The Passion is a Great Act of Love

palmsundaymosaicToday is Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. And it is a special Sunday in the church year because we actually get two readings from the Gospels. At the very beginning, right before we processed in, we read the story from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The crowds were excited to greet him. They put their cloaks down on the ground in front of him. They spread leafy branches, and they cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”

Then we just read the very long passion from the gospel of Mark which picks up the story in the middle of the night from Thursday into Friday. And the tone of the story is completely different from Palm Sunday. Even among his disciples, people are bickering, people are nervous, people are weak; they begin to abandon Jesus in his hour of need. One of them hands him over to the Jewish authorities for a show trial, and the passion is fully under way. It will culminate in his death on a cross and his burial in a tomb.

The juxtaposition of these two gospel stories reminds us how unsteady is the popular sentiment. The crowd loved him on Sunday, and they shouted “crucify him” on Friday.

Today we see in the readings the stark contrast between the fickleness of the crowd’s heart and the firmness of Jesus’s will to do what his father asked him to do. Though the crowd loves him on Sunday and hates him on Friday, Jesus is still Jesus through it all. He has the strength not to be attached to the adulation on Palm Sunday, and he has the strength not to give up through the pain of Good Friday. What is it that he has that gives him such strength?

Jesus has the strength to complete his ministry because he chooses to be obedient to his father’s will. Now sometimes, we hear the word obedience, we think it is the same thing as oppression. But they are very different. Obedience is something that we do by our own choice because we are free. Oppression is something that is done to us despite our choice because we are not free. The difference between obedience and oppression is that obedience flows from loving trust.

Jesus, the Son of God, loves and trusts his Heavenly Father and chooses to subordinate his human will to the divine will because of that union. Now it’s always a tricky thing to talk about Jesus subordinating his will to God since we believe that Jesus is fully God. What the church teaches that Jesus is both fully God and fully Man. He is divine and human. We call that the two natures of Christ. And we see in the story of the Passion that there are moments when Jesus’s human will is tempted and tested. He says to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is sorrowful even to death.”

But Jesus did not give in to the sorrow he felt in his soul. He remained in the love of his Heavenly Father. And, remaining in that love, he was obedient. St Paul recites the great hymn in Philippians today,

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.

Jesus is our model for obedience just as he is our model for love. The firmness of his will that he demonstrates in Holy Week comes from his obedience, and his obedience comes from love. The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is a great act of love. Our King comes to us. And that same King loves us enough to die for us.. If we accept that gift of love, and if we try to share it with him, then obedience will be our natural response. And our wills suddenly will be able to be firm despite the constant changing of our emotions. Though our hearts may be fickle, our wills can be firm.

Our parish patron saint, Catherine of Siena, wrote a beautiful homage to obedience. She shows that obedience is a natural manifestation of love, and it cannot be understood apart from love. She writes of obedience:

You are a dawn bearing the light of divine grace.
You are a warming sun, never without charity’s heat.

And in the Upper Room, Jesus invited his disciples to “remain in his love.” As St. Catherine and all the saints understood, obedience is the key to accepting his invitation.

The events of Holy Week are sometimes so discomforting that we are tempted just to skip past them and go straight to Easter. But I think we are invited to enter into those feelings, supported by the foundation of knowing that we are already saved in Christ’s victory over death.

Sometimes when we are in the middle of a difficult situation, we grit our teeth so we can get through it. And endurance can be a good thing, for sometimes we do just have to go through something that is hard. And the root word of endurance is “hard”. We really can be strong and steady in the middle of uncomfortable or even painful situations.

Perhaps the invitation of Holy Week is that we enter not into endurance alone but also patience. The root word of patience is “suffering”. Rather than harden ourselves against whatever it is that makes us uncomfortable, perhaps this week let’s try to welcome the discomfort and the pain. And I don’t mean in some kind of masochistic sense, but I mean participation in Christ’s passion. Let’s walk with him along the Stations of the Cross. Let’s remain with Mary and John at the foot of the Cross while Jesus suffers on the Cross. Let’s connect our own personal sufferings to his suffering. Let’s try to emulate the trust in His Heavenly Father that Jesus demonstrates time and time again throughout his Passion.

But let’s remember that Holy Week doesn’t start with suffering. Today, we celebrate his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In a regular year, we could go down to the Cathedral on Tuesday for the Chrism Mass, and listen in as the bishop preaches to his brother priests and they renew their priestly vows.

On Thursday, we will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. On the evening of Holy Thursday, Jesus gave his apostles the Mass and he gave them their authority and their mandate to serve as his priests. They serve the Church, us, at the altar and in the confessional. Through them in the sacramental life, we can receive God’s grace and grow closer to him and remain in his love.

And on Good Friday, we will not have a regular Mass, but we will spend the hours that Jesus spent on the Cross reflecting on the words he spoke from the Cross, and the journey he took to the Cross, and finally the prayers and distribution of Holy Communion at the Good Friday liturgy.

And let’s not forget Holy Saturday. What a beautiful day of quiet reflection, thinking about how Jesus went down to the realm of the Dead and preached the good news to those who had not been able to hear it before. The promise of Heaven is offered to all. And the way to heaven is that perfect combination of endurance and patience that Jesus will show us throughout the entirety of Holy Week.

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.

We adore you O Christ, and we praise you. Because by your holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.

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