Some 24 years ago, on the second day of my summer study in Israel, my former novice director took me to a village in Samaria (on the so-called West Bank) for the 1st Mass of a newly ordained local priest. We found everyone gathered at the village boundary, around an arch of palm branches and balloons, waiting there for the new priest to enter his hometown. As the procession began and all the villagers started shouting and waving palms in the air, my former novice director smiled and said to me: now you see what Palm Sunday looked like!
The Gospel read at the beginning of this Sunday’s Mass recalls Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday and his triumphal entry – minus the balloons but still full of messianic symbolism – into the Holy City. We commemorated that event today with our own triumphal palm procession - again minus the balloons, but waving palms, and singing that wonderful 9th-century hymn that Theodulph, the Bishop of Orleans, composed for this very occasion around the year 810.
The rest of the story, which we have just heard, reveals the next phase of that journey – to the cross and to the tomb.
The cross stands as the central symbol of Christianity because the cross is precisely where we meet God in our world, just as the tomb – the eventually empty tomb – shows where he is taking us, where we now watch and wait with Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.
Meeting Christ on the cross we somehow sense a new connection with God that we would hardly have felt if he himself had not done what we all have to do – and are all so afraid to do – to die.
Jesus is God’s way of participating in our human world, God’s great act of solidarity with us in our day-to-day suffering and our final mortality.
In his Passion, Jesus confronted, once and for all, the power of evil in the world. Having done so, he invites us this week to accompany him to the cross and to the tomb – because, thanks to the cross of Christ, death no longer has the final word in our world.
Homily for Palm Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 9, 2017.