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Victor Cancino, S.J.March 19, 2024
Photo from iStock.

Things do not always turn out the way we envision or desire. At the same time, actions serve as a witness to our deepest held convictions in a way that words sometimes fail to capture. The readings for Palm Sunday this year highlight both words and actions that seek to make sense of the senseless suffering of God’s anointed.

Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. (Mk 14:9)

Liturgical day
Palm Sunday (B)
Is 50:4-7, Ps 22, Phil 2:6-11, Mk 14:1–15:47

How do you plan to spend time in prayer this Holy Week?

Is there something you “see” that others do not because of your faith?

How will you sit and pray with the senseless act of Jesus’ passion?

The first reading highlights the third of four “servant of the Lord” oracles in the Book of Isaiah. These passages remain hauntingly relevant today for all the faithful who read and pray with them. This anonymous servant undergoes physical suffering and mental anguish without leaning toward violent retaliation. The “servant” and the reader are trying to make sense of this senseless attack on the physical and mental state of a person. 

The reading is somewhat strange because the servant in Isaiah’s passage speaks out and reminds his audience that his trained tongue can help the weary: “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them” (Is 50:4). As a reader, one would indeed wish to know how to speak to the weary in a way that rouses and encourages. Yet the servant in this instance does not really say anything. It is his action of accepting the beating done to him while, at the same time, convinced that God is his help. “I gave my back to those who beat me,” says the servant, “my cheeks to those who tore out my beard” (Is 50:6). In other words, the servant speaks to the weary by accepting his own weary struggle at the moment.

From a completely different context, today’s Gospel passage highlights the passion of Jesus through the lens of the evangelist Mark. As readers this Palm Sunday, we enter into a long drama of how God’s anointed one suffers a senseless passion much like the servant of the Lord in Isaiah’s oracles. 

In the account as told by Mark, however, no one sees this passion coming except for an unnamed woman from Bethany near Jerusalem. Her action of anointing Jesus before his suffering and criminal death sentence speaks volumes without using words. She breaks open an alabaster jar with perfumed oil of immense value and pours it over Jesus (see Mk 14:3). Does she know something about God’s plan that the rest of the disciples fail to see? This seems to be the case, as the passage reads concerning her actions, “There were some who were indignant” (Mk 14:4). Only Jesus defends her: “She had done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial” (Mk 14:8). 

The actions of the servant in Isaiah and the woman in the Gospel both invite the reader to do what one is capable of doing in times of distress. Jesus says that the woman “had done what she could”; and she, like the servant in Isaiah, responds to an impending passion with graceful presence. For the servant this means a constant reminder that God is his help. For the woman this means to prepare Jesus with burial ointments fit for a king. 

What will your actions reflect as the church walks into the memory of the Lord’s own passion this Palm Sunday and Holy Week?

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