Benedict XVI's Palm Sunday Homily
"The Cross Is Part of the Ascent Toward the Height of Jesus Christ"
| 7735 hits
* * *
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Dear Young People!
The Gospel for the blessing of the palms that we have listened to together here in St. Peter's Square begins with the phrase: "Jesus went ahead of everyone going up to Jerusalem" (Luke 19:28). Immediately at the beginning of the liturgy this day, the Church anticipates her response to the Gospel, saying, "Let us follow the Lord." With that the theme of Palm Sunday is clearly expressed. It is about following. Being Christian means seeing the way of Jesus Christ as the right way of being human -- as that way that leads to the goal, to a humanity that is fully realized and authentic. In a special way, I would like to repeat to all the young men and women, on this 25th World Youth Day, that being Christian is a journey, or better: It is a pilgrimage, it is a going with Jesus Christ. A going in that direction that he has pointed out to us and is pointing out to us.
But what direction are we talking about? How do we find it? The line from our Gospel offers two indications in this connection. In the first place it says that it is a matter of an ascent. This has in the first place a very literal meaning. Jericho, where the last stage of Jesus's pilgrimage began, is 250 meters below sea-level while Jerusalem -- the goal of the journey -- is 740-780 meters above sea level: an ascent of almost 1,000 meters. But this external rout is above all an image of the interior movement of existence, which occurs in the following of Christ: It is an ascent to the true height of being human. Man can choose an easy path and avoid all toil. He can also descend to what is lower. He can sink into lies and dishonesty. Jesus goes ahead of us, and he goes up to what is above. He leads us to what is great, pure, he leads us to the healthy air of the heights: to life according to truth; to the courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip of dominant opinions; to the patience that stands up for and supports the other. He leads us to availability to the suffering, to the abandoned; to the loyalty that stands with the other even when the situation makes it difficult.
He leads us to availability to bring help; to the goodness that does not let itself be disarmed not even by ingratitude. He leads us to love -- he leads us to God.
"Jesus went ahead of everyone going up to Jerusalem." If we read these words of the Gospel in the context of Jesus' way as a whole -- a way that, in fact, he travels to the end of time -- we can discover different meanings in the indication of "Jerusalem" as the goal. Naturally, first of all it must be simply understood as the place "Jerusalem:" It is the city in which one found God's Temple, the oneness of which was supposed to allude to the oneness of God himself. This place thus announces in the first place two things: On the one hand it says that there is only one God in all the world, who is completely beyond all our places and times; he is that God to whom all creation belongs. He is the God whom deep down all men seek and whom they all have knowledge of in some way. But this God has given himself a name. He has made himself known to us, he has launched a history with men; he chose a man -- Abram -- as the beginning of this history. The infinite God is at the same time the God who is near. He, who cannot be enclosed in any building, nevertheless wants to live among us, be completely with us.
If Jesus goes up to Jerusalem together with Israel on pilgrimage, he goes there to celebrate the Passover with Israel: the memorial of Israel's liberation -- a memorial that is always at the same time hope for the definitive liberation that God will give. And Jesus goes to this feast with the awareness that he himself is the Lamb spoken of in the Book of Exodus: a male lamb without blemish, which at twilight will be slaughtered before all of Israel "as a perpetual institution" (cf. Exodus 12:5-6, 14). And in the end Jesus knows that his way goes beyond this: It will not end in the cross. He knows that his way will tear away the veil between this world and God's world; that he will ascend to the throne of God and reconcile God and man in his body. He knows that his risen body will be the new sacrifice and the new Temple; that around him in the ranks of the angels and saints there will be formed the new Jerusalem that is in heaven and nevertheless also on earth. His way leads beyond the summit of the Temple mount to the height of God himself: This is the great ascent to which he calls all of us. He always remains with us on earth and has always already arrived [in heaven] with God; he leads us on earth and beyond the earth.
Thus in the breadth of Jesus' ascent the dimensions of our following of him become visible -- the goal to which he wants to lead us: to the heights of God, to communion with God, to being-with-God. This is the true goal, and communion with him is the way. Communion with Christ is being on a journey, a permanent ascent to the true height of our calling. Journeying together with Jesus is always at the same time a traveling together in the "we" of those who want to follow him. It brings us into this community. Because this journey to true life, to being men conformed to the model of the Son of God Jesus Christ is beyond our powers, this journeying is also always a state of being carried. We find ourselves, so to speak, in a "roped party"  with Jesus Christ -- together with him in the ascent to the heights of God. He pulls us and supports us. Letting oneself be part of a roped party is part of following Christ; we accept that we cannot do it on our own. The humble act of entering into the "we" of the Church is part of it -- holding on to the roped party, the responsibility of communion, not letting go of the rope because of our bullheadedness and conceit.
Humbly believing with the Church, like being bound together in a roped party ascending to God, is an essential condition for following Christ. Not acting as the owners of the Word of God, not chasing after a mistaken idea of emancipation -- this is also part of being together in the roped party. The humility of "being-with" is essential to the ascent. Letting the Lord take us by the hand through the sacraments is another part of it. We let ourselves be purified and strengthened by him, we let ourselves accept the discipline of the ascent, even if we are tired.
Finally, we must again say that the cross is part of the ascent toward the height of Jesus Christ, the ascent to the height of God. Just as in the affairs of this world great things cannot be done without renunciation and hard work (joy in great discoveries and joy in a true capacity for activity are linked to discipline, indeed, to the effort of learning) so also the way to life itself, to the realization of one's own humanity is linked to him who climbed to the height of God through the cross. In the final analysis, the cross is the expression of that which is meant by love: Only he who loses himself will find himself.
