Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

By the Diocese of Wollongong, 2 April 2023
'Discovery of the True Cross' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770). Image: Wikimedia Commons


Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Readings: Matthew 21:1–11; Isaiah 50:4–7; Psalm 21(22):8–9, 17–20, 23–24; Philippians 2:6–11; Matthew 27:11–54

2 April 2023



GOSPEL REFLECTION with Fr Mark De Battista

The true of Son of the Father

The essence of Passion Sunday is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, not to accomplish some earthly triumph, but the triumph of the cross. Throughout the public ministry of Jesus, his disciples frequently misunderstand his kingdom as a political one, but Jesus’ constant responses or avoidance of this thinking fails to convince them of an alternative meaning. It must be noted that the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is planned by Jesus himself (Lk 19:30). However, this kingship is not of this world (Jn 18:36).

He sends disciples into the city to prepare the colt for him to ride on, yet Jesus’ clear triumphal entry is to be distinguished from a terrestrial one in a number of ways. First, the recognition of the kingship of Jesus is not a political one, although it will be recognised as a kingship. Second, the customary way for earthly kings to enter their own city was on horseback—typically with the conquered monarch in chains being paraded behind in humiliation of the conquered nation. Jesus does no such thing. He rides on a colt—the foal of a donkey. This is to show that he is following in the line and kingship of David because the royal animal in that kingdom was not a horse, but a mule (1 Kg 1:33). Third, Jesus is recognised as king only by his disciples, not by all the people of Jerusalem. The critics call him to silence his disciples, but Jesus tells them that “if they keep silent, the stones will cry out” (Lk 19:40). Hence, only the subjects of the kingdom (his disciples) recognise his kingship, albeit with a misguided understanding.

While Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is triumphal and deliberate, it is also highly symbolic—anticipating a victory which is yet to be accomplished upon a cross, and not in some worldly sense.

As the liturgy unfolds into the sacred Passion, the faithful behold the various responses of the disciples once their own shattered misunderstandings of the kingdom are exposed: Judas loses his way through selfish ambition, then remorse, then despair and suicide (Mt 27:5). Peter is betrayed by his own self-assurance and denies his master three times (Lk 22:54–62). The other disciples run away (Mk 14:50). Not a good track record! Meanwhile, a few stand by him while dying upon the cross (Jn 19:25–26), and Joseph of Arimathaea boldly asks Pilate for the dead body of Jesus (Jn 19:38).

Moreover, while Pilate is on his judgement seat, the people as a whole are offered a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. Superficially, it is an option between one man and another, but theologically speaking, the people are being given a choice as to how they wish Israel to be as God’s first-born son. When one separates the name of Barabbas in Aramaic, one derives two words: Bar (meaning “son”) and Abbas (meaning “father”). In other words, choosing Barabbas means choosing the son of the father.

The choice now becomes clearer. Which son of God will the people choose to be: a son of the father according to the model of Barabbas who was a “notorious criminal”, or a Son of the Father according to Jesus of Nazareth who was the true Son of the Father—a pattern of righteousness and holiness? Unfortunately, they choose Barabbas, thus sending Jesus to his death and confirming their own need for the Sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.

The passion shows how quickly the mood swings between support for Jesus and calling for his blood. It reveals the profound fickleness of the human condition.


ARTWORK REFLECTION with Mgr Graham Schmitzer

Discovery of the True Cross by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770).

“Discovery of the True Cross”, c. 1745. Oil on canvas, 490cm x 490cm. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Public Domain.

Our Lord died on Friday, the 15th day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar. The instruments of the crucifixion—the cross itself and the nails–were buried in a ditch beside the tomb which Joseph of Arimathea had given. According to Jewish law, those condemned to die, and the instruments of their death, could not be buried on consecrated ground.

Immediately after the Ascension, the place of Jesus’ martyrdom became a place of pilgrimage for the early Christians. This disturbed both Jews and pagans. Emperor Hadrian decreed the obliteration of Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre. The ditch separating Golgotha from the burial site was filled with earth, covering the entrance to the tomb and covering over Calvary. Over this, the emperor ordered one, and possibly two, temples to be built to Jupiter and Venus. This prompted an historian to write: “The fool! He thought he could hide from the human race the splendour of the sun that had risen over the world! He did not realise that, while trying to obliterate the holy places from the people’s memories, he was really fixing irrevocably their exact position.”

