Today we celebrate Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. In many parishes one of the Masses will have the solemn entrance and the blessing of palms. This part of the liturgy contains the proclamation of the Gospel account of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.
As Jesus rides into Jerusalem he is hailed as a king. People laid branches cut from trees before him on the path as he rode. The crowds sung out: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest!”
The scene is in stark contrast to the Gospel proclamation during the Liturgy of the Word; for this is the Passion. As we begin Holy Week today we are reminded of the quick turn of events this week. Jesus is hailed and triumphed as a king then executed as a criminal several days later.
Jesus is the King and he is the Son of David but his kingship, as he says elsewhere, is not of this world. His kingship will entail the laying down of his life in love as he fulfills his mission. His kingship is not one of accolades but of self-emptying service in obedience to his Father. He dies so we might live.
In the Passion account, St. Matthew tells us that immediately after Jesus dies on the cross, “… behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.” The image is an important interpretation on the significance and meaning of the crucifixion of our Lord. In ancient Israel the temple was seen as the locus of God’s presence among the people. Solomon had built the first temple. The Babylonians destroyed it in 587 BC. Sometime after the exile ended, the temple was rebuilt. Herod the Great made a large addition to the area surrounding the temple (the temple mount) not too long before Jesus was born.
The temple was comprised of different areas for different sacrifices and prayers. The innermost room was the “holy of holies.” This room originally held the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of the covenant. Only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, and only once per year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
The celebration marked Israel’s plea for mercy from God so that their relationship could be made whole. The ritual involved a sacrifice of one goat to atone for sins. The blood of this offering was sprinkled as an act of purification. The sins of the people would then be symbolically placed on another goat that was sent out to the desert (from this practice comes the term “scape goat”).
The celebration marked the time when the people of Israel would be made one with God through sacrifice and the power of his mercy. The entrance to the sanctuary, the holy of holies, was blocked by a curtain or veil.
When Jesus dies on the cross “the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two,” marking the outpouring of the Father’s mercy on his people. The sacrifice of his Son on the cross is the sacrifice that fulfills all other sacrifices. It is complete. Jesus is the high priest. The sacrifice he offers is himself. He takes the sins of mankind upon himself in this offering and all are made whole through his offering.
The tearing of the veil marks the completion of the sacrifice and the outpouring of God’s mercy, not just on Israel but on all people.
St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians describes the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of obedience. Sin occurred when the first man turned away from God to follow his own desires and will. The sin incurred guilt. Jesus coming from the Father reverses the original act of disobedience by following his Father’s will to the end. He empties himself at the greatest cost, his life.
The pain and anguish of such offering is expressed in the beginning of Psalm 22, which Jesus begins reciting as he is dying: “My God, My God why have you abandoned me?”
Yet this is only the beginning of the psalm. For as the psalm progresses it becomes a plea to God that the mercy he showed in the past will be repeated now in the present.
“But you, Lord, do not stay far off, my strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the grip of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls. Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the assembly I will praise you” (Psalm 22:20-23).
Jesus trusts completely in his Father. He empties himself in obedience to the end. In his obedience and in his sacrifice we have life. So St. Paul writes: “… he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.