22 years ago I spent my summer studying in Israel (at the Tantur Theological Institute in Jerusalem, just this side of the border from Bethlehem). On what was only my second day there, my former novice director (who was then the Institute’s director) took me to a village in Samaria for the 1st Mass of a newly ordained local priest. We all gathered at the village boundary around an arch of palm branches and balloons and waited there for the new priest’s entry into his hometown. As he arrived and the procession began, all the villagers started shouting and waving palms in the air, and my host smiled and said: now you see what Palm Sunday looked like!
The Gospel [Mark 11:1-10] which was read before the Procession a short while ago tells us about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday and his triumphal entry – full of messianic and royal symbolism – into the Holy City. We have commemorated that event today with our own triumphal palm procession (thankfully minus the balloons), singing that wonderful 9th-century hymn that Theodulph, the Bishop of Orleans, composed for this very occasion around the year 810.
The rest of the story, which we have also now just heard [Mark 14:1-15:47], reveals the next phase of that journey – to the cross and to the tomb.
The cross is now the central symbol of Christianity because the cross is precisely where we meet God in our world, just as the tomb – the eventually empty tomb – shows where he is taking us. Just as we follow him in procession to Jerusalem, we must also follow him to the Cross and to the tomb, there to watch and wait with Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.
In his Passion, Jesus confronted once and for all the power of evil in the world. Having done so, he invites us this week to accompany him to the cross and to the tomb – because, thanks to the cross of Christ, death no longer has the final word in our world.
Homily for Palm Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 29, 2015.