Palm Sunday Homily by Fr Gabriel Everitt OSB
We began our celebration today with a commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding upon a colt. Interestingly in the medieval Church this was the gospel set for Mass on Advent Sunday, the celebration which looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ, the triumphant King. Maybe here today too the disciples thought Jesus was entering Jerusalem, still in his earthly life, to be proclaimed as triumphant king. But of course it was not to be and this is already presaged in the humble mount, before ever the cries turned from ‘hosanna’ to ‘crucify’. Still I think the medievals were on to something, when they had this reading on Advent Sunday; there is some deep connection between this entry into Jerusalem on this day and the coming of Christ at the end of time.
Then we read and heard the Passion, for this is Passion Sunday as well as Palm Sunday. We read the Passion in St Luke’s version, this being the year of Luke, and some of Luke’s very distinctive features and emphases in this most familiar story may help our meditation.
So for example it is Luke who adds his own characteristic emphasis on Jesus’ prayerfulness, which is such a distinctive feature of his Gospel. At the Last Supper, Jesus says to Peter ‘I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers’. When Peter’s faith does seem to fail in his denials of being one of Jesus’ disciples, it is Luke who records that Jesus turns and looks at Peter. It is that look as much as the cock crowing that makes Peter go out and weep bitterly. Many of us have known that bitter sense of failure at some time in our discipleship, but then Jesus prays for us. Jesus’ prayerfulness in the Garden of Gethsemane likewise finds a particular emphasis in Luke: he records that Jesus prays so intensely that his sweat fell like great drops of blood.
Luke’s paramount emphasis, however, in his account of the Passion, is his profound insight into the reason for it, the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death. So it is in Luke that we are told that Jesus heals the ear of the high priest’s servant when it is cut off by one of the disciples: ‘touching the man’s ear, he healed him’. This is what Jesus is going to do in his ensuing suffering and death: ‘by his wounds we have been healed’. Jesus’ sacrifice of himself will bring us healing and forgiveness. It is in Luke that we hear that as he was nailed to the cross, he says ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. A theme of reconciliation may also be part of the meaning of that rather strange episode between Pilate and Herod – both in a way are villains, albeit weak one and enemies of Christ and of one another, but somehow Jesus brings them together – they had been enemies, but they became friends from that day on. In Ephesians chapter 2, St Paul says of Jew and Gentile: ‘His purpose was by restoring peace, to create a single New Man out of the two of them, and through the cross to reconcile them both to God in one Body; in his own person, he killed the hostility’.
Jesus is the King for Luke, ‘the Christ of God’ – this phrase is used mockingly by the religious leaders of the people, when Jesus is on the cross ‘let him save himself if he is the Christ of God’. But these words are also those said in Luke by Peter at Caesarea Philippi – ‘it was Peter who spoke up [You are] the Christ of God’. Christ the King in Luke says at the beginning of his account of the Passion to his little group of disciples, ‘I confer a kingdom on you’.
It is not in all of this that Luke lessens the horror of the suffering of the Passion; he has the brutality, the mockery, the scourging as in the other evangelists. Indeed to the women of Jerusalem who cry and wail in Luke, Jesus says ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children … For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?’
Healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and then also salvation and entry into heaven. This is the promise of Jesus, according to Luke, to the criminal crucified next to him who asks him ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’ and to whom Jesus replies ‘Indeed I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise’. For this we too pray, to be with Jesus, healed, forgiven, reconciled, saved and brought to the joy of heaven.
Jesus is the humble king in Luke, Christ the Lord, the saviour who brings forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation. So he comes in his incarnation, so he comes in his suffering, passion and death. As St Paul puts it in our second reading from his letter to the Philippians: ‘He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross’. St Benedict cites this passage in his third step of humility that a man submits to his superior in all obedience for the love of God. Humility is the heart of the spiritual teaching of St Benedict, which in this passage becomes an incorporation into Christ, a growing into Christ, who is himself the humble one. Christ came in humility in his incarnation, he was humbler yet in his death on the cross, so God raised him up and when he comes again at the end of time, it will be to gather into his kingdom, his little ones, the lowly in heart, of whom for Luke Mary is the first and our best example. Then again at this Second Coming, in this Advent, the little ones, the lowly in heart, will cry out ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. Then the joy and praise, which came first in today’s Mass, will also then be the last and everlasting word.