Jerusalem is, and has been for several millennium, a great walled city that must be entered through one of the several gates in the city’s wall. It is a holy and sacred city. For the Jews, Jerusalem is that city where God dwelt among His people in the great temple at which they could visit Him and offer Him sacrifices. In His Holy City, God would listen to His people and they could be assured that they were standing in His presence. Whenever there was a great feast for the Jewish people they would go up to the city of Jerusalem to be near to God and celebrate with Him. For the Jewish people to live within the walls of Jerusalem—the Holy City—was the perfect life; it was equivalent to living with God on earth. In the mind of the Jewish person, the perfect place to die was within the walls of Jerusalem. To die within the walls of the Holy City meant that one had died with God in His Holy City and had indeed lived a blessed life.
It is crucial that we understand how important Jerusalem was to the Jews as we celebrate this Palm or Passion Sunday. As Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal with His disciples, He is welcomed into this Holy City as the long awaited Son of God and the Messiah of His people. The Passover is the great feast in which the Jews celebrate that God had freed them from the slavery that they had endured in Egypt and had brought them into the Promised Land to be His people. When Jesus arrives at the Holy City to celebrate the Passover, the entire city welcomes Him with palms and proclaims Him as the long awaited Messiah and Son of David who will bring the people to the perfect happiness with God on earth that they had been seeking.
As our liturgy recounts today, while Jesus is in Jerusalem one of those who welcomed Him, one of His own disciples, will betray Him for thirty pieces of silver. Despite the fact that Jesus is aware of Judas’ betrayal, He still celebrates the last Supper with His closest disciples and gives them His Body and Blood so that they may have eternal life and become the people of the new Covenant that He wishes to form them into. At the Last Supper, Jesus announces to His disciples that they are celebrating a new Passover with Him, one which will free them from their slavery to sin and death and deliver them into eternal life. Despite what He tells the disciples about the crucifixion that He is about to undergo for them, they all fall asleep when He asks them to pray with Him, they run away when He is arrested for fear of sharing in His fate, and they are completely unwilling to acknowledge Him even as their acquaintance, let alone as the Son of God. Ultimately, after Jesus has told the people who welcomed Him into the Holy City with palms that He loves them and desires to give them complete and total spiritual freedom, they reward Him by dragging Him outside the walls of the same Holy City that they had welcomed Him into a few days earlier and hang Him on a cross to die. Jesus died the worst death possible for a Jew, outside the walls of the Holy City, condemned by His people as a traitor and a criminal.
It can be very easy for us who live two thousand years after the fact, and call ourselves Christians, to think how terrible these events were and to be glad that we were not there. However, it is also vital that we are aware that we might be doing the same thing in our own lives today. So many people love to come to Mass on Palm Sunday to get palms to place in their homes. It is important that we recognize that we receive these palms so that we might welcome Jesus—the Messiah—into our own hearts and homes. When we take these palms home and place them there, it means that we are welcoming Christ into our homes and that we truly recognize Him as our Lord and Savior. We need to recognize what this means or we risk behaving in the same way that the people of Jerusalem acted by throwing Christ outside of their city walls when he makes demands on us and expects that we truly act like He is our Savior.
When we take these palms home and place them in our homes, it means that we are welcoming Christ into our homes and our lives and professing Him to be our Savior. A person who places these palms in their home is saying that they believe that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week and ought to be going to Mass every Sunday to celebrate His resurrection and share in the Eucharist that He gave to His disciples in order to make them His people. One who takes these palms home should not be willing to abandon Jesus as Judas did for a few pieces of silver or refuse to give Him the time He asks of us each week just to get a little extra sleep. When we take these palms home, we need to be willing to say that we will not betray Jesus in front of our colleagues and friends because He embarrasses us or we are afraid of the consequences of being His friends. When we as Christians take these palms home, we need to be willing to accept Christ as our Saviour and all that He asks of us daily, otherwise we place them in our homes in vain.
In some ways, those who welcomed Christ, and then later rejected Him, in our Gospel today have an excuse—they had not yet heard of or even seen the resurrection. There is less excuse for those of us who are here today and call ourselves Christian. We have heard the Good News of the resurrection and profess to believe in it. We ought to know who we are welcoming into our hearts and what it is that He asks of us and offers to us. As we begin Holy Week this Sunday, let us ask that our celebration of Christ’s life, death and resurrection will allow us to welcome Jesus into our homes and lives and that we might remain faithful to Him throughout the trials and tribulations of this coming year. Perhaps it is because following Jesus means being faithful to Him through our tribulation that so many people have the custom of placing the palms that they take home near or on the crucifix in their family home. The Lord that we are welcoming this Palm Sunday is the same Lord who underwent the Passion on the cross so that He might assist us to be victorious over our own crosses and struggles. This Palm and Passion Sunday, we are called to welcome Christ into all of the areas of our lives—our joys and sorrows—so that He may transform all of our lives by the power of His resurrection. The welcome that we give Him also calls us to celebrate the resurrection each and every Sunday of the year at the Sunday Eucharist so that our welcome to Him is not as indecisive as those who welcomed Him to Jerusalem before turning against Him.
Let us pray that by our celebration of Holy Week this year we may prepare a welcome place for Christ by which He will be truly welcome in our lives each and every day of the coming year.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish– Toronto