The Prophetic Feast of Palm Sunday and the Mystery of the Cross

18 April 2022

‘The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing.’[1] Through today’s epistle reading, the immaculate Church announces that the time of our Lord’s salvation has arrived; that the time has come for the faithful to experience once more the incomprehensible mystery of the divine Economy.

During these holy days, we no longer make petitions to God. We only offer a prayer of gratitude, which, in its fervour, turns into a fiery prayer of repentance. Besides, what more could man ask when he sees God crucified? ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling.’ Now is the time to fall down on our knees and worship with reverence the mystery of the love and Passion of Christ, which begins today with His entrance into Jerusalem. It is the time to shut the doors of our senses, so that we may concentrate our mind in our heart and approach ‘with humility and reverence’[2] these eternal events.

If the world drowns us in its many cares, then the whole of Great Lent, and even more Holy Week, is granted to us as an anchor of hope, an anchor in heaven, as it provides us with the opportunity and privilege to turn our minds from things corruptible to things incorruptible, from things earthly to things heavenly, and to immerse ourselves in the mystery of the way of Christ. Through her services, hymns and readings, the Holy Church reveals this mystery to us in an exquisite manner and strengthens us to discern the way of the Lord, each one according to his own strength.

The way that Christ showed is a way of extreme self-emptying, as the Prophet foretold: ‘In His humiliation His judgment was lifted up.’[3] Christ revealed something unprecedented and incomprehensible to man – that evil should be overcome ‘with good’,[4] and this He accomplished by putting Himself below all creatures. The maliciousness of the devil conspired with the wickedness of men, who arrested and held in chains the Lord of the whole universe. Yet, He was already ‘bound’ by something stronger than iron fetters – by His ‘greater’ love. If in the Old Testament, love was ‘strong as death’,[5] then through His coming on earth Christ instituted the ‘all-attracting might’ of His love to the end, which is stronger than death.

The exhortation ‘be careful for nothing,’ is clearly evident in the tradition followed by the Church during these days. For example, from Lazarus Saturday to Thomas Sunday no memorial services are held for the departed. Also, in the service of Matins, we do not read from the Menaion the canons of the saints. The whole Church is focused only on the Person of Christ and the work of Christ’s Dispensation on earth, on His Cross and Resurrection.

Certainly, the epistle reading does not stop at the need to lay aside all earthly care. We must also refer to God our afflictions and the content of our heart ‘with thanksgiving’.[6] Now is the time to labour for Christian perfection and to offer God all those things that He deserves: ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise’.[7]

The feast of Palm Sunday has a mystical and symbolic character. It foreshadows the great and notable day when the Lord will come again with glory. It is in this perspective that some aspects of the feast are to be interpreted, which would otherwise remain hidden mysteries, such as the fact that Christ accepts to be glorified by the multitudes as King, although He knew that in a few days His humiliation and the Cross would follow. Consequently, the meaning of the Lord’s triumphal reception in Jerusalem will come to light in its entirety when the prophesied event is accomplished.

We notice that in the Old Testament, the word of God prophesies in detail the events of the life and works of Christ on earth. Thus, God’s word precedes His works. Likewise, in the New Testament, many events of the Lord’s life prophesy not only ‘His kingdom come with power’,[8] that is, the Church, but also His Second Coming.

The days of the Passion of the Lord Jesus must have been the darkest days mankind has ever lived. He Himself said when He was arrested: ‘This is your hour, and the power of darkness;’[9] this was the hour of war against God. For us, however, this is the hour of the greatest revelation of divine love, the hour that resounds in our hearts with the words: ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’[10] Thus, in a paradoxical way, although the days of the world-saving Passion of Christ are the darkest in human history, they are at the same time a saving light that declares the perfection of God’s love for man.

