Palm Sunday - beware the praise of the world.
“My heart hath expected reproach and misery; and I looked for one that would grieve together with Me and there was none. I sought for one to comfort Me, and I found none: and they gave Me gall for My food, and in My thirst they gave Me vinegar to drink”. (Ps 68:21-22).
So reads the Offertory of the Mass for Palm Sunday. With these words we enter into Holy Week, the culmination of Lent and the very pinnacle of the liturgical year. Today St. Matthew’s passion is used, those of Sts. Mark and Luke are used on Tuesday and Wednesday, before finally turning to the passion of St. John on Good Friday.
Yet, how so the dwelling on the passion even on this day, when we recall the triumphant welcome which Christ received upon His entry into Jerusalem? The people welcomed Him with joy and shouts of praise, throwing their garments into the road and laying branches before Him. St. Matthew recalls that they followed Christ, shouting aloud “Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest”. (Matthew 21:9). In the liturgy of this day, we too partake in the blessing and procession of palms, singing the great hymn of praise ‘Gloria, laus et honor tibi sit’
Thus we have two questions to deal with: a) how is this celebration of the majesty and glory of Christ so swiftly followed by the gospel of His passion and death? b) what must we learn from those who acclaimed Him in such a multitude, but who were silent and even condemned Him but a few days later?
Christ - the glorious Redeemer.
The first question is answered by bearing in mind the true glory of God and the real power of His Divinity. For any mere earthly ruler, the shame of being cruelly crucified but days after such resounding public praise would be appalling. An earthly king has only earthly subjects in his domain and is concerned chiefly with the temporal sphere. But Christ is no such ruler; as He says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world”. (John 18:36). Whilst His enemies wished to kill Him in the most degrading way possible, on the cross, it is this same cross that becomes the most glorious throne for our Redeemer. For Christ’s triumph is over sin and the devil, a triumph which is effected by His sacrificial death on the cross. His redemptive death is thus far more glorious than the most impressive coronation of any monarch in history. His glory is not demonstrated through public acclaim in the streets, but in the self-less act of supreme love which He performs upon the cross.
We must remember those words of Christ, that His kingdom is not of this world. Nor are we destined solely for this world, but as the Catechism teaches, we are made to know and love God in this world and to be happy with Him in the next. This spiritual reality must be in the forefront of our minds, especially when meditating upon the liturgy of the day. The more we recall that glory and salvation are found through the cross, the more we can begin to understand not only the texts of the Mass, but also the mystery of redemption. If we see the cross as nothing but a symbol of shame then we become like those people of Jerusalem, who threw palms before Christ but fled from the grim reality of Calvary. Instead, we are invited, indeed commanded, to recognise the true glory and dignity of the cross. Christ uttered these words which carry a great warning for those who shy away from the cross: “he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me”. (Matthew 10:38).
Thus, there is no incongruity between the triumphant Christ and the crucified Christ. The crucifix should hang in every church and in every home, and is the most recognisable symbol of the Catholic faith. It is our banner and standard by which we proudly declare ourselves to be Catholic and unite ourselves to Christ, the glorious Redeemer. What the people of Jerusalem did not see, is that our glory is found by joining ourselves to Christ, who is raised upon the cross in glorious triumph over sin.
The duplicity of the world.
The loss of friendships and the breakdown of relationships is an experience common to us all. Yet surely none of us have experienced such a change of heart as did those people of Jerusalem. It took but a few days for them to change their cry from one of praise and acclaim, to one of bloodthirsty clamouring for the death of an Innocent. How is this so? Indeed, what must we learn from this?
As mentioned above, the Jews, much like the world today, could not comprehend the spiritual reality which Christ proposed. They desired an earthly ruler; the modern world cannot even fathom the possibility of a spiritual ruler. Our modern society is sadly not even able to have the basic understanding of the spiritual reality which the Jews knew of, but could not grasp. Whilst they first acclaimed Christ before crucifying Him, we can expect no such acclaim from the world. Or if we receive it, then it should be a warning cry for us as to why we receive such praise.
When dwelling upon the fickle nature of the people of Jerusalem, we can be moved to a greater sense of holy abandon. That is to say, that we cannot find peace and contentment in the world around us, precisely because it has no substance. It took only days for the people to turn on Christ, and thus we ought to be justly wary of placing our happiness and end in the world. Realising this, we must turn to the only true constant, the only source of truth - the Triune God. The deeper our union with God becomes, the more clearly we can see the falsehoods and deceptions of the world for what they really are. The people laying down their palms before Christ can be likened to those whom He describes as crying out “Lord, lord” but do not perform the will of God. If we too cry out ‘Lord, lord’ and yet do not place our trust in Him alone, how are we different?
Imagine what torment must have been in the Divine heart, as Christ passed by throngs of people whom He knew would soon be shouting for His execution? He knew the cruel passion which awaited Him. This thought is yet another important lesson to draw from the gospel, namely that we must be prepared to endure such treatment ourselves. It is surely with this in mind that He warned that “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you”. (John 15:20). We can expect no better treatment than God from the atheistic world in which we live, and thus we must ultimately be prepared to defend the faith and hold fast to its doctrines, even in the most dire of circumstances. In times gone by, the bloody persecution of Catholics was a common and familiar event. It is still so today, although the modern world seeks to hide all reports of such persecution. Even those of us who live in the western world, perhaps previously happy in the knowledge that any such hardship was all but impossible, are fast discovering the growing hatred towards the faith. Laws and customs are passed and practiced that are entirely contrary to natural law and the tenets of the faith. The primacy of religion and the position of the Church in society has been completely disregarded. Truths and dogmas which are an essential part of our faith and our lives are being deemed as hateful and criminal.
Hence, we should be extremely wary when we receive the praise of those around us. In a world so opposed to the spiritual life, such acclaim should be a warning not a cause for celebration. The words of the gospel tell us that “you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake: but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved”. (Matthew 10:22). Ours is not a time of the triumph of Christian civilisation, but rather a period where religion, truth and reality are under ever increasing attack. There can be no praise from such a world, which is in accordance with the law of Christ.
Thus, the beautiful liturgy of Palm Sunday reminds us of the fact that Christ is not a mere temporal king, dependant upon public approval for His glory. He is God Incarnate, the triumphant Redeemer who takes the shameful tree of the cross and transforms it into the symbol of glory and life. The world cannot understand this life of the cross to which we are called and treats us and the spiritual life with contempt. Let us take note then of the duplicitous nature of the world, in whom it praises and condemns. Our salvation and glory is found, as always, in Christ alone by following in His way of the cross.