Palm Sunday

Reflection: Don’t be bystanders this week


Liturgy is drama, and Holy Week invites us not just to watch but to play our own part.

The rituals of remembrance last an entire week (and a lifetime), drawing us ever more deeply into the mystery of God’s love.

We begin with the carefully choreographed entry into Jerusalem, then the plots, an anointing, the preparation and celebration of the supper and finally, the Passion that begins in the garden of arrest and is fulfilled in the garden of the empty tomb. This week is one prolonged invitation to communion with and in Christ. Because it’s too much to take we can choose any event and discover that it summarizes them all. In this year of synodality and the U.S. eucharistic revival, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples seems a fitting choice.

The conversation initiating this story has easily overlooked subtleties. Amid feasting and danger, the disciples ask Jesus, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?” In reply, Jesus gives them a task that demonstrates that he has already prepared for all that is to come. Following Jesus’ instructions, they find the householder who will provide a place for Jesus to eat “with my disciples.” In Jesus’ eyes, this meal will implicate every participant.

What Jesus does at the table summarizes his entire life and mission. As the host, Jesus blesses the bread as usual. Yet this time he radically refocuses the blessing.

The traditional blessings for bread and wine gave thanks for God’s constant care. Holding the bread, the host would say: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the Earth.”

In the name of all present, the host then takes the wine saying, “Blessed art thou . . . who creates the fruit of the vine.” We see that Jesus did not bless the food and drink, he blessed God for sustaining all life. Rather than sanctifying the elements, this blessing recognized the innate holiness of everything that comes from God. Such a blessing forms the participants into a community united in praise and thanksgiving, and in awareness that all we are and have comes from God who unites Self with us as intimately as the food that sustains us.

Mark, Matthew and Luke each record how Jesus’ blessings of the bread and wine at this supper diverged from tradition. In Jesus’ culture, the body represented the whole person in relationship with others. Blood was the sacred life force of the body.

When Jesus blessed and broke the bread, he added the audacious statement, “This is my body.” By saying that, Jesus identified himself, not as a grateful recipient of God’s gifts, but as the gift of God. Taking the wine, Jesus pronounced the traditional blessing and went on to identify himself as the lifeblood of the covenant, God’s vulnerable offer to share life with creation — no matter the supposed worthiness or unworthiness of the people.

Now, Mark reiterates what he depicted when the disciples offered to prepare the Passover for Jesus and his reply that they were all to be full participants in it. Jesus blessed, broke and gave them the bread, offering them his very self as the gift of life. Then, when Jesus took the cup, blessed and gave it to them, they all drank of it. Only after they had accepted it, did Jesus explain that it was communion in his life of being poured out for the many. By eating and drinking this bread and wine with him, they took in the gift of God that he was and entered into his own self-giving (Mark 10:28-30). This was their Passover, their full communion with and in him. This suggests that the command, “Do this in memory of me,” refers to Jesus’ self-giving and that our ritual is meant to draw us into communion with and in him so that we too will become God’s gift of life for the many.

What are we to take from this?

Today, we watched the spectators shout, “Hosanna,” and soon thereafter cry out, “Crucify him!” The Scriptures and liturgies of Holy Week make it hard to be neutral. They interrogate us, calling us to play our part in the drama of God’s great love. We are free to remain spectators, swaying with the wind. We might be trapped among those whose clinging to their plan or power blinds them to God’s offer. Or we may choose the strength and freedom offered in the bread that gives us the sustenance necessary to take up the cup of self-giving love. 

This week of remembrance leads us to ask ourselves, “Are we prepared to be implicated with Christ?” Do we believe it when we say, “Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free?”

Reflection 2: The man who would be king


Today’s is a special liturgy, known as “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” If you were tempted to think of it as just another Mass with a couple of additions, drop that assumption. Passion Sunday is a very deep vision of the heart and soul of Christianity.

