09 Apr 2017

Homily For The Mass Of Palm Sunday Of The Passion Of The Lord 2017
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 9 April 2017

What a sight! Jesus entering Jerusalem and greeted as a king, the crowd casting their cloaks before him and waving victory palms (Mt 21:1-11). Imagine the exhilaration of the apostles, their pride in Jesus, perhaps their sense of self-importance too, as they walked beside him. But in less than a week the joy turns to grief, the pride to fear, as this new King David is crucified as a common criminal (Mt 26:14-27:66). How could this be, the disciples must have wondered? How could one with such divine powers suffer such an ignoble death?

In Thomas Hardy’s poem In the Servants’ Quarters Peter warms himself by a fire in a courtyard below, while Jesus is being tried above. Surrounded by constables and taunted by maids, he finally declares ‘No! I’ll be damned in hell if I know anything about the man!’ Then the cock crows and the poem comes to its climax in Peter’s shame at what he’s done:

His face convulses as the morning cock that moment crows,
And he stops, and turns, and goes.

What Hardy’s poem captures are Peter’s confused emotions while Jesus is being tried: a growing anxiety for his own safety; but worse, his anger at Jesus’ refusal to save Himself. Perhaps this is behind Peter’s denial so soon after he’d declared he would willingly die for Christ: not simple cowardice as is usually assumed, but exasperation that One so mighty would allow Himself to be brought so low, so quickly, and so shatter His followers’ dreams of self-importance…

There was already a hint of his terrible exit, of course, in Jesus’ very entry into Jerusalem. As Zechariah prophesied, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, yet humble and riding on an ass.” (Zech 9:9) Triumphant messiahs rode steeds, not asses. Yet as the 14th-century monk, Gregory of Palamas, pointed out, “This king is not willing to frighten those who look upon him… He does not come with armed escort, at the head of a host of cavalry and foot soldiers… No, this king is recognised by his lowliness, poverty, frugality, and so he enters the city on a donkey.”1
  Christ identifies Himself not with the victors marching through the triumphal arches, but with the captives dragged behind them. His is not a kingdom of this world, His reign not the self-serving rule of a Pilate or Herod. No, His is the other-serving kingship of God’s kingdom.

But there’s another reason for the great contrast between the entry and the exit, the cheering crowd and the baying one, the glory and the gory. Were Our Lord powerless to do anything about it, we might admire His patient resignation but His sacrifice would be much reduced. Our Lord’s sacrifice is so much the greater because we know what could have been. The One who gave sight to the blind and raised the dead could readily have called down God’s angels to liberate Him (Mt 26:53). But while He never seeks the injustice, pain or ignominy of the Cross, He does in the end freely submit to it. The crucifixion is a true self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of a king who serves, of the God-man given freely for our salvation.

Our Lord knows the confusion, fear, even anger in the hearts of His disciples, then and now. There’s only one way, in the end, for them – for us – to come to understand the kingship He intends. On the first Palm Sunday the apostles projected onto Him all their fantasies about an earthly king in whose court they might be important; only Holy Week could convert them to understanding that His kingdom is ‘not of this world’ and that His courtiers must not be either (Jn 18:36).

Think my friends upon this king and wave your palms before Him: a king whose glory lay not in power but in service, not in tribute from others but in humble self-sacrifice for their sake.

Gregory of Palamas, Homily 15