Diebus Saltem Dominicis: Palm Sunday – Don’t Be a Froward Ass

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The journey we began even as early as the pre-Lent “Gesima” Sundays, has brought us to this last time of trial and transformation, the four days remaining in Passiontide and the last three, their own set, the Sacred Triduum.  Some people will take the road of the least they can do, and perhaps attend Mass on Easter.  Others will take advantage of the wondrous opportunity and do much more.

On Palm Sunday, Christ entered Jerusalem through a gate riding on a little ass.  Perhaps you can enter Holy Week with my little comments.

Context.  For months the Scribes and Pharisees became more and more hostile toward the Lord.  Just before the great pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, Christ performed His greatest miracle: the resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany (John 11:1-45).  The leaders of the Temple “took counsel how to put him to death” (v. 53).

Following a brief stay at Ephraim and Jericho, where He predicted His betrayal, Passion and Resurrection, Christ returned to Bethany, to the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus for a couple of days before His final journey to Jerusalem.  News of the miracle of Lazarus spread.  People anticipated His every move.

Christ finally headed to Jerusalem for His final Passover.  He went along the well-trodden road, by which year in and year out the Jews made their annual pilgrimages.  They went by way of Bethphage, whence the yearly paschal lambs were brought to the Temple.  Here He instructed the disciples to bring to Him the colt of an ass, upon which they put their cloaks for Him to ride like the Davidic Priest King Solomon who rode David’s donkey into the city with a great crowd (Matthew 21:7 cf. 1 Kings 1).  The people flooding to the city for the holy days, strew the way with branches and their own cloaks.  The whole city was excited because Jesus was coming.  With each turn and rise, glimpses of the city were revealed from the Mount of Olives, glimpses of the Temple.  Pilgrims were singing psalms of spring Passover days and people of answered, “Hosia-na!…  “Save us!”  Hosanna… Blessed be he that comes in the name of the Lord.”

Then a change came over the crowds of pilgrims and residents.  The people stopped singing the usual Passover songs, and instead sang the psalms for the autumn harvest festival of Sukkoth, Tabernacles.  During the week of Sukkoth there was a ritual of pouring water and wine while people waved palm branches toward the altar.  This ceremony looked forward to the return of God’s presence cloud to the Temple which had departed with the Ark.  On that first Palm Sunday people cut branches and waved them toward Jesus, singing the psalms of Sukkoth rather than of Passover.  They thought Christ would go to the Temple to offer sacrifice as the Davidic priest to bring in a new era.

However, Christ would instead violently cleanse the Temple’s courtyard of the Gentiles into which vendors and money changers had encroached.  They had denied Gentiles a place to pray to the one true God.  In a few days, it was when Gentiles asked to speak to Christ that the Lord said, that finally his hour had come and the Father’s voice was heard for the third time.  The Passion began.

Palm Sunday brings to us the image of Christ riding into Jerusalem on the colt of an ass.  Not even a full-grown animal.  He probably had to pull His feet up as He was jerked about by the young critter.  It was a way of entering that was lofty, in that Solomon did it and He was the New Solomon.  It was also lowly, because the sight of it was humbling, perhaps even a bit comical but for the Davidic connotations.

Speaking of both lofty and lowly, on Palm Sunday we have the Epistle reading from Philippians 2:5-11, Paul’s evocative “kenosis … self-emptying” passage, which has hymnlike qualities.

Brethren: Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

First, Paul underscores that Christ, before He was born, preexisted and was equal to God.  Calling the Son “Christ” before the Incarnation is a little out of the proper order.  The eternal Son the Incarnate Word is Christ Jesus.  However, the passage affirms that Christ preexisted His birth and was equal to the Father.  The same Son then took human nature to Himself, which affirms the Incarnation.  He was “en morphé theoú… in the form of God” (v. 6) and then He had also “morphén theoú… the form of a servant, born in the likeness (homoíoma) of men” (v.7).  He took “the form of a servant, the likeness of men”.  In Greek, v. 7 reads “all’eautòn ekénosen morphèn”, which the KJV renders as “made himself of no reputation”.  The verb ekénosen, aorist of kenóo, “made of no reputation”, “emptied himself”.  This does not mean that He gave up or laid aside or stepped away from His divinity.  The Latin Vulgate says, exinanivit, from exinanio or “to empty, make empty, desolate”.

