It hardly needs noting that we live in vexed and troubled times, not very much different from the situation of people in Palestine when Jesus came to Jerusalem riding on a donkey’s colt. It was an event rich with symbolic meaning for the Jews of the time and later for Christians throughout the world.
Only the gospel of John mentions palm branches, which gave the day we celebrate its common title. Luke mentions nothing about branches at all. But date-palm branches were carried even in ancient times by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem as a sign of triumph and liberation, and they find mention in this regard in the Book of Revelation [Rev 7:9]. Date-palms grew in the Jordan valley and still do, but at that time, it is unlikely that fruitful trees grew in and around Jerusalem, in the more mountainous region. Often olive branches are substituted, and a common translation has “reeds,” but the ceremonial plant-life really isn’t nearly as important as was the donkey Jesus rode as he entered Jerusalem.
All the gospels mention the young animal, although Mark (alone) points out that it was a colt on which no one had yet ridden, which is something of a miracle in itself. Jesus may have been the first donkey-whisperer on record. But the donkey, or ass, was considered a beast of burden rather than war animal, which is the important point. The reference here to Zechariah 9:9 is made clear by the citation of this singular passage by Matthew and John::
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus probably entered Jerusalem in the midst of long line of pilgrims coming for the unusually holy feast, for Passover and the sabbath coincided that year. It would have been a joyous crowd. Perhaps riding on a young colt would not have seemed unusual. But the shouts of “Hosannah,” one of the rare Hebrew words that survived in the Greek New Testament, is significant, for at root it means “savior” [Ps 118:25]. Matthew, Mark, and John all mention it. At least Jesus’ faithful followers recognized and remembered the significance of this jubilant procession in that holy year.
Jesus knew what awaited him, however. He had predicted many times that he would die in Jerusalem, executed as a threat to the reigning religious and political cadres in league with the Roman imperial agents. In Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus looked out over the city just before entering it, he wept because it failed to truly recognize the time of its visitation [Luke 19:41-44]. And so, despite the joyful shouts and songs, our liturgy today continues with the first of the gospel readings that relate the events leading to Jesus’ betrayal, trial, execution, and, lest we forget, his resurrection.
The redeeming death of Jesus has never been easy to fathom. It challenges us perhaps more than ever before to understand how he accepted suffering and death but in this dreadful way reconciled the human race to God, overcoming the terrible division caused by the whole history of sin, estrangement, and despair. He offered his life in exchange for ours. His name itself means “God saves.”
And that is why our first two readings, carefully chosen from the Book of Isaiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Caesarea Philippi are so important for understanding and faith, perhaps especially today. They prepare us to grasp, not with our minds so much as with our hearts, what we will remember during Holy Week, reaching a climax on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Today, we begin our own pilgrimage with the gospel reading from Mark, which recounts the mystery of God’s love, a love made real, visible, and effective in the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All God asks of us here and now is to listen — carefully and with love.
Today western Christians begin the last full week of Lent, which ends with Holy Thursday and the solemn commemoration of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection begins. There is an underlying tone of urgency in the readings. Jesus’ hour has come. And with it, ours.
The first reading from Jeremiah points ahead to the new, or more accurately, renewed covenant God has made with humanity. Scripture
shows how over the centuries the original covenant was renewed time and time again, each time more expansively and deeper than those broken when our ancestors fell away from the promises made on our behalf. Each time, God forgave, restored, renewed, and expanded the ancient bond. What we learn from Jeremiah and Ezekiel is that the final, renewed covenant will differ in an ultimate sense. It will extend to all humanity and it will be internalized in our hearts and minds, no longer resting on obedience to an external rule. But like the former enactments of that everlasting bond, it requires acceptance and agreement. We ratify that pledge by the way we live, sometimes even to the shedding of blood. “Martyr,” after all, means “witness.”
