The true Messiah
(Readings: Entrance Procession Luke 19:28-40; Mass Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14 - 23:56)
Introduction to Mass
Holy Week looks back to Jesus' last week on earth and so it opens today at the point where Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Passover, welcomed by large crowds of people who have started to identify him as the long-awaited Messiah. But then the long Passion reading reminds us that, as Jesus himself warned his disciples, that his mission would not be completed amid popularity and acclaim; the Messiah had to suffer and die in order to reconcile humanity with God.
To prepare ourselves to enter the mysteries of this Great Week let us confess our own faults and sins, and ask God for his forgiveness.
The Palm Sunday liturgy isn't just a commemoration of Jesus' passion and death: that belongs particularly to Good Friday, at the end of the week.
Palm Sunday is more about the movement away from the jubilation and triumph and the popularity Jesus enjoyed among the crowds of ordinary people, to the rejection and hostility he encountered at the end. The character and the message of Palm Sunday is the rapid movement from "Blessings on the King who comes!" to "Away with him! Give us Barabbas! Crucify him!"
It certainly seems to be true that during the course of his public ministry Jesus' popularity and authority continually grew.
There were many healers and exorcists at the time of Christ; but none who could dispose of illness or evil spirits as effortlessly as he did. There were many teachers and rabbis with their circles of followers; but none, it seems, who approached Jesus in the power of his prophetic preaching, his passionate desire to attract the sinners and the lost back to God, his fearless attacks on the respected religious elites of the day, his blunt dismissal of their teaching in a way that eroded their prestige among the people.
The authors of the gospels describe the way Jesus was seen first of all as an inspired preacher and healer, then as a prophet, and finally as a potential Messiah - a new King David figure who would liberate Israel from foreign oppression and inaugurate a new Golden Age. And they also say very clearly that Jesus refused that kind of Messiahship.
What we have to remember is that they were writing long after the end of Jesus' ministry, after his Resurrection, after the great experience of Pentecost: and so they were writing, as we say, with "the benefit of hindsight".
And with the benefit of hindsight the enthusiasm of the crowds and Jesus' popularity are portrayed by the gospel writers as illusory, deceptive.
Although they hail Jesus as Messiah, they have the wrong idea of what the Messiah is going to be like. They were waiting for a military hero, a conqueror who would humiliate their enemies. Their ideas of God's Reign, that the Messiah would usher in, were worldly and self-serving, and when Jesus failed to live up to those kinds of expectation, the support and popularity evaporated.
Jesus' passion and death, on the surface, was a triumph for his enemies: but only on the surface. Afterwards his followers realised that below the surface of the events of Jesus' last week on earth God had been moving in a way that was hidden at the time, to bring his plan of salvation to fulfilment.
The actions of Christ's enemies, and the motives that provoked them, were actually contributing to that fulfilment, although they didn't know it or intend it at the time. That's one of the main threads running through the accounts of Jesus' Passion, and through the liturgy of Holy Week.
But Palm Sunday in particular reminds us of that strain in Jesus' teaching that to be a follower of his and to be faithful to the real content of his message, we have to anticipate opposition, unpopularity, misunderstanding and misrepresentation - sometimes even with those closest to us, he said.
Jesus was never deceived by the exuberance of the crowds, as perhaps modern politicians or celebrities are deceived by the intense, but shallow and short-lived, ebullience of their followers. He knew that the real character of God's Reign, once it brings dilemmas and sacrifices rather than rewards, is something that many people will reject outright. And yet of course his final and definitive attitude was, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do".
The Palm Sunday liturgy, with its passage from Christ's triumphal entry to his death on Calvary, invites us to consider how far we share Jesus' own clear-sightedness about the nature and the implications of his message.