Orthodox Commentary on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Triumph Through Humility: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church
Philippians 4:4-9 John 12:1-18
What has been occupying your mind lately? If you are like me, everything from work, school, taxes, a leaky roof, your daily routine, your health and that of your friends and family has taken up a good bit of your attention. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but there are times when we need to lay aside our usual earthly cares in order to focus on the one thing needful.
St. Paul reminds us today to give our attention to what is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and praise worthy. We all need that reminder as we turn from the penitential focus of Lent to following our Lord into the great mystery of our salvation through His Passion. Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday both triumphantly and humbly in order to save us in a fashion that no one expected and that is still hard to grasp. And if we do not pay attention from the depths of our souls, we risk missing the point entirely.
Unlike our usual preoccupations, nothing about Holy Week naturally appeals to us because our Lord’s great Self-offering has nothing in common with what we usually celebrate in this world. Though Christ is God and powerful beyond our understanding, He suffers freely for our sake. He loves those who crucify Him to the point of dying on their behalf. He achieves victory by submitting to torture and execution as a traitor and a blasphemer, even though no one made Him do so. He freely empties Himself to the point of hanging on a Cross, being buried in a tomb, and descending to Hades. The Word Who spoke the universe into existence experiences rejection and death at the hands of those He came to save. He is totally unlike the heroes and leaders we typically idolize in this world, for by conventional standards there is nothing successful or powerful to be found on a cross.
Then again, there is nothing conventional about Jesus Christ. He revealed that He is the resurrection and the life by raising His friend Lazarus from the dead after the long period of four days, by which time the body had begun to decay. In the midst of her terrible grief about her brother’s death, Martha made the clearest confession of faith in John’s gospel by saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is to come into the world.” Our Savior wept for His friend Lazarus, and ultimately He wept for us all, distorted and corrupted by sin and death and so far from fulfilling our ancient calling to participate in the glory of the divine life. As hard as it is to believe, this Savior brings life through death. He brings light from darkness. He brings victory through what looks just like defeat in this world.
On Palm Sunday, we see that the Savior Who enters Jerusalem today is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Passover Lamb whose death and resurrection will conquer death itself. Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, performed a prophetic act when she anointed Christ with the same kind of ointment used to anoint the bodies of the dead. This Messiah, this One who is truly anointed to save His people and the whole world, will be rejected by the leaders of the Jews and crucified under the authority of the Romans. And when He is lifted up upon the Cross, He will draw all who believe in Him– Jew, Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, all nations, classes, and races—to the life of a Kingdom that transcends this world and the usual false gods for which we live and die.
Jesus Christ reigns not as a soldier, a politician, a rich man, or a popular religious leader, but as the Suffering Servant, a slaughtered lamb, one of the world’s countless victims of torture and execution. The welcoming crowds in Jerusalem misunderstand what kind of King He is and how He will conquer. For He rules from the Cross and the empty tomb; instead of killing Roman soldiers, He kills death by allowing Himself to be killed; in the place of a magnificent stallion fit for a king, He rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey.
The crowd is right, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel.” They shout “Hosanna,” which is a plea for God’s salvation to come upon the earth. And it does through the Lord’s death and glorious resurrection. But that is not what the crowds expected; it is apparently not what the disciples or anyone else anticipated or even what we would prefer. For it goes against all our preconceived notions of what it means to be successful, to be powerful, to rule upon the earth, and to be respectable and religious. Who would think that the Cross is a fitting end for a good life, let alone the life of the Son of God?
It is still a very hard lesson for us to accept, for there is too much of the world in all of us, which becomes all the more clear when we attempt to take even the smallest step closer to Christ. That is why we need to follow St. Paul’s advice to focus on what is truly holy this week. As St. Paul wrote, “The Lord is at hand” which is never more true than on this feast as crowds cheer His entrance to Jerusalem. Of course, they will shout “Crucify Him!” in just a few days.
Holy Week reveals what kind of Savior Jesus Christ is, and unless we remain squarely focused on Him we will miss the point of these holy days, even as those crowds did. So it is time to tune out our usual distractions and excuses, and enter into the Passion of our Lord by worshiping Him in the services of the Church whenever possible, as well as in every thought, word, and deed this week. If we must miss some services due to work, school, distance, or health, we can still fast and pray at home, read the Bible passages for Holy Week, and give less attention to the world and more to the One Who comes to save it.
This week it becomes clear who Jesus Christ is: The Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. But how will we respond to Him as He goes to the Cross for us? Will we ignore and abandon Him because we have better things to do? Will we simply take Him for granted and remain obsessed with life as usual? No, we must turn from those distractions as best we are able and draw near with the fear of God and faith and love. If we call ourselves Christians, we must make following our Lord our top priority this week. Remember that, in the events of Holy Week, He certainly made us His.
Now is the time to enter into the profound mystery of our salvation. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel. Hosanna in the highest!”