9 April 2017: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s passion

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Is 50:4-7 Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24 Phil 2:6-11 Mt 26:14–27:66 or
Mt 27:11-54 (short form)

Lent: songs and stories

Red_banner_sm As Lent draws to a close, the Lectionary readings for Palm Sunday give RCIA participants and the believing community many images to reflect on for Holy Week. Today’s readings include two songs and a story.

The two songs are Isaiah’s Suffering Servant song in the first reading (Is 50:4-7), and Paul’s Carmen Christi (L: “Song of the Christ”) in the second reading (Phil 2:6-11). I’ve written about these songs and their meanings in last year’s Palm Sunday reflection, found here.

The story is Matthew’s passion narrative. We can read other parts of the gospels as short stories that tell Jesus’ words or acts, but the passion narratives are one, continuous story. The passion narrative is rich and deep and deserves a full and careful reading. Throughout Matthew’s passion, Jesus’ accusers words and actions ironically reveal who Jesus really is:

  • The Sanhedrin. The chief priests ask Jesus under oath if Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mt 26:63). Jesus responds “You have said so,” an affirmative answer. The Sanhedrin convicts Jesus of blasphemy for speaking the truth about his messiahship and divinity.
  • Pilate. The chief priests bring Jesus to Pilate for trial. Before Pilate, the chief priests and elders accuse Jesus of sedition, a Roman capital offense, rather than blasphemy, a religious offense. Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews” (Mt 27:11). Jesus responds “You say so,” an affirmative answer. Pilate convicts Jesus for speaking the truth about his kingdom (but not a kingdom Pilate would understand).
  • Barabbas. Barabbas is a Hebrew word meaning “son (bar) of his father (abba).” Pilate tells the crowd they must choose Barabbas or Jesus (Mt 27:17)–two sons of very different fathers. The crowd’s selection (Mt 27:21) is tinged with irony: they choose Barabbas, a revolutionary, who gives violence and death; rather than Jesus, the Father’s Son, who gives peace and eternal life.
  • Soldiers. The soldiers dress Jesus in a red military cloak and crown him with a “victory crown” (usually a diadem or laurel wreath, but the soldiers use thorns) to mock his kingship (Mt 27:29). Their actions reveal Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant (see the first reading, Is 50:4-7).
  • The centurion. At Jesus’ death, the Roman centurion and his men, witnessing the darkness and earthquake, acknowledge Jesus “was the son of God” (Mt 27:54). Matthew uses the centurion’s statement ironically: Romans considered the Roman emperor divine, the son of a god.

Palm Sunday introduces the most important feasts in the liturgical year. For RCIA participants, the Triduum–and especially the Easter Vigil–is the culmination of their journey to become full sacramental participants in our Catholic believing community. Their desire to become true disciples, to witness to the suffering servant and crucified savior, and to share Jesus’ resurrected life should make all of us stop and think. What do we think of Jesus’ saving act? How do we react to Jesus’ death? How to we participate in Jesus work? Where do we fit in Jesus’ story?

—Terence Sherlock

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