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Victor Cancino, S.J.March 29, 2023
Priest holding palmsPhoto by Grant Whitty on Unsplash.

Palm Sunday brings to mind the festive reception that met Jesus when he entered Jerusalem. “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass” (Mt 21:5). Palm Sunday, however, is also the remembrance of the Lord’s Passion. The term passion, in reference to Christ’s experience on the cross, derives from the Late Latin noun, passio-passionis, which means “suffering” or “that which must be endured.”

Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name. (Phil 2:9)

Liturgical day
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (A)
Mt 21:1-11, Is 50:4-7, Ps 22, Phil 2:6-11, Mt 26:14–27:66

Can you recall a moment when suffering had purpose in your life?

How do the readings this week call you to be generous?

Has the passion of Peter ever resembled your own experience?  

On this Sunday, the readings highlight several “passions,” as individuals experience the agony of Christ uniquely. There is an opportunity this week to reflect on our own experience of Mathew’s narrative through the lens of two passions: the passion of Christ and the passion of Peter.

The authors in today’s readings grapple for meaning when contemplating what it means for God’s chosen one to suffer. The Greek literature of the ancient Mediterranean world offered no parallel to a divine person, anointed by heaven, suffering a criminal's sentence like crucifixion. In Greek thought, those associated with the divine life are considered blessed and far from the human condition marked by suffering. In their original context, the passages we read today helped people from that Greek world understand the enigma of Jesus’ agony. 

In our own Lenten journey, as we have fasted and prayed, we may have encountered moments of generosity when we were ready to go with Jesus to the very end and die with him. Peter wanted this too.

In the first reading, Isaiah highlights a certain violent act committed against an innocent person. Somehow, the person’s agony becomes redemptive, “I gave my back to those who beat me…my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” (Is 50:6). One interpretation of this passage highlights the ridicule that a person might have endured for deciding to return to Jerusalem after the end of the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE. The Lord’s promise for the Hebrew people awaited them in the land of Palestine, at the time of Isaiah’s writing there might have been Israelites who resisted leaving their new homeland in Babylon. In the Christian tradition, however, the subject of this passage is called the “Suffering Servant of the Lord.” The key here is not to find violence redemptive. Rather, the generosity of the Suffering Servant may allow the reader to pray with the redemptive mystery that springs from the servant’s obedience. 

Consider what Paul writes to the Philippians in this Sunday's second reading. Drawing on an early Christian hymn, Paul finds meaning in the suffering of Christ through his act of generosity, “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross…Because of this, God greatly exalted him” (Phil 2:8-9). The passion of Christ, far from meaningless, expresses the divine act of love for others regardless of personal cost.   

In contrast, the Gospel of Matthew portrays the passion of Peter as a missed opportunity to express the generosity of discipleship, regardless of personal cost. After sharing a Passover meal and singing a hymn, Jesus speaks directly to his disciples warning them that their faith in him will be shaken (Mt 26:31). Peter first claims that his faith will never be shaken (see Mt 26:33). Then immediately says, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:35). The story is well known. Peter denies his friend and savior and Jesus endures his passion alone. Peter’s passion experience is the awareness of his lack of generosity.

As the church enters into Holy Week, the faithful endure and relive the passion narrative of Christ. In our own Lenten journey, as we have fasted and prayed, we may have encountered moments of generosity when we were ready to go with Jesus to the very end and die with him. Peter wanted this too. Like Peter, our own experience shows the limits of our generosity towards Christ and his agony. Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is a time to ask for the grace to become generous through Christ, with Christ and in Christ. It is in his name that we are saved.

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