Before I was a Catholic, I never really gave a lot of thought to Palm Sunday. This morning we awoke to glorious sunshine, with nary a cloud in the sky. The previous few days had been cloudy, cool, and wet. But a day like today is how I always picture Palm Sunday in my mind’s eye.
It is the height of paradox that on this day of glory for Our Lord, a mere five days later he was convicted, scourged and thrown on the mercy of the crowd, who voted unanimously to have him crucified while clamoring for the release of the criminal Bar-Abbas. An ironic exchange between two men whose names mean almost the same thing. Bar-Abbas, “son of the father” for Jesus, “Son of the Father.”
This morning I was browsing the volumes on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf via the search window with references for “Palm Sunday.” The digital reference librarians there promptly delivered 193 volumes to my laptop. Everything from sermon notes of Blessed John Henry Newman to The Life of St. Clare. I could spend a month of 8 hour days just going through these selections alone.
But for today, I settled on the sermon notes of another former Anglican reverend who became a Catholic priest: Robert Hugh Benson. What follows is a rough outline of his Palm Sunday sermon from around the year 1913. I like his style and his way of painting a portrait with words, even if many of his missing words must be imagined. What struck me most about his outine is what led me to title this post as I did. Because this wasn’t the day of glory for Our Lord.
How often it is that I yearn for the palm instead of the cross. But how often it is that the cross presents itself to me more often than the palm.
Monsignor Benson will now take the pulpit,
PALM SUNDAY—GOOD FRIDAY
Mark xv. 39: Indeed this man was the Son of God.
Introduction.—Extraordinary how we miss the point in this world. With men: meet a person, label him; and find out a year later that we have misunderstood. Movements: a popular stir; see external events, miss significance (France and England for example). We are like uneducated people at a picture gallery; admire frames, are blind to pictures.
So Too With Our Lord On Earth. He came to His own . . .(John i, 11) Especially typified in last week of His Life.
I. Two Processions.
1. Two great events: one was Palm Sunday Procession. Conceive excitement of apostles. At last their Master vindicated; yields to people. Early afternoon start; strange intoxication in air; people come out and look; carried away, join. Rumor runs ahead; for road is full; crowd swells and swells. Cheering begins. Presently on turning a corner, another crowd runs into them, wheels and turns. Children, dogs; grave men crying and laughing—even great ecclesiastics are swept along: glorious sky; city of David.
At last a check . . . ‘Stop them; it is not decent. Hear what they are saying: Hosanna.’ For a moment disciples hesitate. ‘I tell you,’ rang out the grave exultant voice, ‘that if these should hold their peace the very stones would cry out.’ There is no doubt; He has yielded. Here is the kingdom coming with power. Scepter and crown—triumph of Jesus at last. ‘Thank God, thank God!’
2. Five days later.—Another procession: streets thronged; heads thrust out; windows—roofs. Hear them: ‘It is the King of the Jews,’ they say, sneering. First come children marching and singing; mob; spear-heads of escort. Then, in center, a piteous spectacle. A Figure staggering along, robed in blood-stained tunic; crowned! bearing a vast scepter indeed! Before him goes the herald —placard I.N.R.I. Street full of howling and laughter; dogs bark; soldiers again; then mob, four abreast roaring out songs . . . on, on to the Enthronement of the King.
And when last shouts have died, and all is gone, friend of Jesus sinks down sobbing—Failure after all! And all that day there is blank misery. All mock and weep; all but one beneath the Cross; and from him a strange confession. Others on Palm Sunday had called Him Son of David, roused by splendor. Now one gives Him a higher title yet. Text (Mark xv. 39: Indeed this man was the Son of God).
As we look back now, we know the truth. ‘For this cause,’ says our Lord, ‘came I into the world. I am come to save sinners … I have a baptism to be baptized with.’ (John xviii. 37; Matt. ix. 13; Luke xii. 50) We know that the real triumph was Good Friday, not Palm Sunday: not in palms and Hosanna; but spear-heads, scourge, and nails: not in strewing of their garments, but stripping of His own. Not colt but Cross was His Throne. On the colt He reigned over a few hundreds, on the Cross He is King of the World.
Yet we continue to make the same mistake.
Which after all is the glory of the Church? Ah! look close and test it by the Cross.
(1) Splendor of domination in the Middle Ages? Or the catacombs; burning of martyrs; rack; beasts. Both have their place. Our Lord sanctioned outward glory by Palm Sunday; but He did more than sanction suffering.
Not ‘If any man will be My disciple, let him follow Me with palms and singing’; but…’Let him take up his cross and come after Me.’
(2) Court of France; when Church was honored? or now when against overwhelming hatred she is being stripped and scourged . . .
(3) Look at comfortable Catholics in world, well spoken of; and Poor Clare… which is the more glorious? Both are permitted.
(4) Tranquil death-bed of a good man, who has neither sinned much nor suffered much? or dying sinner—sinned beyond description, who turns and weeps for mercy?
Look at your own life too. Have you not believed you were succeeding, and that God was with you when all went well? That was your Palm Sunday—perfectly right. People praised you, rejoiced with you. But the real test comes in sorrow. It was then that the crucified Lord was near to you… when darkness was thick: rent four ways at once; become aware that no friend would reach you. Then He was manifest in you. His Hands upon yours; His Kiss on your lips; His Heart beating on your broken heart.
Blessed are they that hunger and mourn: for they shall be filled and comforted.
Conclusion.—Today we are rejoicing: giving one more gift to God’s glory and the honor as well of the saints who won their crowns by suffering; all in memory of a happy event. Things are well with us; your priests happy; you are happy. There is a large congregation. This then is your Palm Sunday —Christianity does not exclude joy: our Lord has sanctioned it. But it is important to remember on days of rejoicing that they are only one half of life. The spiritual man is absorbed neither in joy nor sorrow; neither exalted nor depressed.
The real test of the soundness of our joy is found in our behaviour during sorrow and conflict. We need so much. St. Peter’s warning not to be bewildered when conflict comes, as if a ‘strange thing’ happened to us.(1 Peter vi, 12)
God knows there is enough conflict coming: all over the world that old drama of the Passion is being re-enacted—in S. America, in Spain, in France, and not least in England, evidences of old enmity of world against God which crucified our Lord. Face this, then, bravely; be prepared to suffer. Oh! brethren; it is in this that glory shows itself.
You have magnificent churches here, evidences of old splendor; but you produced finer things than that. You have contributed saints to heaven—such as Richard Langley (Mr. Richard Langley was a Yorkshire gentleman, executed on December 1, 1586, for harboring priests.), infinitely greater. See that you continue—it is an acceptable gift that you give today; but there are even better—crucified, mortified souls.
The deeper the darkness, the clearer is His Cross; the more ecstatic the harps of Heaven, the more radiant the smile upon the Face of God.
Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Matt xvi, 24;Mark viii, 34; Luke ix, 23)
Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Son of the Father, give me the courage to do just that.