He did not empty Himself by losing divine nature.  He emptied Himself by taking human nature, the form of a servant even to the point of the brutal and humiliating treatment of the Passion and His horrific Crucifixion.  In making Himself lowly, he took not just death, but even the cruel and shaming public death of slaves.  That’s as low as you can get.

We have three Greek words of association which seem sort of the same in English, “form, appearance, likeness”.  In v. 8 we read, “being found in human form… schémati eupretheís hos ánthropos”.  A morphé is what truly underlies a thing’s being while its outward appearance, its schema, can change.  Then homoíoma points to the similarity between distinct things, such as two eggs which are alike.  So, the earthly incarnate divine Word Jesus had the underlying being of God and at the same time of a “servant”, human nature.  In His human nature he looked like a human being, but more specifically His likeness was a man, not a woman.

Paul also describes the manner of death of Christ, the Cross, as being in obedience to the Father, which indicates it was a sacrifice.  That sacrifice means even the Holy Name of Jesus deserves the adoration given to God, which is also a way to glorify the Father.  Paul doesn’t explicitly use the word “Son” here, but it is implicit in his use of the word “Father”.

The first part of the passage deals with the Incarnation and the Passion.  The second part presents the Resurrection and the “exaltation” (hyperupsóo) or Ascension.  Herein we find that the Name which the Father bestowed on Incarnate Son, told to Joseph by an angel (therefore, God) in a dream (in Matthew 1:21) is for the sake of redemption.  The angel added “He will save His people from their sins”.  Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means “the Lord saves”.  Jesus’ Name is His mission.  Also, Paul says that every tongue, indeed all creation, will confess that Jesus is “kúrios… Lord”, which is the Greek rendering of what the Jews used to name God without using the sacred and unpronounceable Tetragrammaton, YHWH.  So, the passage with Christ’s preexistence as God continues with his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension.  It ends with His glorification as God Savior for eternity.

This Sunday, Christ’s final days began.  They begin again, renewed, liturgically.  Through our sacred liturgical worship and by our baptismal character these sacred mysteries are made present to us and we to them in their devout celebration.  Now, again, our Lord comes to Jerusalem, mounted on the colt of a donkey.

The Lord had His ass colt to bear Him to His Passion and His Victory.  Although on that first Palm Sunday the ass colt recalled Solomon, and although Christ alone was riding when all other were walking, asses were an ordinary, everyday sight.  In our rites, we the baptized celebrate the triumph of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem.  In your Palm Sunday procession, claim part of that victory as sharers in Christ’s mission.

Do not leave that victory behind you at church when the dismissal comes at the end of Holy Mass and it is time to return to the world.  We are our rites.  You do not stop being sharers in Christ’s Passion and victory at the portal of the church.  You must consciously carry Christ into every corner of your sphere of life and into every open heart.  Be an ordinary, everyday Christ-bearing donkey.

First, to bear Christ to where He wants you to take Him, you must be a good donkey colt yourself, obedient, docile, patient.  Mary said, “Let it be done to me” and Christ humbled Himself to death.  We have the examples of saints.  Be a good donkey and carry Christ to where He must go.  Don’t be a froward ass.

Next, allow yourself to be borne along by your own donkey colts, that is, the ordinary and everyday tasks and events which bear you along in your day.  Our daily responsibilities, our daily troubles, even our sufferings are all our donkey colts which bear us.  In turn Christ is borne into each cranny of our lives and, through our donkey, into the lives of others.  Bear trials and routine with self-control, perseverance, and good cheer.  Try to imagine Mary and Joseph in their daily doings.  Is it possible to imagine Mary of Nazareth preparing a meal or cleaning up afterward with a grumble and a frown?  She bore Christ before any donkey did, thus teaching all donkeys to bear Him.  She teaches us how to bear Christ where we, in our vocations, must bring Him.

Life doesn’t have to be exotic to have dramatic results.  In the most ordinary things, faithfully completed, much is accomplished.  Your participation in the sacred rites of Holy Week, the coming Triduum, is “the least you could do”, if you get my drift.  Of course, it is the most you can do, not because of who you are or what you do in them, but because of what He makes of you while you are in them.  We are our rites and He is their Actor.

Go to confession.  Go to your rites.  Take others to both.  It’s the least you can do.

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