Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Sunday and Baptismal Grace

(Palm Sunday-Year B; This homily was given on 4 & 5 April, 2009 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Mark 14:1-17:47)

Each year we gather together on Palm Sunday—known traditionally as Passion Sunday—to read and listen to the Passion of Jesus Christ, how He suffered and died for our salvation. Of course, it is not the same one Gospel account that we listen to. We follow a three-year cycle that allows us to hear The Passion according to Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, a separate one each year.

This year we hear St. Mark’s account, and Mark provides a detail for us that none of the other Evangelists include. It happens right after Christ is taken in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the arrest of Christ on that dark night. They all tell us how the disciples abandoned Jesus. But Mark alone tells us of a young man who still followed Christ, perhaps at a distance. He says that this young man, oddly, was “wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body” (Mark 14:51).

Apparently those arresting Jesus also recognized this young man as a disciple because they tried to take hold of him. St. Mark tells us how the young man escaped, “but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked” (Mark 14:52). It is a rather embarrassing event in the Gospel.

But we could ask ourselves this Palm Sunday, “Why does St. Mark include that detail and find it so important to describe for us that scene?” Some scholars say that he is trying to communicate something to his audience about the great dignity of Baptism.

In the early Church, when a person was baptized, he or she would often be fully immersed in water. Obviously they would go down into the water without clothing, and when they came up again they were newly baptized and had become “a new creation in Christ.” Immediately they would be clothed in a white, linen cloth to symbolize that they had put on Christ and now shared this new life of holiness with Him (we still do this today, when a child is “Christened” and dons a sparkling new baptismal gown).

What St. Mark is trying to communicate with the story of that young man is that he has tragically lost that connection, that holiness he once had as a follower of Christ. His newness of life and purpose for living—symbolized by that linen cloth—has been left behind as he flees naked in the opposite direction.

But the power of the Passion is that even while this is taking place, even as the disciples are fleeing and this young man is running, naked, away from Christ, even at that instant, Jesus Christ is pouring Himself out in love to suffer and die…so that they can come BACK!

Now that is why we never grow tired of coming here, every Palm Sunday, year after year, to listen to the account of the Passion of Jesus Christ! It is the central message of the Gospel and the incomprehensible, unfathomable mercy of God: that even knowing all along that we would sin and fall away from Him, even though we would sometimes move in the opposite direction of Christ, He pours Himself out in love for us anyway…so that, time and time again, we will come BACK!

I would suggest this Palm Sunday that God is calling all of us, more and more deeply within and perhaps even physically so, to come back. To come back to Christ, as He seeks to become the center of our life; to come back here to Jesus Christ in the Eucharist as He nourishes us and strengthens us in love.

This week, among all the other weeks of the year, is the time par excellence when God calls us to come back, and to come here to this Church. It is this week, the holiest week of the year, when we gather together to celebrate the Sacred Triduum:

God calls us this week to come back here, on Holy Thursday night to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, remembering anew that night before Christ died, when He gave to His disciples—and to us—His sacred body and blood in the Eucharist.

God calls us to come back here, on Good Friday, to recall our Lord’s cross and the price He paid for our salvation.

God calls us back here, for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, when two members of our parish will be baptized and receive that baptismal garment for the first time; others will receive their first Eucharist and become fully initiated in the Catholic faith through Confirmation. God calls us back to celebrate these great mysteries, and to renew our own baptismal promises once again, just as we do every Easter.

God is calling each of us back, to be united more closely to Jesus Christ than ever before, because He is the One who poured Himself out in love for us all, so that we could draw close to Him and remain with Him forever.