Homily: Blessing of the Palms and Mass for Palm Sunday
With the blessing of the palm and the reading of the Gospel narrative of the passion and death of Jesus, the Church initiates, once again, Holy Week. You and I are here because our faith recognizes that it is precisely in the events of Jesus’ life that our redemption is achieved. Our salvation – all salvation – must be personal. Yet it has an ecclesial dimension. It takes place in a community – the Church.
We realize that it is precisely in Jesus’ Church, his family, that we hear the story of those events, we relive them spiritually and we enter into that mystery sacramentally. You are I are here so that we can relive liturgically, sacramentally and spiritually the events of our salvation and do so personally as an individual and yet in the context of God’s family – the Church.
Two points that stand out, two lessons we reflect on: we are not bystanders to an historical event that is unfolding in time as were so many who watched Jesus enter Jerusalem. Rather, we are participants in the action that we help to realize and manifest, and we do not enter this mystery alone but as members of Jesus’ community of disciples – his Church.
We have the opportunity, all over again, to make our way with Jesus, walking in his path and even alongside him as we seek also to renew and deepen our encounter with him, his love and his mercy.
This annual spiritual journey of faith renewal is necessary because with all of our other concerns and the calendar of secular life and events that dominate our lives, we stand in danger of diminishing that encounter with Jesus that brings us to discipleship and defines us as his followers.
We can be so easily distracted by stories of congressional gridlock, poison gas attacks, and the recounting of numerous stories of floods, disasters, violence and death that we can lose sight of the greater and wider dimension of life – our spiritual life.
As hard as we may try to remain faithful to that powerful realization that the Risen Lord is actually present to us, the experience can grow cold and the memory dim. We may even lose our sensitivity to the overwhelming gift of God’s mercy that is there for you and me every day.
We enter the Holy Week Liturgies to prevent the fading from memory and heart of our joy of experiencing the living Christ as we make, all over again, our own, his story.
This Holy Week let us together make our way through all of these extraordinary Liturgies and all of the moments of prayer and reflection that are offered us as if we were blowing on the embers of our encounter with Christ to cause them to flame up, once again, in a way that we experience what the Church calls our ongoing conversion and renewal.
There would be a special renewal of faith if we were actually walking the streets of Jerusalem. But even there we would not experience the same closeness that sacramentally we have and receive right here in this cathedral.
Unlike any other form of historical remembrance and commemoration, the Liturgy, thanks to God’s gracious gift, has the power to make present the very reality it symbolizes.
From one perspective, Palm Sunday is the return to a historical moment. Jesus did enter into Jerusalem amid cries and shouts of joy. Equally true is the story of his suffering and death recounted in the Gospel as it will be retold once again on Good Friday. But there is so much more. We are invited to see these events through the eyes of faith.
The Church sets before us these mysteries of the faith not simply for remembrance, nostalgia, recollection and history, but because we, each of us personally, are touched by the events of Holy Week in a way that we are brought into the very action of what we commemorate.
We arrive at this Palm Sunday aware that each of us is on our own personal faith journey, our own pilgrimage that we hope leads us through whatever sufferings we endure to the glory of the Easter garden.
We gathered at the entrance to this great cathedral church, not just as individuals, but as a part of God’s family, and we did so in order to bear witness to our faith and to strengthen each other in our appreciation of our faith.
This is not the easiest time to be recognized as a person of faith. This is a culture where religious faith is increasingly dismissed and people of faith are expected to be less visible. Yet we also know that living our faith and visibly bearing testimony to it can have wonderful effects.
On the steps of this Cathedral, just a few weeks ago, a different type of ceremony took place, not in the middle of the day but at the beginning of night. I stood on those steps where we just blessed the palm. This time I was there with a large group of young adults who asked a blessing as they went out into the evening and the streets simply to invite others to say a prayer and even to come back to this Cathedral if they felt they would like a quiet place in which to say that prayer. You may be surprised to know that many accepted the invitation.
This is the time when missionary disciples, as Pope Francis calls us, all of us, are finding in a culture of self-absorption many who are looking for an encounter with God. As we listen to the recounting in the Gospel today, the Church provides us a time to step aside and make that recommitment to Christ. We also can accept the challenge one that Pope Francis keeps lifting up for us, to be witnesses to our faith, to be willing to be evangelizing disciples. This we can do by the testimony of our lives and also in inviting others to experience with us the spiritual events of Holy Week.
As you return home from this Mass, I hope you will carry with you a piece of the palm and place it somewhere in your home as a reminder of how personal Jesus’ death for each of us is. Every time we look on that piece of palm, why not whisper a brief prayer that, once again, we stir the embers of our personal experience of Jesus into a flame of awareness of the presence of the Risen Lord in our hearts, our lives and our actions.