PALM SUNDAY

by Sr.Jadwiga Swiatecka o.p.

I have always found this account of Christ’s last going to Jerusalem for the Passover somewhat odd.  Who is this un-named person who had a donkey conveniently tethered where it could just be taken? Is he the same so-and so (thus, one of the translations) who also got the supper room ready? And had Jesus made some previous arrangement with this man, that he might need to borrow his donkey? Why is he anonymous?  We know that Jesus had been going to the Passover festival since he was twelve, so this would be about the 20th time; and presumably he had been with his disciples at least twice before, if his public ministry lasted about 3 years.  If so, then on the previous occasions he had just walked in.  So why, this time, borrow an ass and ride in on it? 

Oh well, you will say, he is fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice heartily, O daughter of Zion, Shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just saviour is he:  Meek, and riding on an ass" (Zech. 9:9).  But why NOW and not the year before?  If one asks the question then the answer is perhaps obvious: on this occasion, because of the growing antipathy of the Pharisees, Jesus was experiencing a premonition of some catastrophe and he wanted to give his disciples some event which would indicate to them something positive to counterbalance whatever calamity might ensue.  He couldn’t,  presumably, have been certain (if the events took place as recounted) that crowds would gather and throw down palms and acclaim him as the son of David…but even had they not, the prophecy of Zechariah would have been realised, and his unspoken claim to be a just and meek saviour vindicated.  If  - as he must have felt – he was threatened by the calamity of death,  he would leave his disciples a positive, recent, epitome of the purpose of his life – and death. Here, as again and again during the coming week, it is his followers of whom Christ thinks.

Life and death.  They seem, do they not, like the most divergent antitheses there could possibly be.  What can be a greater contrast to life than death? Yet, when we refer to Our Lord, and, I think, him only, we bring them together much as we do when we speak of bread and butter or fish and chips.  Perhaps we are right to do so, since in Christ antitheses do co-exist: he is, after all, both God and man and even the contrast between life and death seems less significant in the ambiance of Incarnation.  And in today’s reading we have another – if lesser – such contrast:  Zechariah’s saviour, riding upon his ass, is both just and meek:  two qualities which – again- seem more of a contrast than a pairing.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins says: the just man justices: he dispenses sentences with authority and rigour; whilst he who is meek accepts his lot without dissent or murmur.  We do not think of judges being meek.  And yet, in the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy, Christ is the saviour who is both.

Life and death.  Life and death: it is so final a phrase that even in the saying we drop our voices. And death, that final monosyllable is, of course inevitable: even Christ could not escape it.  And yet, and yet…? Have we really got it right? Should the phrase not be, rather, death and life? Death, after all, is but a passage, however dark and frightening it may be; but it is life which lasts eternally. Christ was, surely, aware of his impending death, but he was also conscious of the life – his and that of all his followers – which was to come beyond that dying: Today – he says on the cross – today, you will be with me in paradise.  And so, while we enter into this solemn week when the liturgy lays its emphasis on death, we should also remember this poem by John Donne:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.

Yes, indeed.  For after all, it is only a week till Easter, and it is LIFE which awaits us all.

And it has been Jesus’ death, and the events leading up to it, that have been the predominant theme of today’s readings at Mass, and will continue to be so during the week, till that dreadful turbulence ends in what is – I think – the most beautiful of all readings in the liturgy: that for Holy Saturday:

“What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled. Truly he goes to seek out Adam, our first parent, like a lost sheep. The Lord goes in holding his victorious weapon, the cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast and in terror calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand, he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. I command you: Awake, sleeper. I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands; arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me, and I in you, together we are one undivided person. The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness, the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.’ ”

To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.