Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday, includes the first proclamation of our Lord’s passion and death annually throughout the Church, including the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The celebration begins in just the way the faithful picture it all those years ago: Jesus entered Jerusalem to the sound of cheers and the waving of spring’s new palm and other shining green branches. “Hosanna!” they yelled, and they called him the Son of David, King of the Jews. He was hailed as the bringer of new life. But the disciples of Jesus’ day had not begun to realize what he (and they) would have to endure before that new life was given to them.
The Gospel reading on Palm Sunday is the version related by the appropriate evangelist: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. John’s rendition of the events is read on Good Friday every year. This year, the Palm Sunday edition is from Matthew. This author was writing a Gospel specifically directed to Jews who were teetering on the brink of being Christian. Matthew wanted them to know that Jesus was one among them and suffered at their hands for their benefit.
Before the Gospel is even read, the assembly is forewarned that the festive mood of the entrance chant has taken a dramatic change. Words from the 22nd Psalm (the yearly Responsorial Psalm for Palm Sunday) appear in each of the four Gospels during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. In particular, the faithful are drawn to a moment in the stories by Matthew and Mark, when Jesus cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Many of the witnesses gathered thought he was calling Elijah and the prophets to rescue him. Some of them wanted to come to his aid, while others discouraged such action, waiting to see if the prophets would really come to him. Surely others, most likely those who had not been friendly to him in the first place, thought Jesus had simply given up.
What Jesus was really doing was praying. This should have come as no surprise to those who really knew him because the Gospels tell of dozens of times when Jesus prayed. He sometimes had to deliberately slip away just to have a private moment with the Father, and other times his words were quotations from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. He often demonstrated great skill in memorizing and interpreting the old books, and especially in his understanding of prophecies. The last thing he did before being arrested was to pray.
David is spoken of in the books of Samuel and Chronicles as a great musician and poet. He certainly did not write all of the psalms, but did pen many of them, and as King of Judea, he catalogued and wrote introductory lines for others. Psalm 22 is one of the poems that is attributed to him. It is a prayer with depth, sorrow, and the eventual triumph of God, and it was a prophecy made about one thousand years before the actual event took place.
Psalm 22 begins with those fateful words, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” but immediately speaks of God’s greatness and faithfulness to those who believed in him in days gone by. The psalmist alludes to the crowd who have failed to believe and the comments and jeers that they pass to one another. They said the Lord should deliver him if he really loves him. He speaks of those who surround him as angry bulls and dogs who will fight for the scraps of his clothing and belongings. They pierced his hands and feet, and he could feel the pain in every bone of his body. It would seem surely that David had prophesied Jesus’ death and resurrection, capturing the intensity of his immense suffering, for the things he wrote were indeed portraits of the wounds and mockery that were suffered by the Savior.
The last verse used in the Responsorial Psalm proclaims that the psalmist will always pay tribute to the name of the Lord among the assembly of people. He calls one and all to give glory and praise to God. For in the end, Psalm 22 becomes a prolonged exultation of God’s greatness and mercy. The triumph of God will come about when all the nations have had the opportunity to accept his saving grace, and those who are faithful shall eat and worship together before him.
The first impression of this truly great and prophetic psalm may be one of torture and defeat, but as always, God is the victor. It is reassurance that those who believe will share in that great triumph. “Let your heart enjoy life forever.” (Psalm 22:27b)