The special nature of Palm Sunday is marked in several ways, for instance, by the congregation’s festive entrance into church, by the blessing of palms, and by the fact that we hear not one but two Gospel readings this Sunday. The first takes place before the mass begins, as the priest or deacon proclaims the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to “accomplish his Paschal mystery.” This first Gospel reading often takes place accompanied by a procession into the church where the mass will be celebrated, and by the blessing and distribution of palms.
There are two options for this first Gospel; the one most often heard is from the Gospel of Mark, which reads in part: “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches … crying out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!’” Here we are prepared for the coming hardship of Holy Week as the joyful acclamation of Jesus as the Messiah steels us to endure the Lord’s passion together with him.
The second Gospel is the long narrative from Mark where that passion is revealed, and it is prefaced by passages from Isaiah, Psalm 22, and the Letter to the Philippians. Each of these readings reminds the hearers that even in the midst of dire suffering, God never abandons his people, just as he will not abandon his own son, Jesus, in the midst of his trial and crucifixion on Good Friday.
First, Isaiah testifies that he stood firm against his enemies, knowing that the Lord would vindicate him: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord God is my help.” Next the Psalmist plaintively calls out for help: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” — and then insists that it will surely come, for God is ever-faithful: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you” (Isa 50:6-7; Ps 22:2, 23).
Saint Paul then reassures us that Jesus is the perfect example of divine humility and fidelity, and that this is confirmed through his exaltation by the Father through the resurrection: “Rather, he emptied himself … he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him” (Phil 2:7, 8-9). Paul’s mention of the cross brings us to the central moment presented in the scriptures today, when the death of Jesus on the cross is recounted.
This long reading from the Gospel, covering two full chapters of Mark’s Gospel, is similar to the passage from John’s Gospel which we will hear during the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. Both accounts are meant to underline the reality of the salvific death of Jesus, and to anticipate his glorious resurrection—the ultimate fulfillment of the forecasts of Isaiah and the Psalmist, and the source of Saint Paul’s great confidence noted above.
As we listen to the words of the scriptures this Sunday, singing “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and holding our palms, we may humbly acknowledge what Jesus endured for the sake of our redemption, so that we may enter into the full joy of his resurrection on Easter Sunday and beyond.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.