28 March 2021
Today, Palm or Passion Sunday, is the first day of Holy Week, the high point of the Church’s year, climaxing in the Easter Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Two gospels are proclaimed during today’s Eucharist. The first is proclaimed during the procession with palms and recounts Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a borrowed colt. He is greeted joyfully by the crowds, who spread their garments and leafy branches on the road before him and acclaim him with the words: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!’ (Mark 11:10). It is shocking but salutary to remember that these are the same crowds who will, a few days later, shout out in unison, ‘Crucify him!’ (Mark 15: 13).
At the Liturgy of the Word, the events of Jesus’ passion are proclaimed in full, this year from the Gospel of Mark. We will hear these same events once more on Good Friday, when the passion of Jesus according to the Gospel of John will be proclaimed. Why does the Church give so central a place in its liturgy to the passion and death of Jesus on the Cross? Why do we continue to remember in all their shameful and gory details the humiliation and crucifixion of the one who was Love Incarnate, the one who came on earth only to bring healing, forgiveness and peace? It was surely not because this was the price demanded by the Father for our sins. Only a sadist would demand such a price, and God, far from being a sadist, is Love itself. Nor does Jesus deliberately court his own destruction. He did not seek the Cross though he did embrace it freely as he discerned that the inevitable outcome of his mission of love was to be handed over to his enemies and put to death: ‘Now it happened that as the time drew near for him to be taken up, he resolutely turned his face towards Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51).
Jesus’ passion and agonising death by crucifixion was not a consequence of the Father’s need to be placated nor the result of a martyr complex on the part of Jesus himself. It was, as Fr Denis McBride CSSR states ‘the final solution thought up by a world opposed to Jesus’ way’. Jesus’ suffering and death shows us, with startling clarity, what happens to self-forgetful love in a world ruled by the demons of hatred and violence. Jesus could have avoided the Cross but only by turning aside from his mission of proclaiming and inaugurating the God’s reign of justice, peace and love. And this he could not and would not do. To reveal the full extent of God’s love for us, he had to endure suffering and death. The events we recall today represent the final phase and climax of Jesus’ life-giving mission of love.
In the story of Jesus’ passion and death, presented in exacting detail by all the evangelists, Jesus’ mission moves into a higher key, in which he allows himself to be acted upon rather than to act. For three years, he had acted: reaching out to people, especially the poor and marginalised, proclaiming a message of hope to those longing for liberation, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, and casting out demons.
In the first phase of his mission, he was the protagonist. Now, in this climactic phase, he is the one being acted upon. We see him being betrayed, arrested, imprisoned, interrogated by Caiphas, Herod and Pilate, scourged, crowned with thorns, mocked, forced to carry a cross, stripped, or his garments, and finally nailed and hung on the cross until he expired. This is the supreme moment of his witness to the God of Love. Jesus suffering and death on the Cross, as the noted Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe OP, points out, reveals ‘the weakness of God…, not the weakness of ineffectiveness but the weakness of love, which is our best picture of the power of God. From creation itself right through to redemption the power of God is exercised not in manipulating and interfering with things but in letting them be, because the power of God is the power of love (God Matters, p. 108). It is, however, only through the lens of the resurrection that we come to see the weakness of divine love in our world not as a tragic defeat but as a glorious victory.
As we prayerfully recall the dangerous memory of Jesus’ passion and death, we profess our gratitude for a love that allowed Jesus to be ‘led like an innocent lamb to the slaughter’. We also remember and express our solidarity with all those people whose courageous love makes them victims of violence in our world today.
Fr Michael McCabe SMA, Cork, March 2021
Click on the play button below to listen to an alternative homily from Fr Tom Casey SMA.