It wasn’t by accident that the Christian scriptures were collected under the title New Covenant — and we should remember that “covenant” and “testament” mean the same thing, a binding contract between parties, as St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews explain. In ancient times, important covenants – contracts, if you will — were signed in blood. And as we will hear frequently in the days to come, so too the renewed, final convent would be ratified by blood witness, that of Jesus.
Jesus himself insisted that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them [Matt. 5:17] — to complete the Ancient Covenant by renewing it absolutely. He did that by the shedding of his blood for the life of the world, just as the original covenant was sealed with the blood of sacrifice.
In John’s gospel read today, Jesus alludes again as he did when he spoke at night with Nicodemus [John 3:14-15] to the Nehushtan, the ancient symbol used by Moses to heal the Hebrews who had broken their covenant with God [Numbers 21:8-10]. To be “lifted up” meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day this above all – to be crucified.
The “letter” to the Hebrews points clearly to Jesus’ cross as the instrument enacting the ultimate covenant. This long, profound mediation devotes considerable effort to show how this renewed covenant does not abrogate the former pledges, but includes all the others. The culmination of the blood sacrifice that saves all of humanity, as we will hear increasingly in the days to come, is revealed in God’s acceptance and blessing of Jesus’ willingness to die in testimony to God’s faithfulness by raising him from death to eternal life. As Risen Lord, Jesus is the pledge and warrant of God’s absolute commitment to humanity, the savior of the world.
“Now has decision come upon the world. Now will evil be overthrown. Now will I draw all men and women to me” [John 12:31-33]. And that is where our Lenten pilgrimage brings us on this fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s especially a good day to think seriously about mending our own broken relationships. Next week, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, which celebrates the climax and fulfillment of the Ancient Covenant, the pledge of an eternal Easter.
In the coming week our Jewish sisters and brothers will celebrate Passover, the great enactment of God’s pledge of fidelity, the archetype of deliverance, the model by which the Christian mysteries would in time be illuminated and which are recalled frequently during the Easter liturgies. So let us pray in this time of anxiety and conflict that we will all come to know fully the forgiveness and renewal God offers, so that we will experience the end of the reign of sin and death in our own lives and that of the whole world.
There doesn’t seem to be much joy in today’s readings, at least not at first glance. And definitely not in the first reading. But this is one of the two Sundays in the year that were traditionally named for joy — Gaudete Sunday in Advent and Laetare Sunday today, each named for the first words of the Latin Psalms once sung as entrance hymns, the emphatic “Rejoice!”
It often seems that if there is cause for joy in the world today, it’s not much. The pandemic is still striking people all over the world, despite the amazing development of a number of vaccines now being administered as fast as needles can be stuck into arms – at least among nations that can afford them. Sometimes the shortage is simply a heart-breaking function of global poverty, as in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, or it may have political causes, such as the enormous disparity of vaccinations in Israel, the world’s leading inoculator, and the greatly underserved Palestinian population of the “occupied territories” — Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Sometimes the disparity is based on race, religion, or ethnicity, as in the United Sates and elsewhere.
And while we may pretend otherwise, the virus is still spreading throughout the world and people are still dying from the disease it causes. Add to that the unprecedented storms and other natural disasters that have recently battered East Asia, North America, and Europe, and the deadly conflicts still raging around the world from Myanmar to Yemen. But perhaps that is all the more reason why joy and remembrance are so important today. Occasionally there are real signs of hope worth celebrating and of ways forward to a brighter future. Sometimes it takes a little digging to discover them.
Today’s readings provide encouraging opportunities. The first describes the “Babylonian captivity” of the Jews in the 6th century before
the Common Era. It’s hard to understate the shock to the Chosen People of a catalogue of disasters that befell them and yet provided some of the great prophetic literature of all time. Earlier, Jerusalem had resisted the attacks of the Assyrian army, but under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who defeated the Assyrians, Jerusalem and the surrounding territory was invaded and occupied by the army of the greatest empire of the time. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and the sacred vessels and ornaments carted off to Babylon, the capitol. Most of the population was deported there too.
