Palm Sunday: What kind of king is this?

Listen to mp3 file (note that the audio quality improves significantly starting at 2:25)
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, Year B:
April 1, 2012

At the Procession with Palms
John 12:12-16

Once again we begin Holy Week as we always do: with a joyful procession with palm branches. For so the first Holy Week began on that first Palm Sunday so many years ago: with cloaks and palm branches spread on the road, and palm branches held high, in welcome for the king!

The king, the Son of the great King David, the Messiah, the King of Israel had arrived in Jerusalem! With what joy the crowd welcomed our Lord Jesus! With what hope! For they had long looked forward to liberation—liberation from the Roman Empire. And they had long looked forward to things being made right throughout the Holy Land.

At long last, the Lord had answered their prayers! At long last, liberation and justice were at hand!

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!”

And the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” (Matt 21:10) And how appropriate that they should ask. The crowd acclaimed a king. But what kind of king was this? What would he do? What kind of liberation would he bring?

Our Lord Jesus knew. For he was their long-awaited king—but not the way they expected. And he would bring them liberation and justice—greater than any earthly king had ever brought—but not the way they expected. Victory awaited; and forward he rode. Into Jerusalem; into Holy Week.

Fear no more, O daughter Zion; see, your king comes! “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” Hosanna in the highest!

At the Mass
Isa 50:4-7; Ps 22; Phil 2:6-11; Mark 14:1–15:47

What kind of king is this? Five days earlier the crowds had acclaimed him, waving palm branches and crying, “Hosanna,” “Save us”! And now it had come to this.

In those intervening days, what many had surely expected had not happened: no military organizing, no arming, no overthrow of the occupying Roman government. Instead, in Christ’s Passion, we find him crucified upon a Roman cross, stripped naked before the world, crowned a crown of thorns, with the sign over his head reading “the King of the Jews.” What kind of king was this?

The account of the Passion, which we have heard read once again, speaks of his suffering: of the betrayal, the scourging, the crowning of thorns, the mockery, the carrying of the cross; being nailed to it; being suspended from it, exposed, until finally he died. But we notice that much more space in the account is given over to showing the working-out of what led up to it. On the one side, there are the machinations of government and power. On the other side, we see our Lord Jesus and his disciples, as he continues to live and work out his own plan.

And again and again throughout this account, we see this phrase recur: “the King of the Jews.” It was over his head; Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”; the soldiers taunted him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”; and so had the chief priests and scribes. And so, again and again, we are prompted to ask: what kind of king was this?

On the one side, we see government and power. We see Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor; and all the Roman soldiers working with him to maintain control of this province of their empire. We also see the leaders of the Jewish people—the chief priests, the elders, the scribes, all the members of the Sanhedrin council—who maintained a careful balancing act, holding a sort of power and leadership, while needing to keep the Roman Empire satisfied.

All of these figures operated within this system that we know so well: with its offices, its procedures, its authority, its laws, and its punishments; with so much carried out through the threat or reality of violence. They were all individuals. How did they reach their positions? What motivated them? We don’t know their individual stories; but we can speculate based upon the patterns that we do know, now. Perhaps some of them wanted power and control, or perhaps riches; and so they had sought these positions. Perhaps others had wanted to accomplish something good and noble; and so they had sought these positions. Whatever their motivation, we know what it must have taken to get there—the commitments they needed to make; the obedience they needed to give; the maneuvers they needed to carry out against rivals—ultimately reaching these positions.

And, once there, did they accomplish what they set out to do? Those who had sought power surely found themselves continually constrained by those around them—not having nearly as much power as they thought they would. Those who had sought to do good surely found themselves similarly constrained; while, behind them, stretched a long string of compromises. For both motivations, their ambitions for power or for good had been compromised by the system. It seemed they were more the prisoners of the system than its leaders. And as we look back upon them from 2000 years later, what became of them and their accomplishments? All have blown away like chaff in the wind.

On the other side, we see our Lord Jesus. Our Lord Jesus, who was obedient to the Father: who said, as in the first reading, “I have not rebelled.” Our Lord Jesus, who, as St. Paul wrote, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross? He had sought, not power, but the will of his Father. He had sought, not to take riches from others, but to give; and we see that he gave everything. He sought to do good; and what compromises did he make, in order to get to a position in which he could do it? None! No compromises, no regrets.

With earthly eyes, we see him betrayed, condemned, and crushed; utterly humiliated, a complete failure. With the eyes of faith, we see something different. Indeed, even with earthly eyes, we can look out right here, in this Mass—where we see the fruits of his kingship, right here in front of us.

Where are the fruits of the kingship of Pilate, or the chief priests, or the Sanhedrin?

Our Lord Jesus had told his disciples:

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. It shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant… For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

That is the kind of kingship that our Lord Jesus exercised. And we need to recognize what his kingship is, because we share in it through baptism. In our baptism, we are made to share in his triple office of prophet, priest, and king. It is his kingship we share in—so we need to grasp clearly what his kingship is.

The question is: which pattern are we following? Our baptism was a long time ago. Are we following that first pattern—the example of Pilate, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin? Or are we following the example of our Lord Jesus?

A figure who can represent us within the Gospel account is none other than St. Peter. For we see him at the beginning, well-meaning, declaring that he will follow Jesus faithfully, never turning back. But it doesn’t work out so well for him within the account of the Passion. He can’t stay awake for an hour. He seeks to defend Jesus with the methods of that first kingdom, brandishing the sword until Jesus tells him to put it away.

And then we see his courage fail when he faces the prospect of his own punishment, his own cross—so that he is too afraid to even acknowledge that he follows Jesus, and he denies him three times. For Christ did not promise that he would never have to suffer, and he does not promise us this either. To the contrary, he said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) And that scared Peter to death. And so, as our Lord suffered his Passion, Peter turned back: he could not make himself actually follow in the steps of Christ’s kingship.

But we know that that was not the end of the story. We know that he would return to Christ after his resurrection; that Christ would restore him; and that Peter would lead the Church as its first Pope. Eventually he would reach Rome; eventually he would reach a cross of his own, crucified upside-down.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once told a reporter what he had been thinking, when the camera captured him looking very thoughtful, on the day in April 2005 when Pope Benedict XVI was first elected and stepped out onto the balcony at St. Peter’s. Cardinal George was on a nearby balcony, looking out across the square at the great ancient monuments visible from there in the city of Rome. And he said:

“I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.'”  (Fr. Robert Barron, Catholicism, p. 35)

The successor of St. Peter, whom they crucified, was standing right there, still following Christ; and crowds also following Christ filled the square in front of them.

The emperor Nero put St. Peter to death; and it has been observed that, today, men name their dogs Nero, and their sons Peter.

What kind of king is our Lord Jesus? The only king who conquers, who provides, who saves, who redeems, and who shows us the way forward. A king who leads us to the cross, and then through it to eternal life. That is the king we follow. That is the gift he offers. Let us then follow him to the cross, and beyond, to the glory of heaven.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

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