Thursday, April 02, 2009

Homily Palm Sunday Year B

Following is my homily for this Sunday on both the readings for the Procession with Palms and on the readings for the account of the Passion in the Mass. This may be a bit long, especially after everyone will have stood for a good while listening to the reading of the Passion ;) But, how in the heck does one preach briefly on Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his Passion and Death? A true mark of genius is profundity in simplicity. The early Church Fathers wrote and preached this way. I have much to learn. Let me know what you think.

Today marks the beginning of a rapid succession of external rituals in the life of a Catholic. We are reminded of Ash Wednesday, a non-Holy Day of Obligation that more Catholics attend than most Sundays during the Year in order to receive the blessed ashes on their forehead. Today we receive palm branches and we fold them into neat little crosses. On Holy Thursday we have the foot-washing. On Good Friday we kneel and kiss the Cross. And Saturday night, the Easter Vigil, is filled with incense, chants, exclamations, water, oil, and light. All of these, even the deadening silence and nakedness of the altar on Good Friday, are rich experiences that flood our senses. It somehow makes sense that we show up in such larger numbers to these liturgies than to the common Sunday obligation. Our Lord made us to be sensing beings and uses our senses to relate himself to us. But what will we do when Easter is over and the rest of the liturgical year marches on? What will we do when all the sensational things give way to the sobriety and noble simplicity that most often marks the Holy Mass? Will we then fall away, less interested in Masses that don’t excite our senses or our feelings?

Let us begin today, Palm Sunday, and continually until Easter Sunday, to re-examine our Faith. We must not forget that all of the external rituals of our faith are not an end in and of themselves. We do not have ashes, palms, silence, and all the rest merely for aesthetic effect. We have them to remind us of the deeper spiritual realities that they signify. Religious sentiment and feeling are good and appropriate in response to these beautiful things for they often serve as invitations to more fully enter into our faith. But our experiences of these things must not stop at the level of feelings, for feelings come and go. We must consider the underlying spiritual effect that is taking place.

Today’s Mass, for example, with the palms and the account of the Passion, is filled with intense imagery and dialogue. Every image, every word, has some real bearing on our spirituality, on our soul. In fact, every part of Jesus’ entire life has saving meaning. Therefore, let us ask ourselves today, as we actively listen throughout today’s Mass, “What does this part have to do with my soul?” During the silent moments of this Mass, which today and throughout Holy Week are more emphasized, really stop and ask our Lord, “What does this part have to do with my soul?”

Like perhaps some of you, I myself have struggled with bouts of lukewarm-ness during this Lent. Some of us here may have a lukewarm faith, may be here merely for the externals. We may think “I’m not going to think about my soul, I’m not that religious.” But it is precisely for this question that the Lord has called all of us, each with our different, higher, and lower degrees of faith, to this celebration today. And besides, we know that this – our heart, our soul – is really why we’re here. We say throughout the Year that we are here for the music, or for the ashes, or for the palms, or to see our friend or relative be baptized. “Hey, we’re there for the important ones, right?”, we may even boast. But, we know, especially after being away, that what we really yearn for is not to merely behold externals, but to receive some sort of comfort from the long Lent of life, some sense that we are indeed good, and that there is hope to be made better. When we take an honest look at our lives we come to see that absence from our faith really doesn’t make us happier. Let us claim together our presence here for what is truly is, a communion of hearts longing for something greater than ourselves, longing to know the Lord again, longing to shout to him “Abba, Father!”(Mk 14:36); “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord… Hosanna in the highest!” (Mk 11:9-10)

This reminds me of a conversation I had a few days ago with one of the ladies in our choir. I asked her what music we would be using for today’s Procession with Palms and she answered that we would be using a hymn we have used here for many years. Then she paused and pondered out loud on the seeming contradiction we have in the music of today’s Mass. It begins with the festive joy of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem but then delves into the darkness of the Passion. Why is that? Well, it didn’t dawn on me until later that perhaps that is the point.

Here, we can ask our question, but I’ll only cover one example because I know we have listened for a long time already too the account of the Passion. Processing with palms today is a very physical thing. “What does this have to do with my soul?” Well, let’s look at what is happening. Up to this point Jesus had been telling those he cured to remain silent. He has also been disappearing when the people would rise up to make him king. They wanted a Messiah who would rule with military might and free them from Roman occupation. But our Lord wanted to teach them by his words and miracles that his kingdom is of heaven, not of earth, and he wishes to reign in hearts, not in palaces.Today, though, is different. Now is the acceptable time. His hour is at hand. Today he allows them to proclaim him as king to teach us to look for kingship not in one who is dominating and ambitious but in One who is humble and obedient. Therefore our Lord – who in his Divinity deserved to ride into Jerusalem upon a golden throne, atop teams of chariots and horses, on a path of fine tapestries and gold – rides instead on the poor throne of a donkey along a path of cloaks and palm braches. This he did to the shouts of “many people” (Mk 11:8), a “great crowd” (Jn 12:12): “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel” (Jn 12:13).

