Homily for Palm Sunday: Plunged into the Reality of Suffering and Death

Because public masses have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Darren Dias, O.P., has shared his homily for Palm Sunday.

Dr. Dias teaches in St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St Michael’s) entitled: “One Canada Two Catholicism: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 1965–1985.”


Plunged into the Reality of Suffering and Death

Today is “Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord.” It juxtaposes two events: Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and the immediate events surrounding his betrayal, arrest, trial and execution (Passion of Our Lord). These two contrasting events are captured in the liturgical celebration that begins with the proclamation of the Gospel narrative about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (this year Matthew 21:1-11). Normally this is followed by a joyful procession from outside the church to inside or within the church itself. We ritually perform what the evangelist describes: a rather chaotic scene of crowds, animals, cloths being thrown down, people chanting and waving branches.

But the exuberance of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem is short-lived. In the reading from Isaiah we are introduced to the maltreated teacher-servant and in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a theological reflection on the death of Jesus. By the time we read the second Gospel lection, the passion according to Matthew, we are plunged into the reality of death. The lection ends with Jesus’ lifeless body being guarded in a sealed tomb.

On this Sunday, we go from the joyous chorus of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven” to the solitary cry of Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to the silence of the sealed tomb.

Death is an inescapable, existential, and mysterious experience. Yet it often catches us by surprise, no matter how prepared we think we are. When my own father died after a lengthy battle with cancer, knowing he was palliative, it still came as a shock. Nothing really prepares us for the mystery of death. In Matthew’s Gospel account the death of Jesus is predicted several times (Mt 16:21-28, 17:22-23, 20:17-19, 26:1-2), and yet we stand at the tomb plunged into the silence of this existential, inescapable and mysterious experience.

A few weeks ago the whole world was plunged into the reality of suffering and death as the COVID-19 virus swept across the globe. Though there were many warnings, no one seemed really prepared for the novel reality we are now living. We still don’t really know what will happen, we don’t yet have control of the situation. Today we stand in Golgotha, at the foot of the cross, lamenting that many have become ill and many have died, anxious because even more will become ill and die. We stand silent at the tomb.

Our Western culture has an odd relationship to death. We try to escape the reality of death and aging, celebrating youth, and constantly chasing after it. We sanitize our field of vision from human misery and suffering, yet we are bombarded with images of violence and death on our screens. Our fear of suffering and death is evidenced in our attempts to control death through the legalization of assisted suicide.

COVID-19 forces us to confront the inescapable, existential, mystery of death. We should not be too quick to say this will pass, that we will get through it, true as these sentiments may be. We want to get hurriedly to Easter and to the empty tomb, without keeping a long vigil at the foot of the cross. This year will be a long Good Friday. Jesus’s cry from the cross resounds with our own: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In many societies and communities around the world, suffering and death is sadly the norm. Latin America theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, draws our attention to the plight of so many millions who live in situations of death every day. For Gutierrez, the poverty he lives means death, lack of food, housing, education, healthcare, respect, dignity, freedom. Exploitation of the vulnerable and systemic violence is the never-ending lot of so many. He asks: how can we proclaim a God of life in this situation of death?

We are plunged into the reality of suffering and death in today’s liturgy and in our lived experience. I invite you to listen to Anton Bruckner’s moving setting of Philippians 2:8-9, Christus factus est, performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. This music draws us into the depths of the mystery of death and into the God of life.