Sunday Scripture

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Palm Sunday, Year B

Procession with Palms: Mark 11:1-10; First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7; Response: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11; Gospel: Mark 14:1 – 15:47

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week – during which we commemorate the events preceding our Lord Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, on Good Friday the crucifixion itself, and Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. These “preceding events” begin with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in triumphal procession. This year, the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry is proclaimed before Palm Sunday Mass. This Gospel reading (Mark 11:1-10) begins the procession with palms by the congregation to begin the Eucharistic celebration.

The “events preceding the crucifixion” – begun by Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem – continue in the Gospel during Mass, also from Mark’s Gospel. The longer form of today’s Gospel reading contains Mark 14 and Mark 15 in their entirety. Mark 14:1-16 begins with the conspiracy against Jesus, and continues with a woman anointing Jesus “for burial.” These verses also include Judas’ betrayal and Jesus sending his disciples to prepare for a Passover meal. Mark 14:17-25 contains Jesus’ prophetic words that “one of you will betray me” followed by Jesus giving his body and his blood to his disciples.

Mark 14:26-52 begins with Jesus and his disciples going out to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. Next, they arrive at Gethsemane, where Jesus prays to the Father as he anticipates his suffering on the cross. Then Jesus is arrested, and questioned by the Sanhedrin. After this, Jesus is turned over to Pilate for more questioning (15:1-5). Finally, Jesus is sentenced to death and crucified on the cross. After Jesus dies, Joseph of Arimathea courageously asks Pilate for the body, and he reverently buries Jesus. Following today’s Gospel is Mark 16 – the account of the empty tomb and Christ’s resurrection – the end of Mark’s Gospel.

Our first reading (Isaiah 50:4-7) is a portion of the third out of four “suffering servant songs” found in the later chapters of the prophecy of Isaiah. These four “servant songs” have traditionally been read by Christians as divinely inspired anticipations of Jesus, the suffering servant Messiah. To the original Israelite audience, these suffering servant songs provided comfort during a time in which the Israelites were suffering from foreign oppression – first from the Assyrians, and later from the Babylonians. For the suffering servant, the help and protection of the Lord God is always near. This reminds the Israelites to trust in the Lord God in the midst of their suffering. 

In today’s reading, the servant of God speaks of having “a well-trained tongue” so that he might “speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” The servant speaks words of encouragement on behalf of God. The servant hears God’s message for the people “morning after morning.” Concerning his mission to proclaim God’s words to his people, the servant says “I have not rebelled, have not turned back.” This contrasts the servant with the people of Israel – who have repeatedly rebelled against God. The servant is a model of obedience to God in moments of suffering (described next).

The servant describes being beaten, having his beard plucked, and having his face struck and spat upon. Despite this, the servant remains obedient and faithful to his mission of proclaiming God’s word. The final section shows the servant’s faith in God whom he serves. He proclaims “the Lord GOD is my help.” He is not afraid of disgrace or being put to shame.

You might recall that uppercase “LORD” indicates that the original Hebrew word (being translated) is the divine name YHWH. Writing “YHWH” without vowels is a reminder that the divine name YHWH is traditionally not pronounced by pious Jews and Christians. It is a sign of respect for God’s name YHWH to not pronounce it. In English “LORD” is substituted for YHWH. In Greek, “Kyrios/Kyrie” is substituted. In Hebrew, “adonai” is substituted, which means “my Lord.”

This is preparation to explain the curious phrase “the Lord GOD” – found in the first and last verse of today’s Isaiah reading. Note that here “GOD” is capitalized – not “LORD.” Why? This means that the original Hebrew reads “adonai YHWH.” If we substituted “adonai” for YHWH – as normal – we would say “adonai adonai” (my Lord my Lord). To avoid this confusion, translators instead substitute the phrase “the Lord GOD.”

The bottom line is that Isaiah is using a super-respectful title to refer to “the Lord GOD” of Israel. He uses this super-respectful title repeatedly in this third servant song of Isaiah 50:4-11. This emphasizes the suffering servant’s complete dependence and trust in God.

Our second reading is called the “Philippians hymn” – a very important early Christian description of the divine and human natures of Christ Jesus. The first part of this Philippians hymn describes a kind of “humbling” that God’s Son underwent by taking on human nature. This is described as “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” which is then explained as “human likeness ... human in appearance.” This humbling reaches its climax with “death on a cross.” This is logical since human nature is subject to death.

The second part of the Philippians hymn describes the “exaltation” that God’s Son received from God the Father “because of” his humble reception of human nature. These verses of exaltation culminate with the confession: “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

This title of “Lord” belongs to YHWH, the God of Israel – as explained in our earlier discussion of Isaiah 50. The Philippians hymn insists that Christ Jesus must be given the same title as YHWH. Using the title “Lord” for Jesus is a recognition of Jesus’ divinity and his oneness with God the Father. This is further communicated by the phrase “every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Only God is worthy of such universal worship. Insisting that Jesus be given the same worship is to proclaim him fully divine, one with God the Father. The final phrase of today’s reading – “to the glory of God the Father” – asserts that God the Father is glorified when Jesus is acclaimed as “Lord!”