Eusebius of Caesarea, an historian considered most reliable, mentions a strange event told to him by Constantine the Great. On the eve of a great battle, the emperor prayed to heaven for success. Over the setting sun, he saw a cross surrounded by the words, “In this sign you will conquer.” Led by a standard carrying this sign, Constantine was victorious. In gratitude, he issued his famous decree of A.D. 313 allowing Christians to practise their faith openly and ordering a large basilica to be built on the site of the Crucifixion. During the excavations, St Helen, Constantine’s 80-year-old mother, came to Jerusalem. She had been baptised 15 years prior, and her great desire was to find the cross of Christ. Parts of three crosses were found; also the nails and the inscription that had been on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19). The three crosses were carried into the house of an illustrious old lady who was dying. At the touch of the third cross, she leaped from her bed praising God.

St Cyril of Jerusalem later wrote a letter to Constance, son of Constantine: “The saving wood of the Cross was found in Jerusalem during the times of Constantine, your father.” After that, a long list of writers often mentioned the finding of the Cross by St Helen. Historians agree as to the day of the finding, September the 14th, but do not agree to the exact year. Most claim 325 or 326. On Good Friday each year, the relic of the True Cross would be exposed for veneration by the people.

We certainly have a reliable record written by a pilgrim called Egeria who visited Jerusalem in the year 400, and she relates in great detail the Holy Week ceremonies held there. The Roman liturgy later prescribed the Veneration of the Cross in every church on Good Friday. When she returned to Rome, St Helen took with her a large portion of the Cross. It is enshrined in the Basilica of the Holy Cross erected over the site of her house. September the 14th is one of the few feasts co-jointly celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was born in Venice in 1696 and died in Madrid in 1770. Critics rank him now with the great painters of all ages. He had an incredible ability to translate any theme, sacred or profane, into a stupendous Baroque masterpiece. His Discovery of the True Cross is a very good example of how he never tired of amazing his contemporaries with his gift of creating an illusionist perspective. We, of course, are looking up at the scene—St Helen making a triumphant gesture in front of the Cross which towers up into the sky. She is surrounded by a retinue of soldiers, holy men, the old and the young, women and children. A number of angels hover over the scene, one carrying a smoking thurible, and one carrying the title that had been written by Pilate.

But the Church this week venerates not so much an inanimate object, sacred as it is, but more so the mystery it contains—the truth that by his death on the cross, Christ redeemed the world and gave suffering a new meaning. Once a sign of death, shame and despair, the Cross is now a symbol of life and hope. We can find eternal life when we look with faith on our Saviour who was lifted up on Calvary, just as the Israelites found healing when they looked toward the bronze serpent with faith in their saving God (Nb 21:4–9). (The bronze serpent is still the symbol of medicos.)

God’s answer to the suffering of the world was to enter it. Jesus did not die on the cross passively anymore than he had lived his life passively. His whole life had been a conscious expression of love of God and love of others. His death was part of his life. What’s more, on the cross, that love was great enough to include even those who had brought about his death. “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34). It is this forgiving love of Christ that constitutes the triumph of the cross.

A Christian does not hope to avoid the Cross. Those closest to Christ are invited to suffer with him. For some, it will be illness borne with patience and dignity. In most, it will be the everyday grind of life—little sacrifices bravely accepted; a continual concern for the needs of our neighbour. If we follow Christ’s command to wash each other’s feet, we will find sufficient suffering.

Fr Mark De Battista migrated from Malta with his family in 1978. He completed his schooling in the Diocese of Wollongong and offered himself for the priesthood in 1988. He commenced his studies at St Patrick’s College, Manly in 1989 and was ordained priest in 1995, serving in various parishes across the diocese until 2002. From 2003–2007, he served in two assignments in the USA with university chaplaincy in the states of Illinois and Colorado. After some years back in the diocese, he undertook post graduate studies in Rome from 2010–2016 in the field of sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Biblicum), the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Commission (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Since his return to the diocese, he has served in various parishes, and from 2018–2021, he was chaplain to the University of Wollongong. From 2018, he has also served in St Patrick’s Parish, Port Kembla, where he is now the parochial administrator. He is currently chaplain to Mass For You At Home broadcast on Network Ten and Foxtel each week.

Monsignor Graham Schmitzer is the retired parish priest of Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Mgr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.

With thanks to the Diocese of Wollongong, who have supplied this reflection from their publication, Triumph – Lenten Program 2023Reproduced with permission.


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