April 4, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Palm Sunday
Gospel before the Procession (St. Luke 19:28-40)
Reading I (Isaiah 50:4-7) Reading II (Philippians 2:6-11)
Gospel (St. Luke 22:14-25:56)
In the first Gospel that we heard today, we hear about Our Lord mounting a donkey and coming into Jerusalem. To understand what was happening at that point, first of all, we recall that according to Jewish law they were not to ride horses; they were to ride only on donkeys. The reason for that, again, is that in the ancient world the only place where horses were raised was in Egypt; therefore, they would have to have a pact with the Egyptians and that was something forbidden by God. So the Jewish people were to ride only on donkeys. Even though at the time of Our Lord the Romans would have had horses, and several of the other countries surrounding Jerusalem would have had horses, nonetheless, Jesus, Who is perfectly obedient to the Will of God, is going to ride in on a donkey. This is also in keeping with the prophecy from the prophet Zechariah that the Messiah would come into Jerusalem riding on a colt, on a donkey.
As He came across the Mount of Olives, the people were crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Now one would have to ask why the people were lining the streets almost as though they were expecting that this was going to happen. The people were not expecting that Jesus was going to come, but rather on that particular day the high priest would come along that exact route riding upon his donkey and holding the lamb that he had chosen for his own sacrifice for the Passover. And as he would ride along on his donkey, there was a man who would precede him playing a flute. A flute would look more like what we would consider a recorder these days, with the holes in it and a reed. The Hebrew word for flute is “the pierced one”. And so what we have is precisely what the people were expecting – but not the way that they expected it.
We have our High Priest riding into Jerusalem, the city of God, on a donkey. We are told elsewhere that it was a white donkey, which is also important because the one who was the victor would always ride on a white stallion. In this case, as Our Lord rides into Jerusalem on this white donkey, He is showing Himself to be the victorious King, the One Who has conquered the enemy. He is the High Priest Who is riding along this path. He is also the Lamb of Sacrifice that the High Priest Himself had chosen for the sacrifice. He Himself then is the Priest, He Himself is the Lamb Who is going to be offered for our sins so that His blood could be sprinkled upon us and our sins could be forgiven, and He is the Pierced One.
So as the people cry out before Him, recognizing Who He was on one level – and yet really having no idea Who He was on another level – but rather simply rejoicing because it was only days before that He had raised Lazarus from the dead. Since the village of Lazarus was up near the area of Bethany and Bethphage (that is, up on the far side of the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem), all the people of that area would certainly have known Who He was. They would have heard of His reputation, and certainly they would have known what He had done just a week earlier. Thus the reason why they would be laying palm branches out on the road and crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
Yet, at the same time, Our Lord, in the Gospel reading today from the Passion, looked at the people in the Garden and said, “This is your hour. It is the hour of darkness.” And so we see that even though He is proclaimed a King, He is recognized as the High Priest Who is to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people, He also has to do exactly what His Father intended for Him to do – and that was to become the Lamb of Sacrifice.
Now we see Jesus at the Last Supper offering Himself sacramentally for the first time in the forms of bread and wine, offering the sacrifice of Himself. But it is not enough just to offer Himself in that form; He needs to offer Himself completely and perfectly. We read in the Book of Exodus that the lamb for the sacrifice must be a male and must be without blemish, and that is precisely what we have in Our Blessed Lord. He is to be sacrificed at the evening twilight. If we read in Saint John’s Gospel (because Saint John follows a different calendar, that is, he follows the lunar calendar instead of the solar calendar), we find that the moment Our Lord is dying on the Cross is the exact moment that the lambs are being sacrificed in the temple. Thousands of priests are in the temple because the lambs had to be sacrificed within a certain period of time while the priests chanted the Hallel Psalms three times. So there would be the chanting of fifteen psalms, five psalms three times, and all of the lambs had to be sacrificed during that period of time. It was quite a frenzied time at the temple. The temple at that point would be less than a mile away from where Jesus was being crucified. So from the Cross (considering that there would have been little or no noise the way that we would have all the noise of cars and trucks and motors and all of the mechanical things, and at that time there was none of that), certainly He would have heard all of those thousands of priests singing the psalms as the sound would have carried throughout. And it is interesting to note that the high priest [Caiphas] was at the Cross instead of at the temple. He was there watching over the sacrifice of the true Lamb of God.
We recall, again, from the Book of Exodus that the father of the family had to procure a lamb for his family. He had to slaughter it, roast its flesh, and its flesh must be eaten. So too it remains for us: the sacrifice must be offered. God the Father, our Father, has chosen a Lamb for His family. He has sacrificed that Lamb for each one of us. The Blood has been sprinkled upon the doorposts and the lintels of our souls, as it was back in Egypt where the blood was placed upon the doorposts and lintels of each of the homes where the Hebrew people were. But that would not be enough. We must eat His flesh. We must consume the Sacrifice that has been offered. So Our Blessed Lord, as He offered Himself at the Last Supper sacramentally under the forms of bread and wine, continues now to offer Himself in the same way so that each one of us, who recognizes Who He is, who cry out our own “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and acknowledge Him as the King of the Jews, we also recognize that He is truly present still among us under the forms of bread and wine, that He is also our High Priest, that He is the Victim, the Lamb offered for our sins, that He is the Sacrifice which we offer to our heavenly Father. And as sacrifices go, so it continues that those who offer the sacrifice must consume the sacrifice as well.
So Our Lord gives Himself to each one of us – His Body and His Blood – for us to receive, not only so that our sins can be forgiven, but so we would be united with Him, united with Him in our persons, united with Him in His sacrifice, united with Him in that threefold office of a priest, a prophet, and a king; and with Him to offer ourselves in sacrifice to our heavenly Father. Therefore, as we see Our Lord in the Garden, our attitude must be the same as His. As we share in His Passion, we have to be willing with Him to say, “Father, if this cup can pass me by, but not my will be done, but yours,” to be willing in all things to do the Will of God even if that will mean for us great sacrifice, even if it will mean sharing completely in Our Lord’s sacrifice.
As we go through now this most holy of all weeks, we are brought more and more deeply into the Passion of Christ. If I may recommend, if you have not yet seen the movie that is out, The Passion of the Christ, I would highly recommend that during this week you go and see that movie. What is portrayed is not as bad as what it truly was, but it is sufficient to be able to demonstrate clearly to us what happened so that not only do we hear the words of the Passion from the Gospel, but we will have the visual images implanted in our memories so that we too will be willing to share with Jesus in His suffering, so that we will have a greater understanding of what He did for us and what the price of our own sins was, so that we will be willing to unite ourselves with Him for the salvation of souls and for the conversion of sinners, so that we will recognize that He is perfectly innocent – but we are not – but in His mercy He forgave us because we knew not what we were doing. Now that we know, we have to make the choice to do the Will of God in all things, to be one with Him in His sacrifice, so that next Sunday we too will be one with Him in His Resurrection and in His glory.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.