A Meditation for Palm Sunday

"Brethren, rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, 'Rejoice!'" (Philippians 4:4)

The Great Fast is over! The Holy Forty Days is accomplished! The Apostolic Reading for this day has different and distinct tone, you will notice. For the past five weeks the Sundays of the Great Fast, we have heard the words of the Holy Apostle Paul as he addressed the Hebrews. He instructed us about God's promises, our sins, types of sacrifice, and so on. But in today's epistle lesson, St. Paul exclaims, "Rejoice in the Lord always..." and then to further emphasize it, he repeats, "AGAIN, I say rejoice!" We can already anticipate the beautiful refrain to the Theotokos that we will hear next Sunday: "Rejoice, O pure Virgin. Again, I say: 'Rejoice; Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb!'"

Certainly, the events of yesterday and today, the Raising of Lazarus on the 4th day and the Lord's Triumphant Entrance into Jerusalem, are dramatic and exciting events about which we should rejoice. Yet, on the other hand, knowing what events will transpire by the end of this Passion Week, this message may seem a little inappropriate or disturbing for some people. But it should not be. This message is given to us to strengthen us and prepare us for the events about to occur. While our Lord was still alive, remember that He took His three chosen apostles, Peter, James, and John, up into Mount Tabor and was transfigured before them in order to prepare them for His impending death on the Cross. So too does our Church prepare us with such encouragement. The Fathers of our Holy Orthodox Church have wisely chosen this portion of Scripture to be heard today, especially since on the last two Sundays our Lord Himself has been preparing His disciples and us for the terrible things that are about to transpire.

We most certainly do not want our rejoicing to be delusional or to be empty praise or flattery or to be an inconsistent celebration which will evolve into the rejection and derision and mockery of our Lord as happened so long ago. Our rejoicing must be true and honorable and worthy, not in spite of what we are about to witness but rather because of these events. Some may ask: How can we rejoice when we are about to witness the hideous and terrible suffering of the Lord? This is, of course, precisely why we are rejoicing!

St. Paul continues his message, "The Lord is near; have no anxieties about anything." Many things can, and may, and will happen in our own lives, but Christian joy can overcome these. We have seen that even though He is God, Jesus is also a Man Who has encountered these tribulations and evils as well. God did not run from them or avoid them; rather he embraced them and turned them into good. Christian joy is so different from the way the world rejoices and for different reasons. Christian joy does not necessarily entail laughing or cheering or some other outward demonstration. Christian joy stands independent of anything and everything that happens in life, because it is grounded in the continual presence of Christ. The Church at Philippi was an infant, not yet fully committed, wobbly community that was being tried and persecuted. Sometimes we, as individuals, feel exactly like that. That is why St. Paul boosts their morale with this message: "Christ is with you; have no anxiety."

So the closer we approach the Lord's trial, as we see the Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled, we rejoice before them and during them because we already know the ultimate victory.

Some Biblical scholars have given this epistle two names; the first is obvious as we see from what I've already said: "The Epistle of Joy." The other name is the "Epistle of Excellent Things" because of verse 8 of this reading. "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, THINK ABOUT THESE THINGS." Here is our focus for this week! Our mind-set must be above the merely mundane matters of living; we are called upon to develop nobility of thought, to refine our higher instincts, to lift our senses to new heights. We need to be near to our Saviour each and every day of this week, to walk with Him, to learn from Him, to be encouraged by Him so that we will not be given over to despair as His disciples were.

For forty days we have wandered across the desert of Lent as the fathers of our Church have described it. And like Moses and the other holy men and women were, we ought to be changed by the experience. In that beautiful Cecille B. DeMille epic "The Ten Commandments" which we always see each year around this season, the narrator emphasizes this fact. Moses has been exiled from Egypt by the Pharoah Ramases at the edge of the desert with only one day's ration of food and water and a staff. But he survives by God's grace and like other holy men before him, he is purged and purified so that now he can meet God face to face. He stands before the foot of Mount Sinai. We, too, now stand at the foot of the Holy Week, prepared and ready to encounter an even greater and more awesome event than the Burning Bush, namely the Passion and Death of God Himself, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Our journey through the Great Fast has hopefully deepened our faith, disciplined our bodies, having subjected them to our souls, and purifying and strengthening them both by intense prayer, sincere fasting, frequent prostrations, charitable deeds, spiritual reading, and many other good works. We have contemplated the mystery and majesty of the Cross, been inspired and motivated by the holy ascetics, especially Gregory Palamas, John Climacus, and Mary of Egypt; we have repented of our sins, and we have communed of His precious Body and Blood. We have been purged and purified to behold yet greater things! We must continue with our sites placed high, for now is the holiest time of the year. We enter it this very evening, singing: "Come, then, let us walk with Him, minds purified, and let us be crucified with Him, and die with Him so far as the pleasures of this life are concerned, that we may live with Him and hear Him declare; 'I no longer go the earthly Jerusalem to suffer; I ascend rather to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God, and I will raise you up with Me to that Jerusalem which is above, to the Kingdom of heaven.'" AMEN!
At this critical point in our Journey to Holy Pascha, let us decide whether we, as individuals and parishes, will take up our cross, deny our baser selves, and follow the Way of ascetic discipline for the healing of our souls, or, whether we will simply live in denial of our spiritual illness, thus making Christ's Cross a mockery and robbing it of its meaning and power in our live. The choice is that simple.


(Palm Sunday 2008)