Palm Sunday. A Door to Holy Week, The Withered Tree, and a Reflection.

This Sunday’s Palm Sunday readings are from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 26-27. I find Palm Sunday homilies to be a challenge. As a preacher, I dislike focusing on one theme at the expense of a half-dozen other, equally important messages.

In these cycle A readings for 2017, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is skipped over, in order to focus on the Last Supper, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, and the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Pope Benedict has referred to Palm Sunday as the “door to Holy Week.” Jesus entered Jerusalem through one of the great arches in the city wall. He was greeted as a victor by his disciples, who, borrowing Greek and Roman custom, threw palms at his feet.  Indeed, this incident is merely the beginning of the passion of Christ that will shortly begin.

A forgotten story in the Holy Week drama is a minor incident that takes place on a Saturday or Sunday morning, the day after Jesus enters the city. On his way to the Temple, Jesus encounters a fig tree. Noticing that it bears no fruit, Jesus curses the tree, which withers.  While an apparently trivial and irrelevant act, it is filled with symbolism. The tree is a metaphor for the temple leadership and those who reject Jesus as the Messiah. They too, bear no fruit, and Jesus renders an implicit judgment on them as well.

Cited below is a spiritual reflection for Holy Week. It is a homily from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, given by one of the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth Abbey.  The name of the monk is not cited.

“As I was preparing for today’s liturgy, … I was struck very powerfully by the newness of that experience, the newness of taking Christ’s part in that great drama – a newness which overcame the very familiar nature of Luke’s story. What struck me most was the question: “Who am I?” – who am I that I should dare to take Christ’s role? Who am I that I should dare to take my Saviour’s words as my own? Who am I that I should have the temerity to “be Christ” before others? It is a striking question, and one which – perhaps strangely – had not really occurred to me before in such a powerful way.

Perhaps it is this question “Who am I?” that the whole of Holy Week and the great liturgies of the Triduum seek to answer, for it is question that, in one sense,  underpins all our faith. Who am I really, that my God should take flesh for me, and come to live with me? Who am I, that my God should love me so much that he would and did suffer and die for me? Who am I in the face of the mystery of the Cross? Who am I in the light of the Resurrection dawn? Who am I, that Christ should do all this for me?

Am I one of the crowd, exultant at my first contact with Jesus, waving palms and cheering ecstatically because he has come to the city? Am I still in the first enthusiasm of my discipleship, eager to see and hear the Lord, eager to see his miracles, though still unsure of my relationship with him?

Or am I Simon Peter? Am I, like Peter, in all my outward words and actions the Lord’s “best friend” – yet still troubled that I do not fully understand Jesus, cannot see his ways clearly, cannot control him? And, in my inmost heart, am I still gripped with fear as soon as the challenge comes – who is this Jesus to you?

Am I one of the women of Jerusalem, those who weep at the futility and cruelty of men’s actions, but seem powerless to change anything? Am I one of those many whom the concrete tragedies of life have brought to the brink of despair, so that their only prayer is the prayer of tears and of silent solidarity with the suffering?

Perhaps I am the thief who jeers at Jesus, the one who sees the celebrity hanging next to him in his suffering, but can only think about himself and his escape – “Go on, do your next trick, save yourself and me as well”. Is that what I want? Do I want the “quick fix” Jesus who will take away all the problems and the pain, but from whom I want nothing else? Or am I the good thief, who recognises that he has nothing left at all, nothing but his sin and just condemnation, and who yet has the courage to ask this innocent Jesus only to remember him, and so wins Christ’s friendship and his own salvation?

Or am I Mary, wordless and bewildered at the foot of the Cross, wondering where the hand of God is in this life that she has given to the world, wondering if this is all there is as that life is snuffed out. Am I still looking to find where God is in my life – that God who once seemed so close, whose touch brought such joy, but who now seems so very, very distant?

Or perhaps, in some way, I am with Christ himself. With Christ in the garden, struggling in my prayers and actions to let the will of God be my will too. With Christ as he is nailed to the Cross, offering forgiveness to those who – heedless of what they do – seem to destroy all that is good. With Christ in his last breath as, in loving faith, he surrenders himself totally into the Father’s hands.

For each of us in these days of Holy Week the answer to this question “Who am I?” will be different, and will be different this year from last year and the years before. For it is when we walk this road with Jesus through these days, when we come to be with him in these hours, when we come to know him as he is, in all his love towards us and suffering for us, in all the mystery of the Passion, that we will come to see ourselves more clearly, and know ourselves as God knows us – as those he loves and saves.

And so, as we celebrate this Eucharist together, obedient to Christ’s own commands to “Do this in memory of me”, we do so not merely to remember him in some intellectual way, but to discover our true selves in him, and to be transformed through his grace into his likeness. Let us ask him to pour out his grace and his Spirit abundantly on us in these days, that sharing with him in the life and death he shared with us, we may one day come to share in his glory. Amen.”


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