The Sign of the Cross
(Readings: Isaiah 50: 4-7; Philippians 2: 6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66)
Introduction to Mass
The usual name for this Sunday is Palm Sunday because of the palms that are blessed before one of the masses at least, to commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before his Passion. But for the main theme of the Church's liturgy today is known as Passion Sunday because already it's the mystery of Jesus' passion and death that we remember and the salvation that he won for us by dying and rising again from the dead.
As we prepare to remember Christ's passion and death for our sakes, we call to mind our own sins, and we ask God for his forgiveness.
A Penitential Rite
Lord Jesus, you suffered and died so that sins might be forgiven: Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you were meek and humble and patient when you were humiliated by your enemies and abandoned by your friends: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you rose from the dead to bring us grace and help and salvation: Lord, have mercy.
May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.
Last year, or the year before, one of the Protestant churches asked an advertising agency to dream up a publicity campaign for the Christian religion, and the first bit of advice the agency gave them was to get rid of the Cross as the symbol of Christianity. In the opinion of the marketing people, it didn't "send the right signals": it was too gloomy and morbid, and it seemed to glorify pain and suffering: all far too negative from the selling point of view.
In many ways the Christian Religion is being re-invented at the present time and people want Church membership to provide them with pleasant emotional experiences, not a challenge to their human sinfulness. But maybe even that tendency can be an opportunity to clarify what "the Cross" is really about.
Jesus' crucifixion had nothing to do with glorifying pain and suffering, but somehow, over the years, some Christians have managed to give the impression that that's the whole point: that it's good to suffer as if we'll be rewarded for being miserable. Their idea is that if we don't share in the Cross, we don't share in the Resurrection. "No pain - no gain".
But suffering is never a good thing for its own sake. It's an evil, something to be avoided. Jesus spent a lot of time lifting the burden of suffering from people's backs - healing the deaf and the blind, the lepers, the mentally-ill - anyone who was sick.
The compassion he felt in the face of suffering and his anger towards indifference, or the habit of making the rules of religion more important than reacting like a human being, quickly brought Jesus into conflict with the religious leaders. Most of the time, he got the better of them in the many arguments they had. But that didn't make them change their minds and convert to Jesus' message. It made them start plotting to have him killed.
By the time Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover he knew that the writing was on the wall even if the disciples didn't. But even then he didn't go out of his way to suffer and die, as if a bloodthirsty God was demanding the death of an innocent man.
As we just heard, when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he said he didn't want to go through with it. Jesus didn't relish the prospect of death and he did not approach his passion and death like the hero in a Hollywood film. He was frightened, but he accepted death as the price of being faithful to his mission from the Father, the price of not compromising his message. He approached his death with complete trust that even in the failure and the collapse of his ministry God was accomplishing his saving work.
Every time we come together for Mass we're not just remembering the Last Supper, and Jesus' passion and death and resurrection. We're calling to mind the life that he lived, and the message he preached, that led to his being crucified.
The more we live the same kind of life, and follow the same message, the more we'll end up - one way or another - embroiled in the same kind of conflicts, and following the same road to the Cross. In our country today few people risk being killed for the sake of God's Kingdom but in other parts of the world it a real possibility and many Christians face the prospect as Christ did. They identify with him in his Passion, his love of the Father, and his love for his enemies.
The world, for the most part, is organised apart from Christ, apart from his message of God's Kingdom, and apart from the divine qualities of love and mercy and self-sacrifice.
One way or another standing up for the love and justice of God's Kingdom will always bring suffering, rejection, misunderstanding - in Jesus' life and in ours. That's the reality we have to be prepared to face if we really want to embrace the holiness and love of God which Jesus revealed to us. That's the special lesson which the liturgy of Passion Sunday teaches us when it comes round each year at the start of Holy Week.