Jesus turns cross into pulpit, showing us how to live, die

By: By Msgr. Stuart Swetland

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, April 1

At the procession with palms: Mark 11:1-10 or John 12:12-16 At the Mass: Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9,17-18,19-22,23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1 — 15:47

Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord

To attempt a commentary on Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord is very daunting. The readings are many, profound, long and complicated. Any reflection will inevitably be very selective and, potentially, could distract us from the profundity of the proclamations that begins our holiest of weeks. Caution is appropriate.

Perhaps the best course of action is to focus on one verse. Karl Rahner has noted that if one is really to understand the Scriptures, one should begin with the most difficult passages. To many the most difficult verse in Mark’s version of the Passion is verse 15:34b: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Commentators and theologians are of two minds about this verse. One interpretation is that Jesus in his human nature experienced the consequences of sin on the cross even to the point of experiencing separation from the Father. He who was without sin experienced the awful consequences of sin for our salvation.

The Scottish pastor and scholar William Barclay put it in this way: “Jesus had taken this life of ours upon him. He had done our work and faced our temptations and borne our trials. He had suffered all that life could bring. He had known the failure of friends, the hatred of foes, the malice of enemies. He had known the most searing pain that life could offer. Up to this moment Jesus had gone through every experience of life except one — he had never known the consequence of sin. Now if there is one thing sin does, it separates us from God. It puts between us and God a barrier like an unscalable wall. That was the one human experience through which Jesus had never passed, because he was without sin.”

In this moment Jesus’ identity with sinful humanity became complete.

NOT DEFEATED
However, there is another interpretation of this verse that should not be overlooked. The lamentation, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is also the first line of Psalm 22. This psalm begins with a cry to God from the depths of spiritual deprivation. God seems to be distant and silent.

The psalmist describes physical and spiritual suffering prophetically similar to crucifixion. But, despite his suffering and shame, the psalmist trusts in God knowing that he will be vindicated, raised up and saved: “For he [God] has not spurned nor disdained the wretched man in his misery, nor did he turn his face away from him, but when he cried out to him, he heard him” (Psalm 22:25).

Jesus is praying this psalm from the cross. In doing so he is fulfilling it. He is also teaching us how to act in times of suffering and persecution. He shows us how to die. The passion has not defeated him. He trusts in God and entrusts his cause and soul into God’s almighty hands. He continues to proclaim and teach, turning the cross into a pulpit. Even at this most difficult moment, Jesus continues his vocation to reveal the merciful love of the Father.

Both interpretations have their merits. They, in fact, do not contradict each other. Jesus could well have experienced “forsakenness” and still prayed confidently to the Father knowing well that he would be heard and vindicated.

Easter proves that God heard his lamentation and raised up his “suffering servant” (c.f. Isaiah 50:4-7) victorious over sin, Satan and death. In doing so, God reveals to us all that Jesus Christ is Lord (cf. Philippians 2:11).

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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., and director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.

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