Let us summarize: Following Christ demands as a first step the reawakening of the nostalgia for being authentically human and thus the reawakening for God. It then demands that one enter into the roped party of those who climb, into the communion of the Church. In the "we" of the Church we enter into the communion with the "Thou" of Jesus Christ and therefore reach the way to God. Moreover, listening to and living Jesus Christ's word in faith, hope and love is also required. We are thus on the way to the definitive Jerusalem and already, from this point forward, we already find ourselves there in the communion of all God's saints.
Our pilgrimage in following Christ, then, is not directed toward any earthly city, but toward the new City of God that grows in the midst of this world. The pilgrimage to the earthly Jerusalem, nevertheless, can be something useful for us Christians for that greater voyage. I myself linked three meanings to my pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year. First, I thought that what St. John says at the beginning of his first letter could happen to us: That which we have heard, we can, in a certain way see and touch with our hands (cf. 1 John 1:1). Faith in Jesus Christ is not the invention of a fairy tale. It is founded on something that actually happened. We can, so to speak, contemplate and touch this historical event. It is moving to find oneself in Nazareth in the place where the angel appeared to Mary and transmitted the task of becoming Mother of the Redeemer to her. It is moving to be in Bethlehem in the place where the Word, made flesh, came to live among us; to put one's foot upon the holy ground where God wanted to make himself man and child.
It is moving to climb the steps up to Calvary to the place where Jesus died on the cross. And then standing before the empty tomb, praying there where his holy corpse lay and where on the third day the Resurrection occurred. Following the material paths of Jesus should help us to walk more joyously and with a new certainty along the interior paths that Jesus himself points out to us.
When we go to the Holy Land as pilgrims, we go there, however -- and this is the second aspect -- as messengers of peace too, with prayer for peace; with the firm invitation that everyone in that place (which bears the word "peace" in name), has everything possible so that it truly become a place of peace. Thus this pilgrimage is at the same time -- as the third aspect -- an encouragement to Christians to remain in the country of their origin and to commit themselves in an intense way to peace.
Let us return once more to the liturgy of Palm Sunday. The prayer with which the palms are blessed we pray so that in communion with Christ we can bear the fruit of good works. Following a mistaken interpretation of St. Paul, there has repeatedly developed over the course of history and today too, the opinion that good works are not part of being Christian, in any case they would not be significant for man's salvation. But if Paul says that works cannot justify man, he does not intend by this to oppose the importance of right action and, if he speaks of the end of the Law, he does not declare the Ten Commandments obsolete and irrelevant. It is not necessary at the moment to reflect on the whole question that the Apostle was concerned with. It is important to stress that by the term "Law" he does not mean the Ten Commandments, but the complex way of life by which Israel had to protect itself against paganism. Now, however, Christ has brought God to the pagans. This form of distinction was not to be imposed upon them.
Christ alone was given to them as Law. But this means the love of God and neighbor and all that pertains to it. The Ten Commandments read in a new and deeper way beginning with Christ are part of this love. These commandments are nothing other than the basic rules of true love: first of all and as fundamental principle, the worship of God, the primacy of God, which the first three commandments express. They tell us: Without God nothing comes out right. Who this God is and how he is, we know from the person of Jesus Christ. The sanctity of the family follows (fourth commandment), holiness of life (fifth commandment), the ordering of matrimony (sixth commandment), the regulation of society (seventh commandment) and finally the inviolability of the truth (eighth commandment). All of this is of maximum relevance today and precisely also in St. Paul's sense -- if we read all of his letters. "Bear fruit with good works:" At the beginning of Holy Week we pray to the Lord to grant all of us this fruit more and more.
At the end of the Gospel for the blessing of the palms we hear the acclamation with which the pilgrims greet Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem. They are the words of Psalm 118 (117), that originally the priests proclaimed to the pilgrims from the Holy City but that, after a period, became an expression of messianic hope: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (Psalm 118:26; Luke 19:38). The pilgrims see in Jesus the one whom they have waited for, who comes in the name of the Lord, indeed, according to the St. Luke's Gospel, they insert another word: "Blessed is he who comes, the king, in the name of the Lord."
And they follow this with an acclamation that recalls the message of the angels at Christmas, but they modify it in a way that gives pause. The angels had spoken of the glory of God in the highest heavens and of peace on earth for men of divine goodwill. The pilgrims at the entrance to the Holy City say: "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!" They know well that there is no peace on earth. And they know that the place of peace is in heaven. Thus this acclamation is an expression of a profound suffering and it is also a prayer of hope: May he who comes in the name of the Lord bring to earth what is in heaven. The Church, before the Eucharistic consecration, sings the words of the Psalm with which Jesus is greeted before his entrance into the Holy City: It greets Jesus as the King who, coming from God, enters in our midst in God's name.
Today too this joyous greeting is always supplication and hope. Let us pray to the Lord that he bring heaven to us: God's glory and peace among men. We understand such a greeting in the spirit of the request of the Our Father: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!" We know that heaven is heaven, a place of glory and peace, because there the will of God rules completely. And we know that earth is not heaven until the will of God is accomplished on it. So we greet Jesus, who comes from heaven and we pray to him to help us know and do God's will. May the royalty of God enter into the world and in this way it be filled with the splendor of peace. Amen.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
--- --- ---
 The Pope is using a mountaineering metaphor here. Groups of climbers often rope themselves together when they scale mountainsides. This is the meaning of a "roped party." The Italian word is "cordata."