The silence of Jesus and the pulpit of the cross

By: By Msgr. Stuart Swetland

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, April 17

(At the procession with palms) Matthew 21:1-11 (At Mass) Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9,17-18,19-20,23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14 — 27:66


How does one comment on Palm Sunday? The readings are so intense and so powerful (and so long!) that they speak for themselves. A certain reverential silence is most appropriate.

In fact, a reflection on the silence of Jesus before his accusers might be helpful. Until pressed to the point where he has to give an answer, Jesus refused to take part in the sham “trial” taking place. But when so compelled, Jesus gives witness to who he is knowing full well that it meant his death. Before Pilate, a similar silence unnerves the governor. Jesus’ life is his witness, as our lives are meant to be.

Jesus’ relative silence continues throughout his passion. He does speak to the pious women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-31). He does turn the cross into a pulpit with the “seven last words”: “Father, forgive them they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34); “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46); “He said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to his disciple, ‘Behold your mother!'” (John 19:26-27); “I thirst!” (John 19:28); “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43); “It is finished!” (John 19:30); and “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). But, considering the moment, his relative silence points to the profundity of the witness of the cross.

Only the second “last word” is recorded by Matthew. It is the first line of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This psalm is actually a psalm of triumph, for while it begins with a plea for help out of the depth of suffering, it ends with vindication and the manifestation of the glory of God. Traditionally, the entire Psalm in interpreted as referring to Jesus, his passion and his resurrection. Jesus’ fidelity to his vocation of revealing the merciful love of the Father continues even through his passion. This fidelity and obedience is rewarded. His total gift of self (his “self-emptying”) leads to his exaltation in the resurrection and ascension (cf. Philippians 2:6-11).

We, too, are called to make a total gift of ourselves, emptying ourselves out of love so as to be filled with the Spirit of life and love. As Philippians 2:5 puts it: “The attitude in you must be the attitude that was in Christ.”
He did not grasp at equality with God but emptied himself for us. (Philippians 2:6-7) We must not “grasp” at self-aggrandizement. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (says the Lord)” (Matthew 16:25).

We “lose ourselves” in love whenever we serve others. Examples of this are martyrdom and marriage. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And in marriage, spouses lay down their lives each for the other (and both for their children) in a total gift of self.

This is why the model for marital love is Jesus’ total gift of self in his passion. Jesus, the Bridegroom, lays down his life for his bride, the Church. So, married couples are called to lay down their lives for each other (cf. Ephesians 5:20 ff). Thus, a loving married couple becomes the embodiment of and witness to how Jesus loves us. His passion is the sign of merciful love.

Married couples live that love each day. On behalf of all in the Church, who learn of Christ’s love by observing married couples, thank you for your witness.

In the passion, tragically so soon after his triumphant entry on Palm Sunday, Jesus’ silence eloquently gives witness to merciful love. As we enter into Holy Week, may all of us enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s love for us, so that we may more profoundly live it each and every day.


Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary University in Emmitsburg, Md.

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