But, then remember what happens. Only a few days later, this same group of Jews turns this acclamation into a death sentence, into a trumped-up charge of blasphemy.[1] Pilate said to them, “what do you want me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted, “Crucify him” (Mk 15:12-13).
[And] The soldiers led him away inside the palace… and assembled the whole cohort. They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. They began to salute him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!" and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him. They knelt before him in homage. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him out to crucify him (Mk 15:16-20).
At this point, according to Roman law, Pilate probably sent a formal declaration of the charge against this so-called criminal to the archives in Rome. Then a copy of that charge was fixed to the cross on which Christ was crucified.[2] Over our Lord’s head, then, we see: “I.N.R.I.” an acronym that in Latin reads “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Furthermore the chief priests and scribes continued to mock him saying “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:31-32). But they had no interest in “belief” for a greater miracle than what they asked for, indeed the greatest miracle of all time, was unfolding before their very eyes, yet even then they could not “see.”[3] For Christ’s enemies, condemning him to death for being the King of the Jews would be the maximum correction for those under their influence who praised him for being that very thing.[4]

Again, “What does this have to do with my soul?” Let’s think about this. It’s easy to shout with praise and acclamation to Jesus when everyone around us is shouting too. But when the leaders of our society disperse enough ill will, look how quick we are to condemn him. Do I preach Christ, and Him Crucified only when I am surrounded by attentive parishioners or brother priests? When I’m with my old buddies from college, at a restaurant with friends, or on the annual family camping trip do I praise him still or am I tempted to speak otherwise? Perhaps we could take a lesson, even from the donkey in our reading. St. Josemaria Escriva, who as you know is one of my favorites, asks us to:
"Try to remember what a donkey is like--now that so few of them are left. Not an old, stubborn, vicious one that would give you a kick when you least expected,but a young one with his ears up like antennae. He lives on a meagre diet, ishard-working and has a quick, cheerful trot. There are hundreds of animals morebeautiful, more deft and strong. But it was a donkey Christ chose when he pre-sented himself to the people as king in response to their acclamation. For Jesushas no time for calculations, for astuteness, for the cruelty of cold hearts, for at-tractive but empty beauty. What he likes is the cheerfulness of a young heart,a simple step, a natural voice, clean eyes, attention to his affectionate word ofadvice. That is how he reigns in the soul" (St. J. Escriva, "Christ Is Passing By",181). [Navarre commentary on Mk 11:3]
But, even more so than the donkey, let us be like our Blessed Mother. As that old hymn, Stabat Mater, testifies (The Way of the Cross, Fulton J. Sheen):
At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last…

Christ above in torment hangs,
She beneath beholds the pangs
Of her dying glorious Son…

O my Mother, fount of love,
Touch my spirit from above;
Make my heart with yours accord…

Make me feel as you have felt,
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ my Lord…

Let me share with you His pain,
Who for all my sins was slain,
Who for me in torment died…

By the cross with you to stay,
There with you to weep and pray,
Is all I ask of you to give.
How can we live this hymn today? By letting the model, of those who acclaimed him as King only to crucify him for being so, show us how Not to act. And by letting the model of our Blessed Mother show us how To act, for it was she who stayed by Christ’s side from the start, amid the joy of the wedding feast at Cana, to the bitter end, with the Apostle, John, on the hill of Calvary. Let us be John to her and Him. When we clearly and charitably correct a co-worker for speaking ill of the Church, we stand with Mary at the side of Jesus. When we patiently bear the criticism of those who do not share our piety or convictions, we stand with Mary at the side of Jesus. When we challenge ourselves to grow in our faith and be responsible Catholics when it seems that those near us have fallen asleep, we stand with Mary at the side of Jesus.

All of this is made possible by the grace that streams for all time from our Lord’s Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. And all of this is possible for every one of us here, no matter what degree of faith we have. I offer to you again, the question we began with, as a way of opening ourselves up to this grace. Ask yourself, with each new symbol that leads us to Easter Sunday, “What does this part have to do with my soul?” This I think will allow the grace to penetrate deeply into our hearts, deeper than our feelings, and begin to mold and transform us into Catholics who are always faithful, always at our Lord’s right hand, even when there is “darkness… over the whole land” (Mk 15:33).

[1] Navarre commentary on Mark 11:1-11
[2] Ibid., John 19:19-22
[3] Ibid., Mark 15:29-32
[4] Ibid., Mark 15:24-28

3 comments:

phatcatholic said...

I'm not sure if your typical congregation could hang w/ you through the whole thing, but it was certainly a joy to read. Maybe they could hang. I guess it depends on how you deliver it.

Matt1618 said...

Yeah, I see what you mean. Actually the first two pages (ending with "longing to shout 'Abba Father! Hosanna!") would be after the readings for the Procession with Palms and the rest would be after the Passion readings.
I also delivered this from the text and again from an outline of it and Fr. Terry preferred the outline much more.

John Park said...

Only a few days later, this same group of Jews turns this acclamation into a death sentence, into a trumped-up charge of blasphemy.[1]

I used to wonder how the same group of people could turn on Jesus so quickly, but if you look closely at the Gospel accounts (especially John), the ones who acclaimed him on Sunday were those who came with him from Galilee, while those who clamoured for his death on Friday were the "Jews," the inhabitants of Jerusalem. So in fact, they were two different groups of people.