After about seventy years, the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem singing for joy. They were liberated, by the way, by the Persians – the people of modern Iran, who under Cyrus the Great had defeated the Babylonians.
The account is taken from the end of the second book of Chronicles. It starts off gloomily enough. The missing verse, 18, even relates how “all the vessels of the house of God, great and small” were taken to Babylon, where they were destroyed. Not among them was something called the Nehushtan, a wooden pole with a brass serpent attached to it which Jesus refers to in the gospel reading. According to Numbers 21:9, God had sent serpents among the people to punish them for their loss of faith. When the people turned to Moses for help, he was instructed by God to make an image of a serpent and place it on a pole. “And if a serpent bit anyone, if he looked at the bronze serpent he would live.”
The Nehushtan was probably a religious artifact the Hebrews had looted from one of the pagan temples they destroyed during their invasion of Canaan. But at the end of the eighth century, King Hezekiah had it removed from the Temple and destroyed even though its origins were attributed to Moses because people were worshipping it with incense [2 King 18:4]. Nevertheless, the story provides the backdrop for today’s gospel, which not only reminds us that Lent is a time to rejoice, but also shows us why. In the Gospel reading Jesus points to this strange figure as a portent of his own crucifixion. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Not merely healing, but life itself, eternal life.
The author comments, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his own Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The ‘so’ here means “in this way.” But in what way? Jesus himself tells us: the way of the cross. To be lifted up, as we read later in the 12th chapter of John, means to be crucified: “‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men and women to me.’ And he said this to show by what death he was to die” [John 12:32-33]. To die for the life of the world.
The passage from St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Ephesus, our second reading today, reflects on the same theme, but points specifically to the effects of Christ’s loving sacrifice for us: “…God, out of the great love with which he loved us… made us alive together with Christ – raising us up with him, making us sit with Christ in the heavenly places – in order that in the coming ages God might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us…”[Eph 2:4-7].
God fulfilled his promise to redeem the Chosen People when Cyrus the Great overthrew the Babylonian empire and let captive peoples return to their homelands. More than that, Cyrus undertook to restore the Temple the Babylonians had destroyed. The exile was over, and the exiles entered into a new life. In time, Judea and Jerusalem would be subject to invasion by Greeks and Romans, and eventually by Christian Crusaders and Muslim armies, but the joy expressed by the returning captives in that long-ago moment was etched forever in memory. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to be a home especially for the persecuted Jews of a far more sinister empire bears a striking similarity to that original Return.
For us too it gets down to what we started with in today’s opening prayer: the life of faith, hope, and above all, love. All of Lent, all our observances, all our fasting and self-denial, everything should increase our commitment, our confidence, our active goodness to others, or all of it is pointless. For, as Paul reminds us at the conclusion of todays’ second reading, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [Eph 2:1].
It sounds simple, but it isn’t. It takes time and effort and a lot of faith and hope and charity to become the joyful artworks that God wants us to be. But that is why there is something called Lent, and moments like Laetare Sunday, opportunities to remember God’s promises and to reposition ourselves in God’s redeeming presence.
It has been almost 21 years since Pope John Paul II visited Egypt, Jordan, and the Holy Land, where the frail and failing pope solemnly asked forgiveness for the Church’s sins against those it had persecuted in times past — Jews, Muslims, and other Christians. In Israel, at the shrine dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, John Paul specifically acknowledged the Church’s complicity in anti-Semitism. Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Iraq, a country still torn by conflict and sectarianism, differs. He went as a peace-maker, extending the hand of friendship to Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Mandaean-Sabaeans, Yazidis, other religious minorities, as well as the various Christian denominations from Ur in the south, near Basra, to Mosul and Qaraqosh in the north, where the people still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus would have used. Francis accorded it special importance in his itinerary. Ur, near Basra, the birthplace of Abraham, the Father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was also a site of special interest to the pope.
