Sunday, April 2, 2023

Imitating the Humble Christ: Homily for Palm Sunday 2023

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842-1848, 
Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

My dear brothers and sisters,

Along with Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, we too are at the gates of Holy Week, invited to participate in the passion of Our Lord.

This is an invitation, and not an obligation, because we are called to imitate Christ, who was not obliged to undergo His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. On the contrary, as Saint Paul teaches us today in the reading from the Phillipians, he willingly entered into his Passion, willingly ascended the Cross, and willingly gave up his life. We too, are therefore, not obliged, but invited to share in His passion, and we will do so, if we know what is good for us.

But how are we going to share in His Passion? Is standing for the length of the Passion narrative that we just heard in the Gospel sufficient? Will attending the services, of the Holy Triduum, that is, the three great days of the Catholic Faith, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, be enough?

I would argue not. What we have to do is actively imitate Jesus in His Passion, and in particular the virtues he demonstrates in the course of this same Passion.

The first of these virtues, and the virtue I will focus on today, is that of his humility.

As St. Paul teaches us today, Christ was equal of God, indeed, He was God, and yet, He was not smug about it. He did not regard equality with God the Father something that He could rely on, or even count on. Which is why the first of His actions of humility was to take on our broken and imperfect nature. He did this so that He could perfect our nature, and make us like Him. This is why He gives us His body every day, so that consuming it, we can internalise Him – not just spiritually, but physically – into our body, becoming Him a little bit every day. This is another aspect of His humility, He gives Himself as our food, our daily bread, every day.

There is a great image in the Christian tradition that embodies this humility, an image present here in our church in Aldona. Look now, or later after Mass, at the shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. You will see a bird on either side. The bird is bending its neck, and there are three holes for red bulbs in its neck. In front of this bird there is a chick. This image, my dear brothers and sisters, is a representation of the pelican hen, which according to tradition, pierces its own breast to give its blood to its chicks for food. This pelican is a representation of Christ, who gives His own blood so that we may live. Now those who know more than me will argue that the Pelican feeding its chicks is in fact a representation, not of humility, but of charity, or caritas. And yes, you would be correct, but as I see it, you also require a huge amount of humility to say, I will give up myself so that others may live, because what matters is not me, but my duty.

My brothers and sisters, this virtue is present all around us, in parents, teachers, professional caregivers, religious sisters and brothers, missionaries, and priests, who give their own blood, so that others may have a better life. In the case of good teachers, and professional caregivers, that they are paid is of no account, they give up much more than the money they receive. Let us rededicate ourselves then, to the act of humble service. For those of us who are married, with children, and perhaps enjoy too much of a good time, let us return to wholehearted care giving. For those of us who are married and do not want to have children, who would rather have pets instead, think again and repent our arrogance. To those who are comfortably placed in life and not yet in marriage, think of giving our lives in service to the church, either as a married person committed to family life, and this includes the care of ageing parents, relatives, friends and neighbours, or to consecrated life.

Another image of humility that we are shown today is that present in the reading for the blessing of the palms:

Behold, your king comes to you,
meek and riding on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.

It was not, nor is it yet, normal for a king to ride an ass. Imagine Jesus coming to Mass today on a 1980s moped instead of riding in glory in some fancy sports car! Rather, a prince, and a king, would have ridden a horse. And yet, Jesus, in keeping with his teaching - remember his advice in the Gospel of Luke to the Pharisees; “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (Lk 14:8) chose the humble ride.

The reason he took the ass, however, is not because he merely wanted to make a style statement. Riding an ass is merely a prelude to the culmination of the Passion: His death on the Cross. He is setting the tone for us to be able to understand what the crucifixion is.

The Cross that Jesus ascended, the crown of thorns that he wore, the stick which was placed in his hand and with which he was beaten, the purple robe with which he was mocked, these were all the signs of his kingship. In other words, the throne of His ancestor David, which was promised to Him at his annunciation (Lk 1:32) is the cross. The glory of Christ is His suffering and death on the cross.

Think about this again, the painful death on the cross, is the triumphal sitting of the king on this throne. So often we are used to images of Jesus, especially that of Christ the King, with a royal crown, with gems, with a nice robe, also with jewels. These images while not wrong, can distract us from the fact that the throne of David on which Jesus sat was His cross. Indeed, even in a Christian coronation ceremony – and in a few months we will be able to see King Charles III of England crowned in a Christian coronation ceremony – all of those royal robes are possible, only after one sits on a throne.

This then, my dear brothers and sisters, is the final act of humility of Christ, he willingly sits on an object of torture, even though he did not have to, even though he could have chosen at any point to say, “Enough!” As he suggested in the Passion narrative we just heard:

Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment
with more than twelve legions of angels?

Once we understand that the cross is the throne of glory, then I think it becomes easier for us to humble ourselves and accept the crosses that we have to encounter. It becomes easier for us to embrace the cross we have been given, or to willingly take up a cross, to kiss it, and love it. Because we know that this cross is the throne of God, and it is only via the Cross that we can go to heaven. There is no other way to Heaven, only the way of the Cross.

Join me, therefore, in repeating through the day, and for the rest of this week:

We praise You O Christ, and we bless You, for by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world.

(A version of this homily was first delivered in English at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Aldona on 2 April 2023.)

No comments: