“Embracing the Humiliation of the Cross as the Way to Glory”
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, April 2, 2023
Homily delivered at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
San Francisco, CA
“What’s in a name?” That is the old saying. We know that there is much in a name, not only of people, but of other things as well. Actually, every Sunday Mass has a name; every Mass does. Normally, it is the first word of the entrance antiphon in Latin; it was more common to refer to Masses this way in the past.
Now, this custom is limited mainly to two Masses, one of which we celebrated two weeks ago, “Laetare” Sunday, and also, in Advent, there is “Gaudete” Sunday. Those are the two Sundays that bring in the theme of joy at about the midpoint of those seasons, preparing for a great celebration, a great mystery of the faith, and they both mean, “Rejoice.”
This Sunday also has a name. Actually, it has two names. This makes it a little different. But what really makes it different is that neither name is derived in this way. And the two names of this Sunday correspond to the other unique thing about Palm Sunday. It is the only Sunday liturgy with two Gospel readings, each of which corresponds to one of these two names.
Way to Glory: Palm Sunday
We know this Sunday most commonly as “Palm” Sunday, because of the Gospel we heard proclaimed before we processed into the church, narrating Our Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when people sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and greeted Him with palm branches. “Hosanna to the Son of David” is the title of a king. The king God was to send would be a descendant of David, the greatest king of the ancient people of Israel. Our Lord is given this title and greeted with palm branches, an ancient sign of victory, of triumph, of welcoming the return of a conquerer in war, or welcoming the king of a nation.
Way to Glory: Passion Sunday
Yet we know what happens later, and that is the Gospel reading for the Mass proper, which is where this Sunday derives its other name: “Passion” Sunday. We just heard proclaimed the account of our Lord’s Passion and Death. This Sunday brings out to us how fickle human nature really is. Not long after they acclaim Him as their king, the people turn on Him, and call for His crucifixion, and instead give their loyalty to Caesar as their king.
This is the abasement of Jesus, He who freely lowered Himself in order that He might raise us up. This is reflected in the ancient Christian hymn that is quoted by Saint Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, proclaimed in our second reading for Mass today. Our Lord’s lowering of Himself occurred, first of all, in His Incarnation, when He lowered Himself by coming down from Heaven to become one of us, taking on human flesh, emptying Himself of His claim to the glories of divinity. As St. Paul says, He “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped,” and “He took the form of a slave coming in human likeness.”1 And then He emptied Himself all the more in lowering Himself in His Passion, humbling Himself, as Paul says, “becoming obedient to the point of death,” and then, in the greatest humiliation of all, “even death on a cross.”2 Our Lord accepted death on a cross, the death of a criminal, although He was innocent, suffering the greatest humiliation of all.
This lowering of Jesus shows itself in so many ways, even in the way He entered Jerusalem, on a donkey, not on a horse. One would think that if He is entering as a king, He would enter on a horse, a horse that is strong, mighty, powerful, sleek, and fast. It is the animal used in war, an animal fit for a king. It was all the more ironic, then, that the people acclaim Him as their king when He is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, a “beast of burden,” as the Gospel says. A donkey cannot move fast. It is the animal of poor people. I suppose if we wanted to make a comparison to our own time, it would be like entering into the scene in a Rolls-Royce versus in an old, beat-up jalopy.
Embrace the Cross: Foreordained
We see this plan developing, though, all along; all the signs are there when we go back to God’s people of old. It was all foreordained. Saint Matthew points this out in his description of how Jesus fulfills prophecies from the Old Testament, as He says, in that opening Gospel reading, “Say to Daughter Zion,” quoting from Isaiah, then quoting from the prophet Zechariah, “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.”3 Then He also quotes Jeremiah in his account of the Passion regarding what the Jewish leaders did with those 30 pieces of silver: “And they took the 30 pieces of silver, the value of a man with a price on his head, a price set by some of the Israelites, and they paid it out for the potter’s field just as the Lord had commanded me.”4 Quoting from Zechariah, Jesus Himself says in His response during His interrogation, that it must all come to pass, “as Scripture has foretold.”