I accompanied a delegation of Dominican sisters and supporters to these ancient places in 2001 and twice more in the years that followed in the wake of the war launched against Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait and during the “Insurgency.” I visited ancient churches, monasteries, and mosques, and met wonderful, generous people. That was before ISIS invaded the country, demolishing churches and even mosques wherever they could. The so-called Caliphate was first announced in Mosul, which had been the site of Dominican missions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and again from the nineteenth century to the present. The devastation of these ancient places was appalling.
Still riven by factionalism and violence, Iraq has been slowly and painfully rebuilding. The number of Christians has been more than halved. The significance of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage is therefore hard to miss. Even though he was cautioned not to go, he insisted. And, appropriately in this season of preparation for great Easter celebrations, we have witnessed in his words and actions signs of the love and reconciliation that sum up the whole meaning of Lent.
Today’s readings begin with Moses, and specifically with the Ten Commandments, the moral code that will forever be associated with
his name. It’s especially important to see the importance that is attached to the Sabbath rest. It’s always so easy to get sucked into the whirlpool of a profit economy and forget that workers need a day off as well as a livable wage. In Egypt, the Hebrews never were allowed to rest, so God made sure that everyone was given a break, not least of all so they could worship God. What was so revolutionary about the Ancient Covenant was that everyone was entitled to that freedom — women, children, political refugees, even slaves and farm animals. And it’s certainly not possible for the rich to worship God well when grinding the poor into the dirt. Envy and jealousy don’t dispose any of us to receive and share God’s blessings.
Of course that isn’t good business sense. But God’s ways always seem foolish to those who idolize money. And that isn’t the only scandal.
Paul, a Jew reared as a Pharisee, a citizen of the Roman Empire, was painfully aware that the message he preached, the Good News taught by Jesus, and the meaning of Jesus himself, was scandalous and foolish to the religiously sensitive Jews and the philosophically trained Greeks. How could the Messiah of God have been executed like a common criminal? What possible message could this itinerant rabbi from the hills of Galilee have to teach the great thinkers of Athens and Alexandria?
Paul simply reminds us that God’s ways and our ways often seem entirely contradictory. It’s especially tempting to start cutting corners, whittling away those merciful parts of religious observance, the parts that give people holidays from work and school and even from commerce and industry, the ones that allow us to catch our breath and even have a little fun.
I think that is why Jesus became so angry when he arrived at the Temple and found it full of money changers and hucksters selling animals for sacrifice. The outer court had become nothing more than a huge religious bazaar, a marketplace for religious merchandise. And making a tidy profit by gouging the poor was no doubt a big part of what was going on.
John’s gospel places this scene at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The other evangelists thought it happened near the end. One way or another, it was a major turning point in Jesus’ life, one from which there was no retreat. He had positioned himself in opposition to the religious authorities and, as he pointed out, for the honor of God. From that moment, he was a marked man.
Corruption and the need for reform is woven into the fabric of most if not all human institutions. The love of money, even more than of power, is often the root cause, and it was his recognition of this failure that sparked Jesus’ outrage in the temple. That reform takes root is itself a miracle of resurrection. Where it is lacking, desolation follows. Christianity is hardly immune.
Repentance, metanoia, means changing our way of thinking, our whole way of life to the extent that it wars against the spirit. If we are going to grow closer to what God intends for us, for all human beings, we have to leave the sins and mistakes of the past behind, acknowledged but not belabored, and strike out fresh and new. This, surely is prominent in the mission and ministry of Pope Francis this weekend.
Wherever sinfulness has bound people — in our homes, our communities, our workplaces — we need to break free, to make peace through love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is never easy, and sometimes it hardly seems possible. Factionalism and tribalism, and the inevitable demonization of those with whom we differ religiously, ethnically, or politically because they represent a different way of doing things is not just foolish and self-defeating. It strikes at the root of both our democratic form of government and our faith.
So while there’s time, let us pray that God will give us the wisdom and strength to rekindle the warmth of charity, to forgive, to reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters here and throughout the world so that we may be called and may truly be children of Abraham and Abraham’s God.