He gives us the courage we lack, if we let him. May our lives bear out the acclamation we have just made our own. Hosanna is an Aramaic form of a Hebrew imperative verb that means, ‘Save now!’ May that be our mantra this Easter, in our sleeping and our waking: Lord Jesus, come, save us now! Save all of us gathered here! Save our weeping world! Make us worthy of the gift of your salvation! Amen.