April 13, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Palm Sunday
Reading I (Isaiah 50:4-7) Reading II (Philippians 2:6-11)
Gospel (St. Mark 14:1-15:47)
Today in the readings, we see things that are very contradictory. We see, for instance, in the first Gospel that we heard at the beginning of the Mass, the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem; and then we see by the end of the same week that all the people have turned against Him. But we also see within the long Passion several things that are rather striking that might not stand out to us as Christian people 2,000 years separated from these events, but they would certainly stand out to a person who would be Jewish.
For instance, we hear Jesus praying in the garden, “Abba, Father, if this cup may pass Me by…” And then when it comes time for the chief priests to demand His crucifixion, there is an insurrectionist there by the name of “Barabbas” – Bar - Abba, meaning “the son of the father”. Here you have the Son praying to His Father, and the one they are really asking for to be freed has the same name. So they crucify the true Son of the Father while they are looking for “the son of the father” to be freed at the same time. Now we know, of course, that the hour of Our Lord – which from a human perspective would be the hour of shame, the hour of the victory of evil – is His hour of glory. Once again, an apparent contradiction and yet this was the very purpose for His coming into this world; this was His hour. It was the hour when it appeared that evil had triumphed, but indeed good had triumphed over evil. And so we see even the contradiction of the Cross. What appears on one level to be an implement of destruction, an implement of death, is in fact the tree of life and is the means by which we are made whole.
All of these contradictions, but there is more. When we look, for instance, at what the high priest does when he interrogates Jesus and he declares that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy and is guilty of death, he tears his robe, which is a rather dramatic way of being able to demonstrate that something horrific has occurred. The outer robe of the chief priest was held together by one strand of thread on a seam that went straight up the middle. It was easy to tear and easy to put back together so that he did not destroy his clothing, but it was there so that the point could be easily made if need be. And they all condemned Him to death. At the moment that Jesus died, we are told that the curtain in the temple was torn in two, and we are told very explicitly that it was torn from top to bottom. Now when the high priest tore his robes, he reached down to the bottom and he tore them from the bottom to the top. The curtain in the temple was torn from the top to the bottom – it was God’s way of saying, “Blasphemy!”
But it was also God’s way of being able to show all of the contradictions: The Author of life had entered into death; the true Son of God was now freed; the insurrectionist, on the other hand, was the one who was enslaved to death; the Cross was now the Tree of Life. The Holy of Holies, which was closed to all except the high priest, was now open because the High Priest had entered. It was no longer the Holy of Holies made by human hands, a model of the one in Heaven, but now the model was open because the true Holy of Holies would be open and we would be able to enter through the torn flesh of Our Lord, as Saint Paul makes clear in his Letter to the Hebrews.
I should also mention very briefly the timing of things because we are told that at the time they took Jesus out to crucify Him it was nine in the morning. We hear about the Sanhedrin meeting, interrogating Jesus, and condemning Him to death. There are only two possibilities for this. One, either they met illegally because it was forbidden for the Sanhedrin to meet at night. And also, according to Jewish law, there had to be a 24-hour waiting period from the time that someone was tried and found guilty of death to the time he was actually turned over to death. If that were the case, we would have to say that the chief priests and the Sanhedrin broke the law twice and then in the morning brought Him in, and by nine o’clock in the morning, He had been tried, condemned, and was on His way to be crucified.
The other way of looking at this, which is probably more the way that it actually worked, is that the Essenes – who did not accept the temple calendar because the Pharisees and the chief priests had changed the temple calendar so that everything always fell on the same day rather than having a rotating calendar upon which everything fell – would have nothing to do with the temple worship. And so for, shall we call them, “the Temple Jews”, the Passover fell on the Sabbath (as happened every year because of the changing of the calendar). But for the Essenes, the Passover that year fell on the Wednesday, which means that from our chronology, on Tuesday night when the sun went down, that is the beginning of Wednesday for the Jews and that was the beginning of Passover. So it would be on Tuesday night then, according to our timing, that Jesus would have celebrated the Passover feast and then would have been arrested. The Sanhedrin would have met on Wednesday morning, He would have had the 24 hours, He would have been condemned to death, and then on Friday He would have been crucified.
One could look at that chronology either way because it is not made clear in the Gospel which way it actually happened. But that would be the more fitting way of seeing it, considering that nobody questioned His eating the Passover several days before the Passover was celebrated and that He would be crucified at the exact moment that the lambs for the Passover were being sacrificed in the temple. So we see that Our Lord was actually fulfilling both the Essene calendar as well as the temple calendar and showing very clearly Who He was: the Lamb of God, the Son of God.
And so all of these things that we see in these apparent contradictions become for us the means to life, and indeed are perfectly logical when we see it with spiritual eyes. For us now, as we enter into this most holy of all weeks, we want to unite ourselves with Our Lord, we want to celebrate with Him the Passover. We want to enter into the contradiction of the Cross and find that it is only in dying to self that we will have life. It is only by entering into the death of the Lord that we will be able to share with Him in His Resurrection. It is by becoming one with the Son of the Father and being condemned with Him that we will find the freedom that He offers us. It is only by entering into the tear or the hole in Our Lord’s flesh that we will be able to enter into the true Holy of Holies, into the Sacred Heart of Our Blessed Lord, and there find our eternal rest. That is what is being offered to us. It is the mystery of our salvation, of the redemption of our souls, the contradiction that Someone had to die so that we could live – and that we will need to die to share in His life. On the natural level, it makes no sense; on the spiritual level, it is freedom, it is redemption, it is salvation from sin.
In this week, now, we prepare ourselves for the holiest of all days: next Sunday when we celebrate Easter. But the way we prepare for that is to enter into the Cross, to enter into the mystery of the Passover of Our Lord, to go to death with the Lamb of God, to have His blood sprinkled upon our souls, to eat His flesh so that the Angel of Death will pass over us and we will be brought to the fullness of life.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.