Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7 Responsorial: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24 Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11 Gospel Passage: Mark 14:15:47
There is an ancient spiritual tradition of the Church known as Lectio divina. The tradition involves the prayerful reading of the scriptures rather than an academic analysis. In the exercise of Lectio divina, the believer reads a particular passage numerous times, becoming very familiar with its content. Next, the believer prays with the passage and meditates upon it. Many find it helpful to engage the imagination, imagining oneself present in the scene. The purpose of these efforts is to go beyond the words to a point of contemplation in which the truth of the biblical text touches the life of the believer.
I certainly recommend this practice to all Christians, but I mention it here because I believe that we will be doing something of a communal Lectio divina for Palm Sunday (and later for Good Friday). On most Sundays, we hear a brief passage from one of the Gospels. On Palm Sunday, we hear the whole Passion account -this year we listen to Mark. In a prayerful setting we will listen to the extraordinary story of Jesus’ suffering and death which forms the heart of the Gospel of Mark. Our purpose is not information. After all, we already know the story well having heard it numerous times. Our purpose is to pray the story, to meditate on the events, to contemplate the truths at its core. This story is proclaimed because it touches our lives on the most profound level.
Before we hear the Passion, the readings prepare us with seminal passages from the Old and New Testaments. The first reading is taken from one of the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah. These passages speak of a servant who remains faithful to the Lord even as that faithfulness results in rejection and abuse. The servant speaks words of consolation and encouragement and suffers physical and psychological abuse for his commitment to the Lord. Innocent of wrongdoing, he endures that abuse and remains faithful without attempting to return the harm done to him. Our Christian forebears saw in the figure of the Servant and his faithful suffering a prophetic foreshadowing of the Christ event.
Likewise, Psalm 22 has long been associated with the Passion of Jesus. It speaks of suffering in graphic terms and expresses that sense of loss and abandonment we all feel in those worst moments. Nevertheless, this psalm also speaks of trust in the vindication of the Lord for the one who trusts in and relies upon God.
In the passage from Philippians, Paul addresses a community discouraged by the rejection and persecution they are experiencing at the hands of the larger society. Paul himself writes to them from imprisonment and under threat of death. Paul paints a verbal portrait of the utter unselfishness of the Lord Jesus, Who, out of obedience to the Father and for the sake of humanity, surrenders all privilege and submits to a terrible death. Paul rejoices in this unexpected gift of deliverance for those who have not earned such a sacrifice, and he calls all to give glory to this Jesus. More than a promise of vindication, Paul teaches his fellow Christians about the union that exists between them and the Lord Jesus. As they live for others and endure their trials, they are one with the Lord Jesus – in suffering and in glory.
The Gospel of Mark differs significantly from the other Gospels. It is shorter with little information about Jesus’ origins or the events after His resurrection. In the first half it focuses on Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Although even there, it spends a good deal of the story pointing us towards the Passion of Jesus depicted in the second half. The second half gives us the heart of this Gospel. We see the uncomplaining and faithful suffering of the Lord Jesus. It is a difficult Passion that allows us to listen in on Jesus’ agonized prayer in the garden and His disturbing prayer from the cross: “My God, My God, why have You abandoned Me?”
Scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written to address a Christian community that was experiencing severe persecution. Powerless and alone, they faced suffering and death with little hope that the world much cared for them or about their fate. The cry of Jesus on the cross was their cry. Instead of trying to explain their fate to them, Mark responds by showing them the face of the crucified Lord. The Markan community found hope in the story of the Lord Jesus – instead of an answer, they received a response. The response was one of absolute self-emptying love.
During this Passiontide, may the story of the Passion of Jesus be our story. May we unite ourselves completely to the Lord and find the grace to live and die for love.