Stones crying out: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 19:28–40:

Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem. As he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples. He said, “Go into the village opposite you, and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you will answer, ‘The Master has need of it.’” So those who had been sent went off and found everything just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying this colt?” They answered, “The Master has need of it.” So they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the colt, and helped Jesus to mount. As he rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks on the road; and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen. They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”

Actually, that’s just one of our Gospel readings for today, as it is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week and our preparation for Easter. This reading comes at the start of Mass as a processional into the church. At our church, many of the parishioners gather with the priest to come to the altar — in some years, most of those will process in rather than grab seats early.

It’s a joyous atmosphere for us, especially after five-plus weeks of Lent. During that time, we have muted our celebration at Mass, opting for more somber music and silent processionals. With the exception of Laetare Sunday, we have focused on mourning our sins. Palm Sunday — at least its beginning — gives us an opportunity to rejoice.

Of course, that doesn’t last too long. The reading from Isaiah reminds us of his prophetic suffering Servant, and then we go into the Passion reading from Luke 22:14-23:56 as our official Gospel reading of the day. We begin with Jesus’ consecration of bread and wine at the Passover, and then quickly into betrayal, corruption, torture, and finally death by crucifixion. We end this at the death of Christ and His entombment, without any mention of resurrection or salvation. The Mass ends, at least in terms of the readings, with defeat and despair — at least if you don’t know the full story.

This mirrors the experience of those in Jerusalem who welcomed Jesus in our first reading. Thousands crowded the roads to hail Jesus as a conquering king, the Messiah as they expected Him to be, who would free the people from an occupation and a corrupt, collaborating Herod Antipas. Many did not know the rest of the story, or indeed much of what Jesus had been teaching all along. Even one of His closest disciples, Judas Iscariot, had misinterpreted Jesus’ mission as one of a military nature, a second David sent to lead a war against the Romans and the corrupt temple authorities.

And yet, their joy was genuine, as was Jesus’ at the reception. They longed to be saved, even if they didn’t comprehend the scope of salvation Jesus offers. Jesus knows this — he knows how the week will end, even if his disciples didn’t — but still allows for the people to feel joy at His presence. When the Pharisee tries to tamp down the celebration by ordering Jesus to rebuke the crowd, one can almost hear the smile through which Jesus replies that it’s no use. “I tell you,” He says, “if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”

Of course, we can celebrate the joy without reservation because we know how the Passion story really ended. Jesus is resurrected, triumphs over death, and offers His death as the payment for all of our sins. But do we live the end of the Passion story? Do we become, as Paul wrote to the Philippians in our reading today, “obedient to the point of death” with the Word of God?

What we may not realize from Palm Sunday, or even Easter, is that the Passion story has never actually ended. It continues through us and in us with the Holy Spirit. We have to see ourselves and our life story through that prism of illusion and salvation while singing out our joy. Often, those stages come separately, but we should remember even in hard times that we have hope in which to rejoice — and in good times, that we have need for repentance and to help our brothers and sisters to put aside despair.

That is how we evangelize the Good News of salvation to the world. We rejoice in the knowledge of salvation while living in the example of Christ, imperfectly though we may do so, while recognizing and repenting the sins that made the Passion necessary. We are both ends of today’s cycle — mourning our sins and celebrating the Gospel simultaneously throughout our lives. In order to integrate both properly, we have to do as Christ demonstrates by becoming obedient to the point of death with the Lord.

Perhaps when we all succeed in that mission, the stones really will cry out. Until then, that’s our job.

The front-page image is a detail of a mosaic from the Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily (12th century). 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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