A Procession with Palms precedes Mass. We hear the Procession Gospel reading, and its premise: Jesus is kingly and making a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. He chooses a donkey to ride on, carrying out Zechariah words: “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, a beast of burden.” The sign of a king was humility, so in Israel the customary mount for a king in procession was a donkey. People cheer wildly and the whole city is stirred to its depths. They layer his pathway with palm branches and even sprawl their coats out upon it. This sovereign must not be sullied by common dirt. He is their king!

Then our Mass itself begins. The First Reading is a passage from Isaiah called the “Third Song of the Suffering Servant,” one that Jesus knew well. “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue,” it says, “that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” This he did, and was accorded applause for it, treated like royalty. “I have not rebelled, have not turned away…I gave my back to those who beat me.” Jesus let even his own body receive brutal scourging. Making real the Suffering Servant, Jesus “set his face like flint” toward the humiliation that was to come. His kingship meant terrible suffering, and humiliation, not publicity and grandeur.

In the Second Reading, Paul uses words from a primal Christian hymn showing the same contrast. Jesus had every right to be known as the greatest human being ever born (in the desert, Satan had tempted him to think this way), but he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Is this what it means to be a king? That he “humbled himself and became obedient unto death”? Another verse of this ancient hymn says that God did in fact exalt Jesus, but only because Jesus had emptied himself. God did not remove the passion or relieve him of the cup he was to drink. God showed that kingship consists of love that is willing to sacrifice for others. Kings, queens, leaders, all, must work for the actual good of actual people no matter what the cost. Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is about this contrast, a kingship of splendor and fame which means a kingship of service to others. Both of today’s Gospel readings present this dual vision.

All this is brought to a head by Matthew’s long Gospel story of Jesus’ passion and death. What better way to show us what God’s kingship is really about. So, at last, Jesus is doing it – the thing he had preached about, giving himself for others. Now he is showing real kingship. Our eyes are open for Holy Week.

Reflection 3: Suffering


Today we celebrate Jesus, the suffering Messiah. He is the one of whom Isaiah foretold: “My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. He is the Christ who took the form of a slave, … obediently accepting even death, death on a cross.” He is the savior who “suffered willingly for sinners” and whose suffering makes us pleasing to God.

We all suffer in our own way. We experience physical pain and hardship. We suffer watching our friends and relatives suffer. We are often offended or abandoned by others, and we add to our suffering by our own sinfulness. The world around us is filled with suffering: victims of war and poverty; people living in streets or in shantytowns; starving children; lonely elderly; people dying of AIDS, cancer, the COVID pandemic, or some other disease.

Today’s liturgy teaches us “to welcome our suffering,” to bear witness to God by following Christ’s example of suffering. We pray that the world “united with him in his suffering on the cross may share his resurrection and new life.” Had Jesus merely said that his mission was to set people free from sin and all forms of oppression, his words would have fallen on deaf ears. He had to work at this task of liberation. He not only talked about freeing the poor and oppressed but, undeterred by criticism, actually welcomed the poor and sinners to share at his table. Like Jesus, we must be able to accompany others in their suffering and be willing to suffer with them.

At the Procession with Palms


(Mark 11: 1-10)

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, 
he sent two of his disciples and said to them, 
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it, 
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it
and will send it back here at once.’”
So they went off 
and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, 
and they untied it.
Some of the bystanders said to them, 
“What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, 
and they permitted them to do it.
So they brought the colt to Jesus
and put their cloaks over it.
And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, 
and others spread leafy branches 
that they had cut from the fields.
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!”


(John 12:12-16)

When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard 
that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 
they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
the king of Israel.”
Jesus found an ass and sat upon it, as is written:
Fear no more, O daughter Zion;
see, your king comes, seated upon an ass’s colt.
His disciples did not understand this at first, 
but when Jesus had been glorified 
they remembered that these things were written about him 
and that they had done this for him. 

At the Mass

First Reading

(Isaiah 50: 4-7)

The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 22: 8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24)

Second Reading

(Philippians 2: 6-11)

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Gospel: Passion According to Mark

(Mark 14:1-15:57)

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