Christ fulfills the prophecies of the Suffering Servant psalms in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, one of which we heard in our first reading. There are four of these Suffering Servant psalms that mysteriously give us a foreshadowing of the Messiah and the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The first one is the calling of this Suffering Servant, and then the opposition He faces, and then the reading today, which tells us how He is bitterly reviled. And then in the fourth one, it is sung that His mission consists in what He preaches as well as in what He endures.
Embrace the Cross: Death
Bringing those two aspects together, what He endured and what He taught, sets the pattern for us. His self-emptying, His ultimate humiliation, sets the pattern for us because it does not end there. As that great Christian hymn that Saint Paul quotes in his Letter to the Philippians concludes, “Because of this, God greatly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.”5 And in fact, it is from this ancient hymn that we have our custom, even today, of bowing the head at the Name of Jesus, as it concludes, “That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those 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.”6 That is the pattern: being brought low is the only way to glory. The only way is embracing the cross as He did, not fleeing from it.
This fleeing from the cross, I believe, explains why there is so much going wrong in the world today. People flee the cross in so many ways, so many ways they cannot accept it: whether that is not accepting the created order for the way it is, but rather attempting to redesign it to fit one’s own fancy (and I say “attempt to” because we cannot redesign the created order; if we try to, it will only redound to our own harm.); or if it means not accepting the consequences for one’s actions, but demanding to be absolved from such actions without making amends, or even admitting that one is wrong. How difficult it is to hear someone apologize nowadays. They might go so far as to say they regret that it happened, but to apologize and say, “I am sorry, I apologize for what I did”? Very often instead, it gets to the point of blaming someone else for one’s own wrong actions. This is all avoiding the cross.
But ultimately, there is no escaping from the cross. We can try to avoid it as long as we are in this world, but we all, eventually, will have to die. Every single one of us, sooner or later, will face the ultimate humiliation of death. Embracing the cross is how we prepare ourselves for that self-emptying.
We hear in the Passion account the contrast between Peter and Judas. Judas could not prepare himself that way by repentance. Peter did. He wept bitterly when He realized that the Lord was right, that he betrayed Him, but he repented and went on to be the foundation stone of the College of Apostles, and imitate his Lord in his own death, giving his life for Him. We embrace the cross, preparing ourselves for the ultimate humiliation of death, by imitating our Lord’s self-emptying. We empty ourselves in humility and embrace love of God overflowing into love of others. So, when that moment comes when we will pass from this life to the next, we will have already been there. We will have already freely lowered ourself because we have freely lived for God and in accordance with His will.
This is what Holy Week is for: to be a reminder of this ultimate spiritual reality and a stimulus to move us to live ever more faithfully in this way, in the way of loneliness, as preparation for the ultimate loneliness of death. And this is precisely the message the Church gives us in starting out this week, as we prayed also in the opening prayer for this Sunday’s Mass, called the “Collect”. In the Collect, we prayed first about the abasement of Christ in His Incarnation, and ultimately in His humiliating death: “Almighty ever-living God, who as an example of humility for the human race to follow caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross.” And then we recalled the invitation for us to follow that pattern that He has set, in the second half of the prayer, which is already anticipated in the first half, where it speaks of Him giving an example of humility for the human race to follow: “Graciously grant that we may heed His lesson of patient suffering and so merit a share in His Resurrection.”
This “patient suffering” is the only way to the “Resurrection”. Let us then make good and wise use of these holiest days of the year by our prayer, penance, and participation in the most sacred of liturgies that mark these most sacred of days. For, taking ourselves low by embracing the cross is the way to exaltation in God’s sight. By living this way, God gives us foretastes in this life of the glory that is to come, the glory that, after the ultimate abasement of death, is the ultimate exaltation of life in heaven.
1 Phil. 2: 6-11
3 Mt. 21: 5
4 Mt. 27: 9
5 Phil. 2: 9
6. Phil 2: 10