First reading: Isaiah 50:4-7.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 21(22):8-9, 17-20, 23-24.
Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11.
Gospel: Mark 11:1-10 / John 12:12-16 / Mark 14:1 – 15:47 / Mark 15:1-39.
Link to readings.
There is so much Scripture to read today—not to mention the blessing of Palms and procession—that any homily will have to be brief.
First, the Gospel of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, Mark 11:1-10. The explanation Jesus tells his two disciples to give if challenged about untying the colt can be understood in two senses: “Its owner (of the colt) needs it” or “The Lord needs it”. The ambiguity is probably intentional: Jesus is to enter Jerusalem as its “Lord”, that is, as the Messiah, Son of David, whose “kingdom” or rule is about to come, as the crowd acclaims. The mode of his entry, however—on a donkey rather than in a chariot or upon a horse—indicates the kind of Messiah he is going to be: one who has come “not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), as the events of the week to follow, will all too clearly show.
The First Reading set down for the Mass, Isaiah 50:4-7, is the third of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs”, all four of which will be read during Holy Week, culminating in the reading of the fourth and last (Isa 52:13—53:12) on Good Friday. These four texts, in which reflections upon the personal suffering of the prophet and that of Israel during her Exile are mysteriously intertwined, have from the beginning been central to Christian understanding of Jesus’ passion and death.
In the Second Reading, Phil 2:6-11, St. Paul quotes what seems to be a hymn from an early Christian liturgy. The hymn describes how at all three stages of his “career” (so to speak)—pre-incarnate, incarnate up to death, and post-resurrection —the essential disposition of Christ is to pour himself out in self-emptying love. His obedience unto the death of the cross simply continues the divine outpouring of love that led in first instance to the incarnation of the One whose “nature was divine”. Even his lordship of the universe (vv. 9-11) is not for himself but for the glory of God the Father. The hymn thus provides the essential background and accompaniment to our consideration of the Passion of Jesus throughout Holy Week: behind every word, gesture and suffering is a costly divine outreach of love to an alienated world.
It is generally agreed that St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ Passion provided the model for the Passion accounts of all the other Gospels. Mark, then, set the pattern whereby the account of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trials, ill-treatment and eventual execution by one of the most horrible and painful means human cruelty ever devised is told as a simple, sparse narrative, totally devoid of sentimentality or religious emotionalism. We know that the One to whom all this is being done is the Son of God, the One whom “even the wind and the sea obey” (4:41). We know why this is being allowed to happen: because this is the kind of “service” that God willed the Messiah to perform: to enter into the sinfulness, pain and suffering of the world, to overcome those things from within, to give his life that the “many” might have life (cf. 10:45; 14:24).
The way Mark tells the story—a sequence of swiftly changing scenes—sets in dramatic contrast the actions and the motives of the chief players: the priests and scribes, whose murderous plotting unleashes the whole drama; Judas, deliberately seeking an opportunity to betray; the male disciples abandoning Jesus when he needs them most; the women standing by to the end; Peter, bold in his early protestations, timid when challenged by a servant-girl; Pilate, clad with all the power of Rome, but yielding against his better judgment in the face of pressure from the mob.
In all this catalogue of human failure one figure stands out: the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ in the last week of his life (14:3-9). As Jesus points out in the face of those who criticize her, she alone of all the disciples does understand where he is going and why—hence her costly, loving gesture.
Jesus himself shrinks from “the cup” before him in Gethsemane. But once composed he goes through it all with calm dignity, up till the final terrible cry of abandonment just before dying on the cross (15:34). The evangelist leaves this cry hanging there, unadorned, seemingly unanswered by God.
But the moment Jesus dies, the temple curtain splits in two. God is no longer shut up in the Holy of Holies of the temple, inaccessible to all save the high priest. God is here, in this most unholy place of execution, reaching out in reconciliation to the whole world. The Gentile centurion, standing in for all of us, is the first to grasp this and make his act of faith.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media