Palm/Passion Sunday: The strength to not come down from the cross

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Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Year A: April 16-17, 2011

At the Procession with Palms
Matt 21:1-11

What anticipation there must have been in the crowd on that Sunday, entering Jerusalem! What excitement! Like all the People of Israel, they longed to be liberated from the rule of the Roman Empire. They looked forward to the day when the Holy Land would again be completely devoted to the Lord. And they prayed, asking the Lord to send his Messiah—his Anointed One, the long-awaited descendant of the great King David—to save them.

And now, it seemed, perhaps it was all beginning to happen. At last! They cried: “Hosanna!”—which literally meant “Save us,” but had come to mean something like “Long live the king!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Save us, Lord! Long live the Son of David!” What hope! What anticipation of a great victory! And the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”

Jesus anticipated something too, as he rode into Jerusalem that day. But it wasn’t a military victory. He knew what was coming. He had taught his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly, and be killed and on the third day be raised. [Matt 16:21] It would be a great victory indeed—the greatest victory of all of history. For this purpose he had come. But how dearly it would cost him! What man could ride forward, knowing what suffering awaited him? And Christ was true man. But he rode forward, setting his face like flint, his heart firm, his purpose steady.

Say to daughter Zion, “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” “Hosanna in the highest!”

At the Mass
Isa 50:4-7; Ps 22; Phil 2:6-11; Matt 26:14–27:66

We have heard again the account of our Lord’s Passion. And now all has been done. It is finished. The spitting, the beating; the scourging and the long carrying of the cross; the pounding of the nails, the agony, the last loud cry. It is all finished. The body is enclosed in the tomb, and the guard is set. And we wait, bruised and sorrowful: at that pain, the injustice, the cowardice, the apparent crushing of hope and love in this world.

In this account of the Passion by St. Matthew, there are many words, spoken or shouted. And so few of them are positive. There are so many accusations; mockeries; and taunts. And indeed we find that we come full circle, in these Gospel readings that we have heard on these Sundays of Lent.

It was 5 weeks ago, on the First Sunday of Lent, that we heard the account of Christ’s temptation in the desert:

  • when Satan said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread,” and, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from this place.”
  • And now we hear this voice again, from those passing by his cross: “If you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!”
  • Back then, Satan said, “All the kingdoms of the world I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
  • Now it is: “Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.”

Now it is not a matter of satisfying hunger, but of ending his Passion, his great and terrible suffering. Now it is not a matter of getting something to eat, but of saving his life. Isn’t there another way to do this? Can’t the victory be achieved a different way? Why not be the military victor that the crowds wanted back on Palm Sunday? Why not call down those legions of angels? Why not come down from the cross?

But that question has been answered. He has known for so long that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly, and be killed and on the third day be raised. [Matt 16:21] And it has been confirmed yet again in the Agony in the Garden: “Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” And so he is firm. He is resolute. He is steadfast and unwavering, his face like flint, as we heard in Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading. He would not be pushed off track. He would finish his course. He would complete his mission.

And this story of Christ’s Passion is filled with pictures of others who did not stay their course.

  • There is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. He was warned by his wife. He looked for a chance to release Jesus, in the custom of releasing one prisoner at Passover. But when he saw that he was not succeeding but a riot was breaking out instead, he washed his hands of it all: of the situation, of his duty, of his justice, of his manhood. Pilate would save his skin, at the price of Christ’s.
  • Then there is Judas, who followed Christ as his disciple for years; but then agrees to betray him to his enemies, for 30 pieces of silver. And he does, leading the soldiers to him in the Garden, identifying Jesus with a kiss. But then he realizes what he has done: he has betrayed innocent blood; he has betrayed the Lord that he followed. He is struck by deep regret. But he is utterly alone, with no sympathy from those to whom he had betrayed him. And he fell into despair, and killed himself.
  • And finally there is Peter. So brave, so bold. He had made great promises: “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be… Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And surely he meant this when he said it! But when Jesus tells him that the sword is not the way to defend him, Peter is a little lost. And when he finds himself eyed suspiciously in that courtyard by those servants—questioned, accused, while he is surrounded and utterly vulnerable, no defenses, just seconds away from being chained and scourged himself—he crumbles. He denies his Lord three times. And he regretted it, and wept bitterly.

Pilate, Judas, and Peter: three men who cracked under pressure; who betrayed themselves and Christ when they failed to do the right thing.

But it was Christ who showed the virtue of fortitude—of courage and strength—of “firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good,” which enabled him “to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions.” [CCC 1808]

And how did he do it? By outwardly defeating his enemies? No—for St. Thomas Aquinas tells us [ST, II-II, 123, 6] that the chief act of fortitude is not aggressively overcoming an enemy who is weaker than you. Rather, it comes when you face an enemy who is stronger—and then you respond with the chief act of fortitude, which is endurance.

The one who has the virtue of fortitude may be defeated and suffer outwardly, but he will not be defeated inwardly. He will not betray; he will not deny; he will not be pushed from the right path by fear or suffering; just as he will not be pulled from it by temptation. Nothing will prevent him from doing what is right and good; nothing will stop him from carrying out his Father’s will.

And so our Lord won the victory by entering Jerusalem, when he knew what lay ahead; by giving his back to those who beat him; his cheeks, his face to the buffets and spitting; by emptying himself and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

In the eyes of the word, it was an idealistic but foolish death—a naïve failure. But by faith we know it to be the greatest of victories. For by his dying, our Lord destroyed our sins; and by his rising, he has raised us up to new and unending life.

St. Peter wrote [1 Pet 2:21-22]:

“If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”

To this you have been called: to a fortitude, a courage, a strength that cannot be shoved aside by threats, nor lured away by temptation—but that sets your face like flint, your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. [Heb 12:2]

May the grace of this Holy Week enkindle our gratitude and devotion to our Lord Jesus, and strengthen our fortitude as we follow in his footsteps.

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