To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 50:4-7; Phil2:6-11; Mt 26:14-27:66
In the past, the fifth Sunday of Lent (the Sunday before Palm Sunday) was known as Passion Sunday. However, following Vatican II, the sixth Sunday of Lent was officially re-named Passion Sunday. This Sunday is also called Palm Sunday, since we carry palm branches in a procession before the Mass, but the focus is on the betrayal, arrest, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus rather than on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just before his death.
Passion/Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week in which the Church commemorates the Last Supper and the first Eucharist on Holy Thursday and Christ’s death on Good Friday. What Jesus experiences for us is a manifestation of God’s overwhelming love for each one of us. Further, by our identifying ourselves with the ‘mystery’ of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection we ourselves experience a great liberation, a ‘Passover’ from various forms of sin and enslavement to a life of joy and freedom.
Today’s liturgy combines both a sense of “triumph” and “tragedy”. At the beginning, we commemorate the triumph of Christ our King. This is done through the blessing of palms, the procession and the singing. In the liturgy of the word, we hear the story of the sufferings and indignities to which Jesus was subjected. However, we keep in mind that even in this “tragedy” there is “triumph”. This is because Christ came for precisely this purpose, to save in and through his death.
The first reading is from the prophet Isaiah. The part of Isaiah written in exile (Ch 40-55) contains four ‘servant songs’, sections that interrupt the flow of the book but have a unity within themselves. The first (42:1-7) which begins, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen…” introduces the suffering servant of Yahweh. In the second (49:1-7) the servant, abused and humiliated, is commissioned anew. In the third (our first reading) he is disciplined and strengthened by suffering; and in the fourth that will be read on Good Friday (52:17-53:12), even the Gentiles are in awesome contemplation before the suffering and rejected servant.
In late Judaism, the suffering servant of Yahweh was seen as the perfect Israelite, one of supreme holiness, a messiah. In the gospels, Jesus identifies himself with and is identified as the servant, the one who frees all people. Even in his suffering and ignominy, he is confident that God will vindicate him.
This vindication and exaltation forms the last part of the kenosis hymn of Paul. The hymn summarises the whole of salvation history succinctly. There is no room for a feel-good religion that does not take its servant role seriously.
Dietrich Boonhoeffer, the German theologian who poured out his life at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool of oppression, wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others… The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.”
We need the unity of mind and purpose to which Paul is calling the Philippians. We need to see ourselves in terms of our obligations to the community of those “in Christ” of which we claim to be a part. Maybe we need to see ourselves less in terms of “those who never sin” and more in terms of “those who serve”. We need to see if we are acting in a manner worthy of the heavenly citizenship we claim. For Paul, to claim that citizenship meant to have a mind-set different from others. It meant a commitment to servant hood, a life poured out in service to others, totally emptied of self.
The passion story as told by Matthew arrests us because in it we find God coming to us in utter vulnerability. The Father seems absent and silent. He does not act, does not use his might and power to stop sinful people from doing their worst to Jesus his Son. Why doesn’t he do something? Where is God when a righteous Son is gasping for air on a Roman cross?
God remains silent when evil and sin shout, scream and destroy. When the life of the Son of God is snuffed out, it is then that God speaks. He speaks loud and clear. He speaks not in vengeance, counter-attack and destruction. God does not kill Pilate, the Roman soldiers, the high priests and the passers-by. Instead, he splits a curtain and makes himself open and available! Jesus “emptied himself” totally and became filled with the Spirit of his Father. He clung to nothing; he let go of everything. Do we have the courage to do likewise?