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Philippians 4:4-9 ~ John 12:1-18
In the Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul sets the theme for Palm Sunday: “Rejoice in the Lord always! . . . The Lord is near.”
This weekend is a time of rejoicing, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. The forty days of Great Lent are past; the days of the Lord’s Passion are yet to come. And the most joyful feast of all, our Pascha, the holy and glorious Resurrection of the Lord from the dead, is still a week away.
This weekend gives us a preview of Pascha. Yesterday we celebrated Lazarus Saturday. When Jesus raises Lazarus, the friend whom He loves, from the dead after he has been in his tomb for four days, we see a glimpse of Jesus’ own resurrection. He also tells His disciples that Lazarus’ sickness “does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Today, we see the partial fulfillment of those words, as the crowds of people in Jerusalem who heard about the raising of Lazarus joyfully welcome Jesus into the city, giving glory to God, and acclaiming Him as “He who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel.” In today’s Gospel reading, St. John tells us that they continued to testify about the glorious acts of Jesus, such as healing lepers, restoring sight to the blind and speech to the dumb, giving the paralyzed the ability to walk, and forgiving sins.
So today, two thousand years later, we also rejoice, remembering that joyful day when people greeted Jesus with branches of trees and with songs of triumph.
But how can we rejoice always? When we celebrate the triumphal entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem, we cannot escape the events coming in the next few days. The plot to arrest and condemn and kill Jesus is developing and will be brought to completion by the betrayal of Judas and the trial and torture and crucifixion of Jesus. Even though Jesus knew this, and willingly went through it for the sake of all humanity, because He also knew that afterwards His Resurrection and glorification would come, we find it hard to rejoice in these terrible events.
In our own time and our own lives, we also struggle to rejoice when we face trouble or even tragedy. Right now, the coronavirus pandemic grips the world. Experts tell us that many thousands of people could get sick and die, while many more will get sick and suffer, often dreadfully, before they recover.
People who are well worry about getting sick. We worry about spreading infection ourselves and about others who may spread infection. We worry about those who must put themselves in danger every day—medical workers, first responders, grocery and pharmacy workers, truck drivers, delivery persons, caregivers, and many others.
Some people fear for their physical, psychological, or even spiritual well-being when they cannot find respite or take refuge from their unsafe domestic environments. Millions of people who normally go to school, to work, to the market, to visit friends and family, are confined at home, wondering when the isolation will end, when we can again greet one another with a kiss or an embrace, how we will pay our bills, how we will put food on our tables, when the sickness and fear will pass.
It is hard to rejoice at such a time. Things pile up and may even overwhelm us. Maybe we cannot see how to go on, cannot know what to think or to say or to do.
But we have to remember St. Paul’s encouraging words: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice! . . . The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Ultimately our joy is not about happiness, pleasure, success, and an easy time in this world. The people in Jerusalem didn’t greet Jesus singing, “Hooray! Here comes the one who will pay all our bills and make everyone healthy and solve our problems and make life sweet for us!” (Actually, they might have been thinking that, but Jesus made clear that was not why He came, saying, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”)
Looking ahead to Pascha, we realize that we must rejoice always because Jesus Christ, our Lord, God, and Savior, has already accomplished for us His greatest miracle: He rose from the dead, destroyed the power of death, and gave us eternal life in communion with the “God of peace who surpasses all understanding.”
We rejoice always and give thanks to God, who has given us everything—in this world and in the world to come. He loves us so much, even though we are sinners, that He gave us His only-begotten Son to take away our sins and bring us to everlasting life.
So, like the people of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, let us rejoice, waving branches from the trees and bushes in our own yards and neighborhoods, and let us sing, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
For God is with us by His grace and love for all people at all times, and we give thanks and praise and glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.
See the Lenten Reflections 2020 and Coronavirus sections in our Archives 2020, and Lenten Reflections: An Invitation to Write if you would like to write for this series between now and Pascha.
Father James Graham is the pastor of St Joseph Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Lansing MI. He holds a BA in English and American literature from Cowell College at the University of California in Santa Cruz, an MA in English from California State University in Sacramento, and an MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline MA and St. Gregory the Theologian Melkite Greek Catholic Seminary in Newton Center MA. From 2012 to 2019 he served as copy editor for SOPHIA, the journal of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, and has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.