Palm Sunday Of The Lord's Passion
This Sunday’s first reading is the third of four poems (Psalms, songs) inserted by editors in the oracles of an unknown prophet we call Second Isaiah. The four poems are known as “The Servant Songs.” This prophet’s oracles form the second part of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55. The central character of these songs is usually an individual, but sometimes Israel as a people is the central character. Although Christian interpretation has understood these psalms as predictive of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, this was not the original intent. The most probable theory is that the central character, when it is not Israel as a people, is the prophet himself. His ministry took place among his fellow-exiles in Babylon about 540 B.C. The concepts, the words and phrases of these songs were known to Paul and our gospel authors. They used them to form their theology of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Because most Christians are somewhat acquainted with the Passion Narratives in our four gospels, they will understand some phrases of this Third Servant Song as a prediction of Jesus’ Passion. For example, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. My face I did not shield from buffeting and spitting.” Other ideas in this Third Servant Song also remind us of Jesus, “speaking to the weary a word that will rouse them,” and “I have not rebelled and have not turned back.” Jesus’ trust in his Father can be described in the closing words of this song, “The Lord God is my help. Therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Even though these psalms most probably described persecution of Second Isaiah from his own people, the use of these psalms by our New Testament authors indicates that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they were open to new interpretation – this time in reference to the Passion of Jesus.
The theme of suffering is picked up in our Responsorial Psalm (22), which described the sufferings of the Psalmist himself, either symbolically or in reality. But this Psalm too was given new meaning by New Testament authors, by Church Fathers, and by the liturgy. When Christians hear phrases from this ancient Psalm, for them there is only the Christian interpretation, “All who seek me scoff at me. They mock me with parted lips. They wag their heads. He relied on the Lord. Let him deliver him, if he loves him,” “They have pierced my hands and my feet. They have numbered all my bones.” “They divide my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.” The peoples’ response to the psalm verses are most familiar, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The authors of our Passion Narratives used not only the four Servant Songs to describe the Sufferings and death of Jesus, but also Psalm 22.
The second reading is a familiar passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The context of the letter was a situation in Paul’s new “parish” in Philippi in Greece. Certain members of the Church were lording it over others. Paul is concerned over the disruption of peace and harmony. He appeals to the perpetrators with an example of extreme humility and service, “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God something to be clung to, but emptied (humbled) himself, becoming human and obedient all the way to his death on a cross.” Next, Paul notes what humility and service can achieve. “Because of this God greatly exalted him with a name above every other name, plus universal adoration and praise.”
Paul seems to say to the offender at Philippi, “It worked for Jesus. Want to try it?
The Passion Narrative according to Mark is this year’s Palm Sunday gospel. Of the four Passion Narratives, that of Mark depicts Jesus as more abandoned than he is in the other gospels. So intense is the abandonment, that even the women who discover the empty tomb ignore the message of the young man in white to report to the disciples that Jesus has risen. Mark closes his gospel with this devastating remark, “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Matthew and Luke carefully plagiarize (copy) from Mark, but also carefully delete or change what they copy from to reflect their theologies. They cannot accept such a seemingly hopeless ending. Therefore they add post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the women and the disciples.
A notable example of the theme of abandonment found only in Mark is the strange incident of a young man following Jesus. He was clothed “with nothing but a linen cloth around his body.” The arresting party seized the young man, but he left behind the linen cloth and ran away naked.”
Who was this streaker? It doesn’t matter because Mark’s intention is symbolism aimed at the disciples. Of them, he has a mostly negative view throughout his gospel. At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the disciples are said to abandon everything to follow Jesus. In the end, when the going gets tough, they abandon even their clothes to get away from Jesus.
Mark was writing for the Church at Rome, devastated by persecution, feeling abandoned.
Most heartbreaking is the last cry that Mark places on the lips of a dying Jesus, a quote from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you (even you) abandoned me?” Matthew retains this cry of abandonment but gives it a different nuance. Luke will not tolerate such a closing to his version of the Passion which emphasizes healing. Therefore Jesus’ last cry in Luke’s gospel quotes Psalm 31:5, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” There are broken people who identify with the Marcan Jesus, but when they find peace, they turn to the healing Jesus in Luke.