On Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, we celebrate our Lord Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, an entry into the city where he would be brutally crucified on a Roman cross to accomplish his Paschal Mystery.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
The Palm Sunday Passion narrative found in Matthew’s gospel is a story of love and unwavering commitment on the part of our Lord, and, as opposing forces of evil we find confusion, hate, and betrayal. It begins with Judas Iscariot’s collaboration with the chief priests to hand Jesus over for thirty pieces of silver. While at the table of the Last Supper, Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed by the “one who dipped his hand into the dish with me.”
Following this shocking announcement, Jesus institutes the Eucharist by taking up the bread, blessing it, and saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Notice he said, “this is my body,” not, “this contains my body” or “this symbolizes my body.” He then took up the cup of wine, gave thanks and said, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus warns his apostles that their faith will be shaken. He predicts Peter’s threefold denial. And they enter the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus falls into great distress. He tells Peter and the sons of Zebedee, “My soul is sorrowful even to death.” Jesus walks a short distance away and prostrates himself before his heavenly Father and says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and led away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where he endures a mock trial before the chief priests and Sanhedrin. He is accused by false witnesses, spat on, slapped and struck. The high priest proclaims Jesus is guilty of blasphemy. Those present shout, “He deserves to die!” The Lord Jesus is then taken before Pilate, who ultimately gives the order to have him scourged and crucified.
People have lots of opinions about who’s responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Judas Iscariot, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, chief priests, Pontius Pilate, and the angry crowd—all had their part to play.
In his Way of the Cross, St. Alphonsus Liguori reminds us that Pilate and the other guilty figures in the gospel were not the only ones responsible for killing Jesus. He writes, “My adorable Jesus, it was not Pilate, no, it was my sins, that condemned you to die.” During the mock trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, those present shouted at Jesus: “He deserves to die!” It was not Jesus who deserved to die. It was me. It was you. It was humankind. We deserved to die because of our sins. As St. Paul says, the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
In the Roman Catechism we read:
We must regard as guilty [of Christ’s crucifixion] all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for he is in them) and hold him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” We, however, profess to know him. And when we deny him by our deeds, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on him. (I, 5, 11; cf. Heb 6:6; 1 Cor 2:8)
St. Francis of Assisi wrote:
Nor did demons crucify him; it is you who have crucified him and crucify him still, when you delight in your vices and sins”Admonitio 5, 3
As Catholics and Christians we know that the death Jesus voluntarily underwent on the cross was a saving and redeeming death. As Jesus said at the Last Supper, through his death he poured out his own blood, the blood of the new covenant, shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. Our Lord Jesus shed his blood in expiation of sin and to redeem us before God—to pay the price due for sin.
How Does Jesus Death Save Us?
But how does Jesus do this? How does his death on the cross accomplish these things? First, we have to begin with the fact of our need for salvation and redemption. Due to that first terrible sin of disobedience committed by our human parents, Adam and Eve, man lost the glory of God. The ability to inherit the kingdom of heaven was closed off. Human nature was wounded, disfigured. Their relationship with God was seriously damaged. The effects of that original sin are passed on to their posterity—too all of us. We could no longer hope for eternal life. Eternal death was on the horizon.
And then there are all the sins we personally commit: lies, betrayal, deceit, war and murder and gossip and prideful boasting, theft, living as if God does not exist, self-centeredness, turning away from those in need, vulgar language and taking the Lord’s name in vain, sexual sins and adultery and fornication, abortion, hedonism, idol worship, and on and on. Each one is in a sense an infinite offense against God because God is infinitely good and perfect, and each sin, no matter how small, is in some way an act of rebellion against his infinite good. That’s what sin is: a rebellion against the sovereign Lord and Creator.
Indeed, because of sin, we were a lost people. Man could not redeem himself. Man could not atone for his sin because he is himself a sinful, finite creature, guilty of countless acts of rebellion. Man cannot save himself. Salvation is entirely beyond the powers of human nature. No mere man could redeem all men. Only God could save us. Only God could pay the debt of sin. God had to act. God himself would become the Savior.
To redeem mankind and open the way to salvation, God deigned to become man and thus raise up to himself what was lost. The innocent Son of God became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, assumed an individual human nature to himself, united it to his Divine Person, and became man. The Word became flesh, born from Mary as Jesus of Nazareth.
In his voluntary submission to death by crucifixion, the perfect, innocent, and infinitely good Lord Jesus—true God and true man—offers up his human life in an infinite sacrifice of love in perfect obedience to the will of his heavenly Father. He does what no mere man can do. His humanity united to his Divine Person, fastened to the Roman cross, becomes the instrument through which humankind is collectively redeemed and through which the way to salvation is opened. Jesus Christ, the God-man, experiences the brutality of crucifixion and experiences death, to put death to death and to open the way to life, for he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul proclaims:
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”Rom 6:20-23
The meaning of Passion Sunday is found in the fact that Christ entered Jerusalem twenty centuries ago to undergo his passion, die a saving death, and open the way to life for sinners, sinners who daily crucify Christ again and again. When we sin, we shout, “Crucify him!”
The glorious meaning found in Passion Sunday is that Christ as died for me and you. He willingly endured the brutality of the crucifixion and took our sins upon himself. He calls us to enter into the saving mantle of his passion and death without having to actually undergo it. In baptism, “we have been united” with Christ “in a death like his”; and we therefore “shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5), provided that we respond to the grace of God rather than turning away from it in rebellion.
Let us live as Christians, carrying our white baptismal garments unstained into eternal life, where the saints and angels will greet us as we enter into the company of our Lord.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.