Twentieth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Readings: Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
In today’s Gospel, before He is arrested Jesus asks, “When I sent you forth without a money bag or a sack or sandals, were you in need of anything?” When His disciples say No, He tells them that “[N]ow one who has a money bag should take it, and likewise a sack… [T]his Scripture passage must be fulfilled in me; namely, ‘He was counted among the wicked.’” One key message to take from this exchange is that the one who lacks God has nothing, and the one who has God alone lacks nothing. But when I read this passage, I can’t help but reflect on how little I pack whenever I have to travel somewhere (to the amazement and chagrin of some friends and family). I do so for two reasons: 1.) most things besides clothing can be gotten along the way if I need them, and 2.) I’ll have fewer things to unpack when I reach my destination.
Today, as we remember the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem just days before His Passion, we see the Lord sum up Christian ministry in one rather wry warning: “If you’re trying to find Me, I’m the One with no luggage.”
Luke’s account of the Passion is arguably the most detailed in all four Gospels. There are moments in his account that are unique to his Gospel, and other more generally known moments are opened up a bit more to make their impact more powerfully felt. But perhaps the most striking feature of this account are all the times the action stops in favor of these little “side-quests” that Jesus, through Luke, takes us on. The first of these is the argument among the disciples over who is the greatest, a discussion which in the other Gospels comes earlier than the week of the Passion. But here it is on the night of the Last Supper, the night the Passion will begin, that Jesus reminds His disciples that true greatness lies in service – in the casting off of things, even of oneself. And in a way, by having this moment at the beginning of the Passion, Luke sets up all the other little moments that will happen along the way: sweating blood as He prays in the garden; healing the ear of the struck servant at the time He is arrested; putting up with insults and abuse during the whole interlude with Herod; speaking with the weeping women of Jerusalem as He walks to the site of His execution; forgiving his executioners as they nail His limbs to the wood of the Cross; granting salvation to the repentant thief who hangs in torment next to Him.
While all these things may serve to draw out what is already a lengthy Gospel reading, nevertheless these moments are critical for understanding not just the character and motivation of Jesus on a human level, but also why the early Church identified Him so readily with the suffering Israel of the Servant Songs found in the Book of Isaiah, a passage from one of which gives us our First Reading. Written during the exile and looking forward to the restoration of God’s chosen people, the Church saw in their verses the resolution to the seeming paradox of Christ crucified. He is the One Who accepts His vocation with such readiness and loyalty and trust that He bears all injury and insults, for the One Whose Master is the Lord can suffer no lasting disgrace. That suffering servant who is stripped of all human dignity even as he continues to carry out his task is the Jesus we encounter in all the accounts of the Passion, but especially in Luke’s. All the way up to His last breaths of earthly life, He put Himself at the service of all others so that they might have the chance to recline at His table.
The limitless quality of God’s mercy (Hebrew khesed) means He is always willing to grant favors to those who ask of Him in confidence. And Saint Paul captures this extreme attitude of mercy in his letter to the Philippians. In it he quotes what was likely a popular hymn to Christ; this hymn forms our Second Reading. It is sometimes called the Kenosis Hymn, after the Greek word meaning “emptying,” for that is the source and focus of Christ’s greatness in the hymn: the divine Christ, co-equal with God the Father, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” This likeness was not the mere semblance of Man that the Greek gods or even angels of God would assume in myths and stories. This likeness (Greek skhema, form, fashion, manner, appearance; from ekhein, to have) was so deep-rooted that Christ became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” – the most painful and humiliating manner of execution in the Roman world. He was born as one of us to die as one of us. And for this outstanding act, God the Father “bestowed on him the name which is above every name” – that is, His own. What Man has emptied God makes full again. And that is why to proclaim “Jesus Christ is LORD” redounds to God the Father’s glory; when we glorify the Son, the Father with Whom He is co-equal is equally glorified.
Being “merciful like the Father” is to be an ever-ready impartial minister of reconciliation. Being merciful like the Son is to be obedient in love to the Father in all things. To do one, we must do the other; for “Jesus Christ is LORD.”
So as the Holy Week begins anew this year, that goal we’re supposed to be pursuing is coming into focus. When we reach it, let’s try to have as little as possible to unpack.