"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Palm Sunday homiletics

Over at Open Book, Amy Welborn has asked for answers to a question from Fr. Martin Fox of Bonfire of the Vanities, namely, how long the homily on Palm Sunday should be given the length of the Gospel reading. I'm giving my answer here for two reasons.

First, Fr. Fox is a frequent commenter at Pontifications, where he and I often support each other in controversies. And so I want to give him more exposure. He is a solid priest and a useful blogger. Second, I am concerned about the content even more than the length of Palm Sunday homilies. So as not to derail Amy's thread, I'll declaim on the content issue here.

Because of the Gospel reading, the introit procession, and the blessing of palms, the Palm Sunday Mass is much longer than most. That alone is hard on parents of young children, for whom even a regular Mass is often taken up with fitfully successful efforts to keep their children well-behaved. That's a good argument for a shorter-than-usual homily at Masses attended by such families. But it's not a good argument for such a homily at other Masses. I know it's often said that standing during the long, dialogical Gospel reading is hard on some people; but if they can't stand that long without inviting a night of joint or foot pain, there's no good reason why they can't sit.

Even so, that issue is sometimes much ado about little. Of more concern to me is the issue of content. Since the readings are about the Passion, so too the homilies tend to be. I think that's a mistake. We have Holy Thursday and Good Friday to focus homilies on the Passion; on Palm Sunday, however, we are commemorating Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The contrast between that and the Passion is so obvious as to be a given; the focus should be on explaining it—a rich theme indeed. I found a good example here, but I'm sure some reader can point me to an even better one. I've looked at Augustine and Chrysostom, but their Palm Sunday homilies are on the passion narratives from Matthew and John, whereas today's Gospel was Mark's Passion.

The contrast in question has always hit me hard. So often in life I've seen people be acclaimed, even loved, only to be turned on later by some of the same people for understandable but wrong reasons. It's happened to me; and if it hasn't happened to you, you're lucky. Jesus of course knew what would happen to him, but he also accepted the adulation of the crowd as his due even as he rode into town on a donkey to signify that true royalty is attained by humility. He would need infinite humility not only to accept the suffering he faced, but even more not to become cynical in face of it. I know that I would be tempted to the deepest cynicism, and thus to despair, if I knew I was going to save people by letting them condemn, torture, and execute me as a grave threat to public order. Only a man who is God could fail to let that embitter him.

Since he didn't let it, he has provided an example for us all and empowered us to emulate it. What example? Are we all to be messiahs? No, and it would be foolish to try. The example is that of detachment: we are to enjoy the gift of life without expecting as our due that any temporal good will last. At any moment one can lose health, job, the love of spouse, one's good name, or anything else one rightly values; and eventually, one dies. The trick is to live in such a way that physical death is a gateway into eternal life rather than eternal death. As one Orthodox saint put it: "If you die before you die, then you won't die when you die." I think Jesus approached his entry into Jerusalem that way. It was his funeral before his death because he, unlike his admirers, knew as he rode what he was going to face. If we learn to approach the real pleasures and triumphs of life as mere foretastes of eternity, as ready to surrender them as to enjoy them, then they won't get in the way of our dying before we die. One might even learn to experience them in such a way that there will be no need for a funeral when one dies.
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