Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord [B]
Isaiah 50:4-7 + Philippians 2:6-11 + Mark 14:1—15:47
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
The depth of Jesus’ suffering is so profound that it gives us sinners pause. How can we approach the mystery of Jesus’ Passion and Death? It’s like approaching a tornado, or a snarling Doberman Pinscher, or a Mack truck doing 75 mph down the Interstate: every instinct inside us tells us to flee. So it is with the Cross, if we understand what it truly is.
Reflect on the cross first as a human sign. As a means of torture and death, the cross was perfected by the Roman Empire. Death was not enough for those sentenced by the Romans to crucifixion. The cross was devised to prolong the experience of dying. As if having nails run through one’s limbs—pinning one’s body to pieces of wood—wasn’t enough, the body was nailed to the cross in such a way as to make breathing an agony.
The feet were propped against a footrest which was not meant to give rest. The footrest was meant to give the crucified person only enough leverage to push his body upwards in order to breath inwards, for as long as his muscles could bear the weight of his body. The cross was meant by the Romans to be a sign that inspired fear: fear of Roman power, and fear of what would happen to the person who acted against their rule.
Eventually, the person who was crucified could no longer lift his body up to breath inwards, so that he was unable to exhale the carbon dioxide from his lungs. So the actual cause of death for most of those who were crucified was asphyxiation. This is why at the end of the Passion narrative, the evangelist tells us that Jesus “gave up his spirit”. These words of the evangelist are a play on words. At the moment of His death, Jesus could no longer force His body to breathe. But at the same time, He gave the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of love between the Father and the Son.
It’s in Jesus giving up the Holy Spirit that we see that, as horrifying as the physical agony of the cross is, the spiritual agony of the Cross is far worse. In our sinfulness, we find our instincts telling us to flee from the Cross. This is where today’s Responsorial Psalm gives us insight into the mind of God. This is where God reveals the Cross to be a divine sign.
How can we start to reflect upon the Cross as a divine sign? Every year, the Responsorial on Palm Sunday comes from Psalm 22. Only about one-fourth of the psalm is proclaimed. In the Passion according to St. Mark the Evangelist, we hear Christ crying from the Cross the refrain of this day’s Responsorial: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
We might ask ourselves why Jesus prayed these words from Psalm 22 while nailed to the Cross. Did Jesus really feel abandoned by God the Father? Jesus came into this world to be the Messiah of Israel: to be Israel’s king. Jesus came into this world in solidarity with the nation of Israel. We hear this connection between Jesus and Israel when we listen to the entire 22nd psalm.
The first words of the psalm are words of spiritual agony. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus cries these words as the King of Israel: as Israel’s leader. Jesus cries these words because this was the experience of the people of Israel. The nation of Israel had felt abandoned by God.
Of course, from our comfortable armchairs in the 21st century, we know that God had never abandoned Israel. Time and time again, Israel had abandoned God. It’s like the old saying, “If you feel that there’s a distance between you and God, guess who moved?” Nonetheless, as the leader of Israel, Jesus cries the cry of His people, but only to lead His people forward, out of their despair.
Even the sinner King David, in composing this psalm, led his people. As their king, David led Israel from the self-righteousness of the first verse—accusing God of abandoning His children—to the last verses that look beyond the individual’s suffering, to hope for an entire people. The psalm concludes by praying: “I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told [about] the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.”