Blog & Pastor Letters

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord


Today’s celebration joins two observances: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the suffering and death that followed that. Ordinarily on Sunday, we celebrate and remember the Resurrection of Jesus. But with next Sunday being Easter, the great annual celebration of the Resurrection, this Sunday we prepare to celebrate that resurrection by remembering intensely his Passion and death. Each year, therefore, faithful Catholics will hear the entire account of Jesus’s suffering and death this week and his Resurrection next week. These two celebrations, of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord, bracket Holy Week. But even if one cannot attend the observances of Holy Week, the Sunday liturgy alone allows us to hear and ponder the entire paschal mystery, which encompasses Jesus’s death and resurrection.

The length and power of the Gospel, an entire two chapters from Mark’s Gospel, occupies our attention. But before that, the Church lays a foundation for understanding Jesus’s suffering and death with the beautiful second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a powerful hymn to Christ as the God who emptied himself even to death on the Cross. Most scholars believe that this hymn is not Paul’s creation, but an early Christian hymn that he incorporates into this letter. It expresses the mystery of Christ’s self-emptying love: that though he was in the form of God, he humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, even accepting death, death on a Cross. That death leads then to his exaltation, and his worship by all of creation. In Paul’s theology, the Cross reveals who Jesus truly is.

This Philippians hymn gives the theology, and the Gospel gives the history, the story of how Jesus empties himself through his death on the Cross. This year, we hear Mark’s account, which ends with the centurion professing that Jesus truly was the Son of God, the climactic moment of Mark’s Gospel in which the Cross reveals who Jesus truly is. In the opening verse of his Gospel, Mark identifies Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1), but as the story progresses, it is only demons who recognize him as such (cf. Mark 1:24; 5:7). In the center of Mark’s Gospel, Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, but he does not understand what that means, and earns Jesus’s rebuke for urging him against God’s plan of crucifixion (Mark 8:27-33).

Jesus three times explains that the Messiah must suffer, die, and be raised, but Peter and the apostles do not understand (Mark 8:31; 9:31-32; 10:32-34). They are still looking for a glorious Messiah, but Jesus is a suffering servant, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43). Jesus’s true identity as the Son of God can only be seen at the foot of the cross, and in proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God, the centurion speaks for all of humanity and indeed all of creation. This is what the Philippians hymn demands: that every tongue shall “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The context in which St. Paul uses this hymn in Philippians is important, for he is not primarily interested in teaching his readers about Christ, but in using the example of Christ to teach them how to live. If we read just before the point that the hymn begins in today’s reading, Paul is urging the Philippians to be of the same mind and have the same love, to do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility to count others as better themselves. His point is that they should live after the model of Christ, in self-emptying love tha is of service to each other. Their lives ought to conform to Christ’s. Mark does the same through his Gospel: Jesus’s suffering and death are the model for his disciples to follow. The point isn’t simply about Jesus, but it is about us, his disciples. We are to follow Jesus in his self-emptying love, embodied in lives of service: not to be served but to serve and to give our own lives for Christ and the gospel. In the words of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, by following him in suffering, we will follow him in glory (Sp. Ex. 95). It is an eloquent answer to that fundamental question of human existence, the problem of evil and suffering: a God who empties himself to suffer with us, and leads us through suffering into glory.