Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, 5 April 2020

The Liturgy of the Palms
Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14- 27:66
or Matthew 27:11-54

During this Lententide, I shall devote this segment of the blog to quotations that might give depth and a reflective quality for the readings for this day. Today’s reading is from Anne McGowan’s translation and commentary on the Pilgrimage of Egeria.

“So, on the next day, that is, the Lord’s Day, when the paschal week begins, which they call here Great Week, having celebrated from cockcrow those things that are customary to do in the Anastasis and at the Cross until morning, in the morning of the Lord’s Day they assemble according to the custom in the major church, which is called the Martyrium. It is called the Martyrium for the reason that it is on Golgotha, that is, behind the Cross where the Lord suffered, and hence the Martyrium. So, when everything has been celebrated according to the custom in the major church, and before the dismissal is done, the archdeacon raises his voice and says first, ‘All this week, that is, from tomorrow, let us all come together at the ninth hour at the Martyrium,’ that is, in the major church. Then he raises his voice again and says, ‘Today let us all be ready at the seventh hour on Eleona.’ So, when the dismissal has been done at the major church, that is, at the Martyrium, the bishop is led with hymns to the Anastasis and when they have completed there what it is the custom to do on the Lord’s Day in the Anastasis after the dismissal at the Martyrium, everyone hurries home to eat so that at the beginning of the seventh hour all may be ready in the church that is on Eleona, that is, the Mount of Olives, where there is the cave in which the Lord taught. So, at the seventh hour all the people ascend the Mount of Olives, that is, on Eleona, in the church. The bishop sits, hymns and antiphons appropriate to that day and place are recited, similarly also readings. And when the ninth hour begins to approach, they go up with hymns to the Imbomon, that is, the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven, and there they sit, for all the people are always bidden to sit when the bishop is present, and the deacons alone always stand. Hymns and antiphons appropriate to the place and day are also recited there; similarly also readings and prayers are interspersed. And when the eleventh hour begins, there is read that passage from the gospel where children with branches and palms meet the Lord, saying, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” And immediately the bishop rises and all the people go forward from there entirely on foot from the summit of the Mount of Olives. For all the people [go] before him with hymns and antiphons, continually responding, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.’ And there are very many children in these places—including those who cannot walk on foot; because they are to be carried, their parents carry them on their shoulders—all carrying branches, some of palm, others of olive; and so the bishop is led in the same way as the Lord was led then. And from the summit of the Mount to the city and from there through the whole city to the Anastasis all, even any who are noble ladies and gentlemen, lead the bishop entirely on foot, responding thus, going very slowly lest the people become tired, and so at a late hour arrive at the Anastasis. When they have arrived there, even though it is late, Lucernare is still done, then prayer is made at the Cross, and the people are dismissed.”[1]

at The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel: St. Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

Now Jesus is in full disclosure about his person and mission. The entry into Jerusalem is an image that discloses his true nature. That he mounts a donkey is not a symbol of humility so much as it is a sign of his regal nature – his relationship to David, and to the city (see Zechariah 9:9). What happens here is not without precedent, as you can see in II Kings 9:13. Matthew apprises us of the geography of the entry into Jerusalem, beginning at Bethphage (House of Unripe Figs) which may be an illusion to Matthew 21:18-22, the parable of the barren fig tree. It is also located on the Mount of Olives which place is rife with messianic expectation (see Zechariah 14:4-9). 

Jesus is not the only pilgrim in this scene, others are ascending up to Jerusalem as well, on foot. It is they who offer the coats and blankets as a footpath for Jesus. What they chant as he enter is a quotation for Psalm 118:25-26. Matthew contrasts the mood of the pilgrims with that of the city, “Who is this?” The remaining readings and the liturgies of this week will answer that question.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1.        How is Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem a confrontation to governmental authority?
2.        To Religious Authority?
3.        To common piety?

