Sermon for Palm Sunday
St. Matthew 27:1-54
Matthew and Mark report that Jesus cries out from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” after which he lets out a loud cry. One of the fathers at New Camaldoli recounts various explanations for these words, a recitation of the first verse of Psalm 22. One explanation is that Jesus was simply saying the prayers that a devout Jew would say as he was dying. Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monastic, explains it by saying that even Jesus’ own image of God was taken from him. That all his ideas about God were revoked; a similar kind of death that we have to undergo in our prayer lives as we let go of all names and forms that we hold on to for comfort. But the Camaldoli father, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, suggests another, “more chilling, literal, scriptural explanation” for these words of Jesus: that the Father really does abandon Jesus!
The Greek word paradidonai appears quite a few times in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. It means “to hand over” or “to betray.” Judas hands Jesus over to the temple guard, the temple guard hands him over to the court, the court hands him over to Pilate, and Pilate hands him over to his final execution. All using the same word. But, in reality, none of these people an institutions are handing over Jesus – it is the Father who hands him over. The Father hands Jesus over to those who would scorn, torture and kill him. The others are, well, bit players; instruments of God. My God, My God, why have you handed me over? As Fr. Cyprian points out, this is why the other lines from Psalm 22 are so poignant: He trusted in the Lord, let him save him and release him if this is his friend (Ps 22:8, Mat 27:43). But God doesn’t save him or release him. He has handed him over.
There are some severe implications of this reading. If God does not save Jesus from all of this, what about the rest of us? Could God abandon us too? Martyrs have sealed their faith with their blood throughout the history of the Church. Good Christian folks are attacked. Those who work for peace and justice are murdered. Countless people are killed in earthquakes, or simply starve quietly to death due to no fault of their own.
There is a tendency among Christians to think of prayer as incantation, reducing God to a genie that is hauled out at our convenience. Some time ago, a friend told me that God had showed them a piece of jewelry that had been lost. They couldn’t find it, they prayed to God, and God answered prayer by letting them find it. My response was perhaps not very diplomatic. Do you really think that God cares about jewelry, I asked? And if this is how prayer works, why does he not direct those who starve to some food, when they pray for it?
God is not a genie, prayer is not incantation, we are not magicians. The abuses of prayer are dangerous to the souls of Christians, and to the reputation of Christianity. Prayer allows us discernment. It is our means to get to know God and his intention for us. It aligns us with God’s plan, not the other way around. And that was, indeed, what happened on the cross. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke another verse from Psalm 31: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus aligns himself fully, finally and perfectly, with the plan of the father and hands himself over; he abandons himself. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus stated that No one can take my life from me, I give it freely (Ps 31:5, Luke 23:46). Here, on the cross, that comes to pass after Jesus, having prayed and reflected and agonized over his fate—abandoned by the father—aligns himself with that abandonment.
Palm Sunday is a beginning. A beginning of fulfillment of prophesy in all its majesty and splendor and victory… and bitterness and humiliation and degradation. In the first Gospel reading from St Mark, we met the victorious Christ who enters into Jerusalem to the acclaim and praise and adoration of the people. In the second Gospel reading, taken from St Luke, we meet our Christ as captive, as accused, as ridiculed, as a torture victim condemned to death. How brief the cheering and clapping and public displays of reverence and adoration for Christ! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! (Mark 11:9-10) is turned into those words that should send chills down our spines and bring tears to our souls; that thrice repeated Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! (Luke 23)
But what had happened? How did the crowd turn against Christ in such a dramatic way? How did the blessings and adoration as he entered Jerusalem turn into these curses and this hatred? Knowing human nature, we have good reason to suspect that some of those who were present at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem were also among those who cursed him before Pilate. Old Adam is nothing if not a turn-coat. Even among the closest friends of Christ, there were those who abandoned and betrayed him.
The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light. (John12:35-36):
“While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” This is not a story about other people in distant country at another time in history. This is about us, each and every one of us here today. This is not a story about the Jews and the Romans, it is a story about us. We have to absolutely reject, not only anti-Semitic readings of Scripture—which most certainly have been recurrent throughout the history of the church—but also the charge that our readings of the Passion of Christ, when guided by the Holy Spirit, even can be anti-Semitic. Only if we believe that the original sin of Adam tainted no one but the Jews can we blame it on them. Only if we believe that Christ came to save only the Jews can we blame rejection on Christ on them. Only if only the Jews can be saved by faith in Christ can we read the Passion of our Lord and point a finger to the Jews, and say “they did it!”
We did it! Christ was mocked and beaten and crucified for all of our sins. This is precisely the point of the New Testament, written in the blood of the righteous one. This is precisely the point of the crucifixion and the resurrection, with which our entire Christian faith stands and falls. All of us are saved by faith in God through Christ; all of us share in responsibility for humanity’s rejection of him. You and I, every day, through our sins great and small, continue to condemn him to death. When we read in the Gospel according to St Matthew that all the people answered ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (Mat 27:25), this applies to humanity. His blood is upon all generations of humanity, which is why all generations of humanity are in need of salvation and reconciliation with God through him whom we have crucified. A short but powerful prayer ascribed to the 16th century saint Philip Neri captures this realization. It is just a one-line prayer, but it packs a punch: “O Jesus, watch over me always, especially today, or I shall betray you like Judas.”
But our Gospel reading from St Luke also points to the way forward; the way to reconciliation with God.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39-43)
This must surely be the most powerful statement of salvation through faith in Christ. No works reconciled this man to God, no penance of fasting, no church membership, not even baptism. Christ did not ask him what his crime was, he did not ask him what sect or nationality he had identified with. Based simply on his faith, Christ told him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The man believed, and that was enough, even on the cross. The man, whatever he had done, had come face to face with not only the harsh temporal law of the Roman authorities, but also the Law of God—and the Grace of God. Even on the cross, Christ was able to reconcile a repentant and contrite soul with God. Faith alone. Christ alone. The cross alone.
May Jesus watch over us always, especially today, lest we shall betray him like Judas. Amen.