Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
Is there a more bewildering celebration than Palm Sunday, or as we see it titled in the Breaking Bread book: “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.” The masses this weekend are always well-attended, and I’m not sure if it’s because each of us can identify in some way with a person or an action in the great story we remember today, or because our celebration marks our entrance into Holy Week, or maybe because we’re giving away palms. I’m not sure – but I know that none of us can walk away from Mass today without being touched in a very profound way.
Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the arrest and interrogation of Jesus, his abandonment by the apostles – his closest friends, the crowds that cheered him only days earlier crying for him to be crucified – asking for the release of Barabbas, his torture, and of course, his death on the cross. How could all this happen in such a short time?
Jesus himself said: “I have done you many acts of kindness; for which of them do you want to kill me?” That’s the irony of this day. We know that Jesus healed many people – he healed them physically and spiritually. People followed after him to hear him talk about the kingdom of his Father – a kingdom of love that was open to everyone – the poor, the outcasts, women, even those who were not Jews. And his message of inclusive love resonated especially with those at the margins of society.
We know that Jesus was very critical of the Jewish authorities – the Scribes and the Pharisees that he called hypocrites – hypocrites because they put themselves and their positions above all else – hypocrites because love of God and love of neighbour had gotten lost in their fixation on following the fine details of the law. And it was these hypocrites who turned the crowd that welcomed Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” into a crowd that shouted “crucify him,” and asked for the release of Barabbas.
Who was Barabbas and why is he so important to this story? Well, in our day, we’d call Barabbas a terrorist. The Romans had conquered the Jewish territory. They put people like Pilate in place to govern and they imposed taxes on the people – taxes that were paid to Caesar. Well, Barabbas revolted against this, and among other things he killed some of the occupying Romans – and when he killed Romans, the Romans reacted by killing Jews. So no one liked Barabbas. He was a very dangerous person. But finally, the Romans were able to find him and arrest him. This was a great accomplishment. Well, after finally arresting Barabbas, why on earth would Pilate take the chance of releasing him? We heard about the custom of releasing one prisoner during the Jewish festival, but certainly there must have been other prisoners that Pilate could have put forward – even one of the two people who were crucified with Christ. Why Barabbas?
As you listened to the reading of the Passion, it was clear that Pilate didn’t want to sentence Jesus to death. We heard Pilate say: “I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.” But the chief priests and the rulers continued to press him to crucify Jesus. So Pilate took the most dangerous prisoner he had and said: “OK, now you choose between these two.” Could anyone have predicted the outcome? Could anyone have anticipated that the man who was hailed on his entry into Jerusalem only days before, would be sent to his death by the will of this same crowd, instead of a murdering terrorist? Pilate must have been shocked.
But don’t you see what happened? When Pilate said: “Do you want Jesus or do you want Barabbas?” he was really saying: “Do you want good or do you want evil?” And the people chose evil. And we sit here 2000 years later and say: “How could these people be so fickle? How could they praise Jesus one day and call for his crucifixion the next? How could they choose Barabbas over Jesus? How could they choose such great evil over such overwhelming good?”
Well, don’t we do that? Don’t we do that all the time? We come to Mass and kneel in awe as Jesus becomes present in the bread and wine. We sing: “Holy, holy, holy.” We listen to Jesus’ story and we are inspired to live our lives as he taught us. And then we leave, and go back to our “non-church” lives, and choose Barabbas. We’re not terrorists and murderers, but when we gossip, lie, cheat, steal, view pornography, we’re choosing Barabbas.
And maybe we’re like the apostles who abandoned Jesus when things got difficult. “I’ve had such a tough week; I just don’t have the energy to go to Mass this weekend. My home life is so difficult, I think I’ll go grab a beer with my buddies – or I’ll go shopping.” Remember, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Of course we all need some time to ourselves, but when we abandon our responsibilities to God and the people around us, we’re choosing to be like the apostles in the Gospel reading today.
Or maybe we’re like Pilate. It was clear that Pilate didn’t want to crucify Jesus – he knew Jesus was innocent. And despite the authority he had, he allowed himself to be swayed by the crowd. How often do we make the wrong decision because we feel the need to go along with the crowd, with the images we see on the TV, with the desires of our boyfriend or girlfriend? We have the authority over our bodies and our choices – and yet, like Pilate, we relinquish that authority to others.
We are human beings. We are weak. We often make poor choices. It was for this reason that Jesus suffered the death that was described in the reading of the Passion. None of us will walk out of church today and make all the right choices all the time. There will be times when we choose Barabbas – times when we will choose to act like the apostles, or like Pilate. But if we resolve each week to take a bit more of what we experience within these walls into our homes, our schools, our workplaces, then our choices will gradually become better. That’s the spiritual journey that we are all on. For most of us it’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint. And it’s only with time, hard work, prayer, and sacrifice that we progress on that journey.
We can’t listen to the Passion without feeling some sadness. But let us also be inspired by the great gift of love that Jesus gave us through his suffering and death. Let it motivate us to make better choices, to progress on our own spiritual journey.
Let us choose Jesus!