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 Confitemini Domino

     Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.
     Let Israel now proclaim, *
"His mercy endures for ever."
19    Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.
20    "This is the gate of the Lord; *
he who is righteous may enter."
21    I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.
22    The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.
23    This is the Lord's doing, *
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24    On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25    Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! *
Lord, send us now success.
26    Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.
27    God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.
28    "You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you."
29    Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

The initial verse clues us into the fact that this is a thanksgiving psalm, and the first verse following the elided verses (verse 19) connects this psalm to the Palm Sunday Procession, and the first Gospel reading. The “gates of righteousness” is a significant phrase, for it was at the gates of the city that the judges sat dispensing justice. Though this is the place that only the righteous may enter, there is still possibility for those that might have been forgotten or neglected – to wit, the stone rejected by the builders becomes the chief cornerstone. The reaction is one of thanksgiving, and words of welcome as the Righteous One who comes in the name of the Lord enters the holy precincts. 

Breaking open the Psalm 118:

1.     Have you ever been a stone rejected?
2.     Were you ever accepted? How?
3.     How is your doorway a gate of righteousness?

at The Liturgy of the Word

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

It may not immediately be apparent until we reach the tenth verse following this reading, but we are hearing the words of the Servant. From those words we become aware of the Servant’s suffering and frustration. The comments that are made concern not only words and hearing, but listening as well, so that the Servant is place in the midst of a dialogue of words and feelings. Like the Lamb who submits to shearers, the Servant submits to a variety of violent acts. Nevertheless it is God who holds up and protects the Servant. I especially like the phrase, “Therefore I have set my face like flint.” He invites the confrontation, just as Jesus approaches Jerusalem with a steadfast mind and attitude. God stands beside the Servant.

Breaking open the Isaiah:

1.     How might words make one suffer?
2.     How might listening make one suffer?
3.     Have your words ever done so?

Psalm 31:9-16 In te, Domine, speravi

     Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; *
my eye is consumed with sorrow,
and also my throat and my belly.
10    For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; *
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.
11    I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; *
when they see me in the street they avoid me.
12    I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am as useless as a broken pot.
13    For I have heard the whispering of the crowd;
fear is all around; *
they put their heads together against me;
they plot to take my life.
14    But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. *
I have said, "You are my God.
15    My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
16    Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me."

This selection from Psalm 31 might as well be a hymn sung by the Servant from the reading above. The whole of the body, or perhaps the whole of life is distressed – “consumed with sorrow.” We are not aware of what the affliction is that the psalm addresses. It is not a confession of sin, but some other cause. The speaker has been placed outside of social acceptance, “they plot to take my life.” Nevertheless, it is God, again, who protects and shields. The final prayer in our reading is one of hoping for God’s face to shine on the psalmist and his predicament.

Breaking open Psalm 31:
  1. What are the troubles of your present time?
  2. What are the mercies of your present time?
  3. How are you mercy to others?

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

One commentator calls this “Christ the Paradigmatic Example”. It is an invitation to follow the example of Christ, “Let this same mind be in you.” What follows is an almost credal rendition of what Christ’s life was like, incident by incident, situation by situation. He reviews Jesus’ humiliation – his “emptying himself”, and then follows with Jesus’ exaltation. It is the perfect reading for this Sunday, an almost reverse of the Liturgy of the Palms (exaltation) to the Liturgy of the Passion (humiliation). At the end it is we who now bow and endure a humiliation, an honoring of the name of Jesus. I love the deacon’s bid during Lent, “Bow down before the Lord,” and then the blessing/prayer.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. When have you been humiliated?
  2. How did your faith lift you up?
  3. When have you been exalted?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 26:14- 27:66

One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,

From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Little commentary needs to be made here, for the text is eloquent and fulfilling on its own part. One comment does need to be made, however, and that is the trend to not read the passion on this Sunday. Some have said that it’s too difficult to whiplash from the magnificent entry into Jerusalem to the sorrows of the passion. The truth of the matter is that many will not hear the story of the passion because they will not attend the liturgies of the Triduum, so that the Christian story entertains only joy and not the sorrows that life of course brings. I will not post “Preaching Points” here, for this should be the sermon, “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Matthew.”

Breaking open Gospel:
1.        What segment of the Gospel brings the deepest memories to you?
2.        Are you ever induced to weep?
3.        What brings you joy?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     McGowan, A. (2018), The Pilgrimage Egeria, Liturgical Press Academic, Collegeville, Kindle Edition, Location 2935f.


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