Palm (Passion) Sunday
‘His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and become as human beings are.'
2 Philippians 2:7
Holy Week begins today. We quickly move from the joyful entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to the reading of Matthew's account of the Passion. Is it best to call it ‘Palm' or ‘Passion' Sunday? The Church gives us both. In a parish I once worked in, the church stood in a small square, and on Palm Sunday we would gather in the middle of it to commemorate the Lord's entrance into Jerusalem. Residents at their windows, passers-by and onlookers sitting outside the coffee shops would look quizzically at us, lending an air of reality to the occasion. This was not liturgy behind closed doors but out in the open, just as Jesus' crucifixion was.
But the reading of the Passion brings us down to earth and reminds us of the focus of Holy Week: Christ's passion, death - and resurrection. St Paul gives us the context in today's second reading: ‘[He] emptied himself… even to accepting death on a cross'. The crucifixion is the supreme act of self-sacrifice, a total handing over to God of his life, even to the point of feeling abandoned by him. That must have been the greatest suffering of all. And it remains a mystery. What does Jesus' cry of abandonment mean? The words come from the beginning of Psalm 22(23). It would have been a prayer already on the lips of Jesus, a devout Jew. As the mystics tell us, at some point along the journey towards God there comes a point where the experience of God's seeming absence has to be faced up to.
So if Jesus, as St Paul says, ‘emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave', that is, a human being, then the experience of God's abandonment was inevitable. It is the moment of deepest darkness before the dawn breaks. For Jesus, it was necessary for him to enter into the utter nothingness and desolation of death - the absence of God - in order to conquer it once and for all. Nothing less would have achieved its purpose. The human condition into which Jesus entered fully, if we are to take St Paul seriously, also meant the experience of death, and the utter annihilation that death entails. Hence the cry of abandonment as Jesus was about to die.
Passion Sunday, therefore, sets the scene for the rest of Holy Week. It establishes the humanity of Jesus, without which Jesus as God will not be able to enter into the dark mystery of death and overcome it. It is the humanity of Jesus that engages our attention in Holy Week, including the profound suffering of the Cross. Jesus' cry of abandonment is the cry of suffering humanity, a sign that wherever there is human pain God is present in Christ - even if he seems to be absent. Blasphemous though it may seem to say it, in the dark night of the Nazi death camps of Europe, God was mysteriously present: a kind of wounded God, echoing the words of the camp survivor, Elie Wiesel, who acknowledged that after Auschwitz his faith in God had become a ‘wounded faith'. In the end, maybe it is the only kind of faith that is possible in a broken world.
A meditation written by Fr Paul Graham O.S.A., Assistant General on the Augustinian Council for Northern Europe, including the Provinces of Ireland, England & Scotland, Poland, Germany, Austria and Slovakia