The readings for this Sunday are long. We’ll just pick out some key themes.
This Sunday is called “Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion.” Mass opens, of course, with the procession of the palms, and the Gospel that describes it (this year, from Matthew 21). The Liturgy of the Word culminates with the reading of the Passion (this year, Matthew 26-27). We thus get the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, tied together with the culmination, the Passion, though in the story, as in the week, there are several chapters in between.
At the heart of Jesus’s triumphal entrance are the words from the prophet Zechariah. “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Oddly, there are distinctly two animals. Sometimes the Fathers of the Church like to notice the strangeness, the mystery of these readings.)
The story revolves around this welcoming of the king. Jesus sends his disciples into the village to find the animals, telling them to say, “the Lord has need of them.” (The translation this Sunday will say “master,” but the Greek word is Kyrios, Lord.) Just as in the reading of the Passion, they are told to say, “The teacher says, ‘My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.’” Jesus is Lord and King over his disciples, and Lord and king over the unknown people who are providing for him.
And the people spread out their garments, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They too welcome him as king.
But in both situations, what kind of a king? Meek, and riding on a beast of burden. A different kind of king.
The reading from the prophet Isaiah underlines the difference of this kingship. The prophet asks for “a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word of comfort,” and “ears that I may hear.”
The reading culminates in him saying, “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.” It is here, in fact, that we get our deepest scriptural warrant for imagining that Jesus wore a beard: he is the one whose beard is plucked.
To be a follower of this king will not bring power and prestige. He demands a new kind of obedience. An obedience that leads us to speak comfort to the weary. The King of Love demands tribute not of gold, but of mercy, of being poor among the poor, of loving those who have nothing to give in return (including the nasty people we might have to work with). To follow the king who rides on a beast of burden means that we, like him, must be willing to suffer.
But it is not suffering that we seek, but those who suffer. Jesus comes to be with those who are wounded, and calls us to do the same. Our beards will be plucked because the world can’t stand what it cannot own; the world is troubled by a different way of being, a different scale of values. In this world, to love is to suffer.
But it is also to be cared for. “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” If the suffering Lord calls us to suffer, it is because he also joins us in our suffering. “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” If he is for us, who can be against us?
The very dramatic Psalm 22 begins “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But God himself takes up this cry; Jesus joins us in our weakness. And so even the Psalmist continues to praise God. He experiences the apparent abandonment of suffering, but he knows he is never abandoned. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
And then in the great Christ hymn of Philippians, we hear that Jesus himself emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The hymn emphasizes his obedience, “obedience to the point of death.”
“Every knee should bend . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father,” because he is the kind of king who joins us in our weakness. The kind of king who deserves true obedience and love.
This is the attitude we are to take to the long reading of the Passion, and the events of this holy week.
How could you know Jesus better as the meek king, the shepherd who suffers for his flock?