Sunday, April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday (The Passion of the Lord)
Liturgical Color: Red
Gospel before Mass: Luke 19:28–40
First reading: Isaiah 50:4–7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 22:8–9, 17–18, 19–20, 23–24
Second reading: Philippians 2:6–11
Gospel: Luke 22:14—23:56
No Redemption Without the Cross
We begin the liturgy of Holy Week in somewhat different fashion from other Sundays throughout the year, with the blessing of the palms and the proclamation of a Gospel passage before the procession and songs that begin the Mass. (In many parishes, the congregation joins in the procession, finally entering the nave of the church to continue the Mass. This participation literally places us there, in Jerusalem, as our Lord passes by.) It is the prelude, Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. A few days later, he offers himself on the altar of the Cross. We may, then, consider Christ’s ultimate renunciation of the people’s acclaim as the true gateway to what follows because, as he later told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The liturgical procession, with its songs and waving of palm leaves, recalls the people’s acclamation of one of their own in preference to the Roman rulers, with their governor, their soldiers and their puppet king. This is their protest. But their allegiance to the man seems to have been superficial, for in the space of five days, they turned against him, crying out, “Crucify him!” This is the story related in the lengthy Gospel of the Mass. In the end, if we will only realize it, politics and personalities are less important than our personal salvation.
The interesting thing is that the man, Christ, came to Jerusalem for a single purpose: to offer his life to redeem us humans from sin. What was this all about? Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma informs us:
By atonement in general is understood the satisfaction of a demand. In the narrower sense it is taken to mean the reparation of an insult: “Satisfaction is nothing other than the compensation of an injury done to another.” This occurs through a voluntary performance which outweighs the injustice done.… If the atonement is not performed by the offender himself, but by another in his stead, it is vicarious atonement.…
The Council of Ephesus teaches with St. Cyril of Alexandria: “If any one says that He (Christ) offered the oblation for Himself, and not for us only, let him be anathema.” The Council of Trent says of Jesus Christ: “who by His most holy Passion on the wood of the Cross… made satisfaction for us to God the Father.”…
Sacred Scripture contains the teaching of the vicarious atonement, not indeed explicitly but by implication. Isaiah (53:4ff.) foretells of the Servant of God, that is, of the Messiah, that He, the Sinless One, for our sins and in our stead, would suffer and die like an innocent lamb of sacrifice, to obtain for us peace and justification. Christ expressed the idea of the vicarious atonement in the words: “The Son of Man is come… to give His life a redemption for many” (Matthew 20:28). “I lay down my life for my sheep” (John 10:15). The notion of the vicarious atonement appears distinctly in St. Paul also: 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake He made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might be made the justice of God in Him”; Galatians 3:13: “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.” According to Romans 3:25ff., God’s justice is revealed in the demand for and the acceptance of Christ’s vicarious atonement–sacrifice, “to show forth His justice.” Cf. 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18.
This is the story and the doctrine we are given for Holy Week. The solemnity of the occasion and the cumulative length of the readings is the reason that the Palm Sunday liturgy lasts a quarter hour longer than the usual Sunday.
Also, because of the convergent nature of the passages used on this holy day, I will provide only a summary outline of the First and Second Readings and the Psalm (without the Gospel) and prescind from my usual more detailed examination of each.
This is one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah, those famous passages that reveal the suffering that the Messiah is destined to endure, in order to redeem mankind from their sins. There are three sections to this reading. In the first section, the Servant speaks of how he was taught by God. He humbly follows the Lord’s will rather than his own. In the second, he speaks of what he has suffered as a result of not departing from the word that God taught him. And in the third, he acknowledges that, in spite of his suffering, the Lord has provided him substantial aid against his enemies, such that he will continue to follow the teaching he has received.
Let us take this passage as a prophecy: The Son of God was tasked to bring God’s ultimate self-revelation to mankind, and he obediently accepted the challenge. But when he attempted to provide this message to the Chosen People, he was treated abusively, and the people did not receive his word. Nevertheless, the Messiah did not deviate from the truth, and in the end he received divine glory and honor from the eternal Father.
This famous psalm speaks first of the Messiah’s suffering, but later praises the good that results from that suffering. Thus it aligns perfectly with the reading from Isaiah.
Unfortunately, the short excerpts given in the liturgy do not portray the vindication which the Messiah received:
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
The result is that only those familiar with the full text of the psalm will perceive its close parallel to the other readings in this opening day to Holy Week.
Again we have a famous passage, this time dealing with the Incarnation and suffering of the Messiah. And again, the passage has three parts.
In the first part, the Messiah docilely and humbly enters the world in human form, according to the will of God the Father. In the second, he received a criminal’s sentence and suffers ignominious death on an instrument of torture. And in the third, God exalts him above all creation as the savior of mankind. We are, therefore, to worship him as our God.
The Gospel reading that follows, this year from Luke, tells in detail what the Son of God suffered for us. Because of the familiarity of the Passion narrative to Christians generally, I will not comment on it here, but encourage you, the reader, to discern and comment on its overall relationship to the other readings for this day.