Passion (Palm) Sunday is one of the all-out favorite celebrations of the church year. Following Christmas and Easter, Palm Sunday ranks with Ash Wednesday -- all days made special because people leave the celebration with a tangible reminder of the experience.
Our sacramental procession with the palms is one of those very Catholic, whole-body experiences that can mildly embarrass us and still nudge us to enter more deeply into a unique experience of our participation in the events of salvation history. Two questions we might ponder as we process and sing "Hosanna" are "Who is he that we celebrate?" and "What does it mean to walk this path?"
The first two readings offer meditations on the first question. Isaiah's song of the servant of God paints such a prophetic portrait of Jesus that it's easy to understand why the early church used it: It explains their suffering savior. More than anything, this song is a proclamation of humble obedience and purity of heart. If we imagine Jesus reciting it, the first thing we hear is his awareness that everything he has comes from God for the purpose of giving new life to the poor or weary.
Next, he explains that his entire life, morning by morning, has been one of listening in order to understand and carry out God's will. Then, just as he had with the disciples, he speaks of freely accepting his suffering. Finally, he reveals the key to his integrity and why he can accomplish what he does: "The Lord God is my help. ... I shall not be put to shame."
Our reading from Philippians offers the early church's poetic reflection on Christ as the perfect servant of God. Beginning with the assurance that he was indeed divine, it explains that status held no sway over him. Long before he began to teach others about humility, he freely dispossessed himself of privilege, assuming the condition of the needy and accepting the human vocation to listen to and obey God -- no matter the consequences. Then, as if to prove Isaiah's statement, "I shall not be put to shame," the song goes on to explain how that attitude opened the way for God to exalt him.
The two readings offer us more than enough material on which to meditate as we ask for whom we are processing on this day. This is Jesus, the obedient Son of God, the one in whom God was well pleased. This is the one who lived in utter transparency, whose life and death gave witness to his teaching about serving the lowly and disdaining prestige. This is the Christ whom God exalted so that everyone could proclaim him as Lord and see in him the glory of God.
The second question is more costly: "What does it mean to walk this path?" Luke's Passion invites us to enter the scene and find ourselves in one or more of the characters. We may be among the disciples who, after following cryptic orders, enthroned Jesus on the back of a never-before-ridden colt -- learning faith through ritual. Others may identify with the crowd crying, "Hosanna! Lord, save us!"
We're here today in solidarity with this crowd who wants to honor Christ. The proclamation of the Passion invites us to walk with Jesus through his last day of mortal life. Before ever entering the trial, he offers us Communion to strengthen us when we fail. Then he warns us that being a traitor is easier and less dramatic than we think; lording it over others will accomplish the task.
From Sunday through Friday, this is the Holy Week during which we are urged to walk the way of the cross with our ancestors and our contemporaries. We take our place among them and learn from Jesus as he prays, accepts the counterfeit sign of companionship, and heals the innocent one injured in the fray. Then, through the trial, the procession to Calvary, and his final expressions of forgiveness, promise and trust, we are invited to hear which of those words he addresses to us and what difference they might make.
We process as a reminder that salvation is a historical, whole-body experience. It's not just our mind, but our hands and feet and voices that must participate, because this drama is ongoing. Because we cannot avoid meeting the suffering Christ as we walk through life, we keep the palm as a reminder that we want to honor and be faithful to him in all his lowly incarnations. We continue to seek communion, because morning after morning, we need God's help to become faithful disciples of God's servant. We process today, looking forward to the fulfillment of his Easter, when sin and suffering are but memories and "Alleluia" is our only song.
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]