Palm Sunday invites two competing responses. One is the joy that marks the procession. Celebrated when spring is returning with milder temperatures, winter rigors and Lenten sobriety are past, and days are becoming sunnier, there’s a lift in people’s spirits. Yet, in a contrast that the soft loveliness of spring makes sharper, the tone of the liturgy is somber. You can’t miss the tragic undertones in the description of the procession with palms as the people shout Hosanna, for we know that Jesus’s tragic death lies ahead. Yet the darkest shadow across Palm Sunday is the passion account (this year Mark 14:1-15:47 long form) read in the liturgy, Jesus’s humiliation, abandonment by the Father and his disciples, and a criminal’s death!

Readers of the Gospel should not be surprised at seriousness tempering joy. Jesus’ conflict with the anti-human forces obstructing the Kingdom of God comes to a climax in his  anguished and lonely death. More than the other evangelists, Mark portrays Jesus’s “obedience unto death” (Phil 2:8) with unrelieved starkness. There is a terrible absence here – of the Father and of the disciples he loved. Jesus experiences the depths of human alienation from God.

Yet absence is only half the story. Jesus goes to his death deliberately, even foretelling several times his disciples’ abandonment in Mark 14:27, “All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be dispersed.’” (Zech 13:7) Importantly, his humiliating death belies the glorious messianic expectations of his time and invites people to see him introducing a kingdom that is ultimately more glorious than a purely nationalist one. In a subtle touch that repudiates the mighty Roman Empire then occupying Palestine, a Roman centurion reacts to Jesus’s death: “Truly, this man was the son of God!” (Mark 15:39). 

What to Look for as You Listen to the Passion Account

Three things stand out. The first is the extraordinary portrait of Jesus; he goes to pieces before our eyes, torn between obedience to the Father’s will and the human desire to escape the pain and humiliation of death. The second, most significant for Christians, is the supper hosted by Jesus and shared with his disciples in this fraught moment, enabling him to touch, heal, and be present to his followers down the ages. For all Christians, and especially for Catholic Christians, Jesus’s gathering and self-giving brands forever the Eucharist with God’s love for us in Christ. The final thing to notice is the “apologetic” intent in the gospels to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from the Roman judicial process that actually found him guilty onto Jewish authorities in order, most probably, to make the gospel more acceptable in the wider world. In the first century the Roman judicial system was viewed as absolute and its sentences as final. That system branded Jesus as a common criminal. Easier to say that the Romans simply allowed a sectarian quarrel to play out rather than Jesus was killed by his own people. The unfortunate result of this shift was to lend credibility to the later and false Christian accusation that “Jews killed Jesus.” Ironically, the accusation fueled violence against the very people who were and remain his “brothers (and sisters) according to the flesh” (cf. Rom 9:3, 5).