Palm Sunday, 2011
There is a story of Bl. John Henry Newman preaching on the Passion. He had cited several of the painful things done to Jesus. He paused. Everyone held their breath. Then he said in a low clear voice, ‘Now I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God.’ It was, someone wrote later, as if an electric shock went through the church.
Today is Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday. Today Christ comes in the Gospel of the Passion, and the Gospel of his entry into Jerusalem. Today Christ enters the last phase of his earthly life, and the Church enters Holy Week. Not for nothing did we begin with a procession.
‘Now I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God.’ I bid you recollect who it is, doing and undergoing all this. I bid you lift the eye of your heart to a face, to a person.
Today is about entering, and we enter by looking at Jesus, at who he is.
When Jesus enters the city, St. Matthew says, the whole of Jerusalem is - literally - ‘earthquaked’, undergoes a seismic shock. And the cry goes up, ‘Who is this?
We’re Jerusalem now. He is coming to us. He is coming liturgically, sacramentally, in all the glory of his risen life. He is coming in anticipation of his coming in glory at the end of time. He is coming to enter our lives - to share them to their bitter end and to change them into unending blessedness. Well may the city of our lives be shaken. Well may we ask, ‘Who is this?’
Who indeed? Who is it who ‘comes in the name of the Lord’? Otherwise, it’s just another story.
In today’s readings Jesus is called many things. ‘Look, your king comes to you.’ King first of all. Prophet too. For St Paul, he’s the Second Adam, who unlike the first didn’t fill himself but emptied himself, was humble, was obedient. Again, he’s Son of Man, and Shepherd. And at the end Christ, King again. ‘Above his head was placed the charge against him; it read: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”’. We could add other titles: Jesus our High Priest, Jesus our Head. Each of these says something different, but each of them implies a relationship. Each involves a connection to others. Many of us have seen the film The King’s Speech. Its whole power lies in the fact that the courage of Bertie, of King George VI, overcoming his impediment, coincides with the courage of the whole people, girding themselves for another war. The two courages interpenetrate. The King and his people are, deep down, one. The King embodies, represents, personifies his people.
We all know how limited our capacity for sympathy is. We can have the best will in the world, but at some point we falter and reverse. It’s hard to enter fully into the life and suffering of others. This holds for monastic brethren, for friends, for husbands and wives, carers and patients, teachers and pupils. There comes a point when we’re repelled, or simply so full of ourselves, that we have no more room for others. We scuttle back to ourselves.
But this King - the King on the donkey and the Cross - emptied himself so as to be filled with us. In the Garden of Gethsemane his Father handed him a cup. That cup was us. That cup contained our whole repulsiveness, deadliness. And Jesus didn’t retreat into himself. He drank it. He drank us. He drank me - to the dregs of myself, the only person who can. ‘He became as men are,’ says St. Paul. This is not just having a brain of a certain cubic capacity or ten toes or whatever. It means he identified completely with fallen humanity. His capacity for sympathy, for suffering-with, has no limits. It is total. He loves to the end.
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Who is it who comes? ‘Who is this?’ This King on a donkey, this King on a Cross with the outstretched arms, is the one who befriends, identifies with, embodies, carries each and all of us. He is the one with a capacity for sympathy all his own. Today is about entering. And through his death and resurrection Jesus comes to us, enters us, shakes us, changes us. No one comes so close to us as Christ.
How is this possible? How can he be so large that there is room for all of us in him? The question asks itself again: ‘Who is this?’ At the end of the Gospel, it’s a squad of Roman soldiers who give the definitive answer: ‘In truth, this was the Son of God’. Jesus is everything to us because the Father is everything to him. He can enter into our lives and deaths and change them from within, because the Father and he are one. As the Catechism says, ‘The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons,...makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all’ (616). This man is the God-man. He has smuggled God into the life and death of each of us. And where there’s God, there’s hope, there’s joy.
‘I bid you recollect that he to whom these things were done is almighty God.’ It’s not just another story. He who comes to us this week, is the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, God and man. He comes from the Father, he comes with our future. He enters our lives as no one else, so we, poor things, can enter into him, the Resurrection and the Life.
May Holy Week and Easter be this for us!
Fr. Hugh, OSB