Sunday April 8, 2001 (Audio) Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Palm Sunday
Reading I (Isaiah 50:4-7) Reading II (Philippians 2:6-11)
Gospel (St. Luke 22:14-23:56)
In the Gospels today, we hear, first of all, about the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the second Gospel reading of the Passion, we hear about how the whole crowd that was praising God and glorifying Him had turned so quickly against the Lord. We need to look at these different elements. Needless to say, there is so much to say about these reading that I could be here for hours, but I will spare you that; so we will just touch on a few of the points to highlight some of the things that were going on, some of the things that we might not recognize or understand immediately.
First of all, we hear Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey. We ask ourselves, "Why?" Well, first of all, there was a prophecy that the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. So we say, "Okay, that needed to be fulfilled." But there was a purpose for that. Many people will say that in the time of Our Lord, the victor, the king who was victorious, would come into the city on a white horse, letting the whole world know that he was the victor. But if one was in defeat, he would come in on a donkey - a sign of humility. That is not so much the reason. It was more a matter of obedience to God. By this point, the Jewish people had become very disobedient to the Will of God. They were not following what God had required very specifically in the Scriptures. It is absolutely forbidden in the Scriptures for the people of Israel to ride a horse.
Now, on first hearing that, we might say, "Well, thatís kind of a foolish thing." But if you read, for instance in some of the books, like back in Kings at the time of David, they rode donkeys. They didnít ride horses into battle; they rode donkeys. Now, that again seems foolish to us because donkeys donít run and the horses are quite fast. We ask, "Why would they ride donkeys? Why doesnít God allow them to have horses?" Because the only place in the ancient world where horses were raised was in Egypt. Egypt, of course, was the enemy of Israel and God had forbidden that the people of Israel would make a pact with Egypt in order to have horses. And so, at this point in the midst of the disobedience of the Jewish people, while they were indeed riding horses at the time of Our Lord, Jesus Himself, obedient to the Will of God and in fulfillment of the prophecy, came in riding a donkey.
We see the people shouting out their Hosannas to God. But then, within a weekís time, as I mentioned, they all turn against Him. We see those odd exchanges between Pilate and the chief priests; and between Pilate and Jesus. It doesnít make a whole lot of sense to us. It seems that Pilate is trying to push this away; indeed he was. The Jewish people had a concordat with the Romans. I should say that it was really the other way around: the Romans had signed a concordat with the Jewish people. The Jews had their own law. We donít hear the Passion quite as explicitly in Lukeís Gospel as we do in the others. As the week draws on, we hear in Saint Johnís Gospel on Friday, for instance, all the different elements of the law. Keep these things in mind.
The concordat that the Romans signed with Israel was that the Jews would be the ones to take care of their own people. If a Jewish person was arrested by the Romans, the Romans could do nothing. They must turn him over to the Jewish authorities, and the Jewish authorities would try the person for their crimes. The only person in history known to have been turned over to the Romans by the Jews is Jesus Christ. So, once again, that is the reason for Our Lord telling us three times that He is going to be handed over to the pagans. Why was there a whole group of people following Him, including the women crying and lamenting? Because they had violated their own law. It wasnít merely that the Messiah was going to be killed, because many of them did not understand that. What they saw was the injustice. Why was a Jew being crucified? Why was a Jew being handed over to pagans? This violated the concordat; that is why Pilate was trying to push the whole thing away. He knew this was against the law.
But then you can look at it the other way, and you see this most clearly in Saint Markís Gospel. We see that Herod is in Jerusalem at that time. Herod was the tetrarch. This is not the Herod that wanted to kill Jesus when He was a baby, but rather this is Herodís son. Herod, at this point, was the king in Galilee. He was now in Jerusalem for some purpose. Therefore, because this governor would have been there, there would have been 1,000 Roman soldiers who would have come with him. You also have at the Praetorium, another group of soldiers who would have been there because of Pontius Pilate and the whole situation as they were patrolling the area of Jerusalem. There would have been thousands of Roman soldiers who could do nothing to a Jewish person. The Jews could make fun of the Roman soldiers; they could slander them; yell at them; throw things at them; and the Roman soldiers could do nothing because, by their own concordat, they were forbidden from touching any Jews.
After all these things had gone on, now they finally had their opportunity. Here was a Jewish man, and He had been turned over to them. To take Him into the Praetorium; to flog Him; to make a crown of thorns and robe Him in purple; to abuse Him in various ways; they now had their chance. The Romans would throw people to the lions and cheer gleefully as they saw the bloodshed. This was a group of Roman soldiers who had not seen much blood for a long time. You can imagine the cruelty and the mob mentality as they went after Jesus. It wasnít just an ordinary flogging, it was a rather extraordinary thing, even for Pilate. You see his waffling. On one level, heís trying to sound like he is somewhat righteous; but here he is waffling and saying, "Well, I find this man completely innocent, why donít I just have him flogged?" If He is innocent, why would He be flogged? Finally, he waffles completely and says, "Fine. Crucify him." Again, this is totally violating everything in the concordat that had been signed.
As we see these different elements, it helps us to understand the cruelty and the incredible suffering that Our Lord endured on a human level. We see in the garden what He suffered as He prayed and the wave of all of our sins came down upon Him. He was crushed. Remember, the word Gethsemane (as in the Garden of Gethsemane), means the olive press. So, the Garden of Gethsemane is the Garden of the Olive Press. It was there that they would bring the olives. A huge press they had with a huge stone would squeeze the olives and the oil would come out and drip over the sides of the press. When the olives were squeezed, the oil would come out of the pores of the olive. In the ancient world, they called that the blood of the olive. As the blood poured forth from the pores of Our Blessed Lord, He was being crushed, squeezed under the weight of our sins. The blood poured forth from His very pores. He was crushed for our offenses.
On Friday, when we read from Isaiah chapter 53, and when we hear the Passion from Saint John, these are some things to ponder and keep in mind. The intense suffering that Our Lord endured. The cruelty with which he suffered. And all of this because of us; because He loved us even to the point of death. He was obedient to His Father out of love for us. That is the thing we can never lose sight of. Jesusí suffering, His Passion, His death, His crucifixion, is not something we can put at an armís distance. It is not something we can look at objectively and say, "What an unfortunate thing. What a terrible injustice that happened." Instead, it is something we need to look at subjectively and personally. As we ponder these things, and meditate upon them in this most holy of weeks, make it your own. Recognize it is because of your sins and my sins; but each one of us looking at it says, "He did this for me. He did it because of me. That suffering is because of me; I did that to Him. Itís not just the Romans, itís not just the Jews, it was me. Iím the one who turned Him over to Pilate; Iím the one who crucified Him; Iím the one who mocked Him. It is my sins that weighed down upon Him. Iím the one who crushed Him." That is what we need to keep in mind.
Donít leave it out there someplace as something that happened 2000 years ago and has no bearing on us. Because the Crucifixion of Our Blessed Lord is happening still. In just a few moments, on the altar, Jesus Christ will be sacrificed. Not again, but still. The exact same sacrifice as happened on the Cross 2000 years ago. He is sacrificing Himself now for us and because of us. He gives Himself to us in Holy Communion because He loves us. So, as we ponder these saving mysteries, make them your own; take them into your heart. Walk through them with Our Blessed Lord. With those women who followed Him, weep and lament for yourselves and for your children, because He did this out of love for you.
Note: Father Altier does not prepare his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.