The celebration of Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion opens Holy Week. The days ahead will be filled with opportunities to reflect on the mystery of our salvation. The liturgy today has two Gospel proclamations. The first is at the beginning of Mass as the palm is blessed before the entrance procession. The second is the proclamation of the Lord’s Passion during the Liturgy of the Word.
The two accounts provide a stark contrast. The first sees Jesus entering triumphantly into Jerusalem. The crowds welcome him as a king. The second sees Jesus arrested as a criminal, tried on false charges, tortured, crucified and killed. The events unfold so quickly. In a matter of days triumph turns to tragedy. Or does it?
Jesus enters Jerusalem amid acclamations of kingship. He is the king but his coronation does not take place by acclamation. His kingship is established through loving obedience to his Father. His mission is the cross. His death though shockingly sad and disturbing is his triumph. He remains obedient to the Father until the end. He trusts completely in his Father, relying on him alone. His victory is manifest after three days in the tomb when he rises from the dead.
The Philippians’ Hymn which serves as the second reading for today’s liturgy beautifully captures the reality we celebrate today: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, 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” (Philippians 2:6-11).
There are many themes to reflect on as we hear the passion proclaimed. Some of these themes include salvation through Jesus’s suffering and death, his betrayal and rejection, the denial of Peter and the challenge of the cross to faith, the gravity of the sufferings of Christ, the temptation to “let this cup pass,” the mercy of God poured out in his blood, the love of Christ for the Father and for us, and many more.
One particular aspect of the passion we might to consider are the words Jesus uses when instituting the Eucharist, more specifically three words: “he gave thanks.”
Recall the setting. Jesus is beginning his passion. He gathers with his disciples to celebrate the Passover. After the meal he will go to the garden, pray, then be betrayed and arrested.
Something new is happening here, though. During the meal he takes bread, blesses it and breaks it. He then gives those words by which the “Breaking of the Bread” becomes associated with his passion. “Take it; this is my body.” The same happens with the cup. He takes the cup, gives thanks, and says: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” He
establishes a new covenant in his blood which will be shed the next day on the cross. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we celebrate the Lord’s passion.
Before offering the cup Jesus gives thanks. The context of this thanksgiving makes the action all the more profound. Jesus clearly understands what is happening. He knows he is going to the cross. He is aware of the immense suffering he is about to undergo. We certainly see the intensity of this awareness in the garden scene. In the midst of all this, Jesus “gives thanks.”
What’s all the more amazing is that the thanksgiving is offered as he takes the cup of his blood. Jesus gives thanks to the Father. Nothing is held back from the Father. Jesus offers himself completely – body and soul, mind and emotion, will and desire. All in love. Love for the Father and love for us.
Disciples of Christ walk in his way. We follow Christ. We follow him through the cross to the resurrection. This Sunday we join our thanksgiving to Christ’s as we celebrate his passion.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.