 The love revealed by Christ is the love that crucifies itself for man, who through sin had become the enemy of God. If we ask the question: ‘Who crucified the Lord finally?’, the answer is not so evident. Of course, He was crucified then and He is being crucified again and again by our sins, but one could argue that, though we do contribute, we are yet not the ones who actually crucified Him. Pilate was instrumental in the carrying out of the crucifixion, but we find out from the Gospel that he himself did not want Christ to be crucified and declined responsibility for His condemnation: ‘He took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person.’[11] The chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees prompted the crucifixion and contributed to it. Yet, they could not crucify Christ themselves, because their law forbade the death sentence. Judas betrayed Him but repented and put a miserable end to his life. The soldiers hung Him on the Cross blaspheming Him. However, they did not know what they were doing, which is why the Lord Himself prayed to the Father: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’[12] The devil wanted but did not have the power to slay the blameless Lord, if God did not allow it. He has power, but no authority, as we see in the case of Job, where God told the evil spirit who wanted to destroy His faithful servant: ‘Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.’[13]

Consequently, we see that in the case of the Lord, some did not know, some did not want, some were not allowed to slay Him. Who, then, put Christ to death? His crucifiers were indeed the wickedness and the sin of men, the malice and deceitfulness of the devil, but not only. It is the love of God itself that consented to be crucified. The Providence of God allowed such circumstances so that Christ might continue in His sacrifice to the end. And this is a very subtle point in our faith. God the Father delivers His Son to be crucified; the Son willingly accepts to be crucified; through the Cross and Resurrection, the Holy Spirit comes into the world and triumphs. We could say that the Father is the crucifying love; the Lord Jesus is the crucified love, while the Holy Spirit is the triumphant love. We see then, that the crucifixion of Christ occurred out the infinite love of God, which He hid in the wickedness of the fallen world and in death.

The Lord took upon Himself the death of man with the words: ‘For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.’[14] Through sin and the fall, man separated himself from God, obstructing his way to divine love with a barrier, which he was unable to break on his own. According to the Fathers, God Himself abolished this barrier with the righteousness of His judgment. The righteousness of God always precedes His omnipotence.

As St Gregory Palamas observes, the pre-eternal, incomprehensible and almighty Word of God was able, of course, to save man by a single movement, without being incarnate. Nevertheless, this was the most suitable way for our nature and infirmity, as well as the most appropriate for the saving God, because He has justice on His side.

Indeed, man was justly forsaken by God, since he first forsook Him and willingly ran towards the devil, the originator of evil, and trusted in him who deceitfully counsels what is contrary to God. Therefore, man was rightfully delivered to the enemy. Through the fear of the evil one, and by a righteous concession of the good God, death was brought into the world. And by the exceeding wickedness of the ancient evil one, death doubled, for by the action of the enemy not only physical death takes place, but eternal death follows as well.

Since therefore man was justly delivered to the bondage of the enemy and became mortal, his return to freedom and life also had to be performed with righteousness. God wanted the devil to be defeated first by divine justice, which he is constantly fighting against, and then by the power of His Resurrection and future judgment. God therefore omitted that which He was able to do from the beginning, in order to do first that which He had to accomplish.

But how did this happen in practice? The Second Person of the Holy Trinity came to earth. He became man and united those things that were divided. Christ assumed human nature in a sinless way. His conception was of the Holy Ghost; it was not preceded by pleasure. As a consequence, His death was unjustified, for death is the offspring of sin, which we all inherit when we come into this world. Moreover, His death was unjust because His whole life on earth was sinless. According to the prophetic word, before He even knew evil, the child Christ had already opted with unfailing determination for good.[15]

The Lord fulfilled ‘all righteousness,’ kept every commandment, and therefore the enemy had no hold on Him. As Christ Himself said: ‘For the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.’[16]

For this reason, through His death, the Lord abolished the power of death and its dominion over the human race. He used His holy and spotless Flesh ‘as a bait to hook the serpent, the originator of sin’.[17] The enemy clothed himself in the form of the serpent to deceive man, and now the Word of God put on human nature to deceive the deceiver devil.[18] He gave His Holy Blood as a ransom. On the Cross, He tore the handwriting of man’s transgressions and delivered him from the tyranny of the devil.[19] He rendered innocent those who bury themselves with Him in Holy Baptism.

God is perfect, and that which characterises His love is the perfection revealed on the Cross. For this reason, the Cross becomes the point where the love of God and the love of man are perfectly united. According to St Sophrony, the Cross ‘is the place and time where our created existence is united with the uncreated divine existence’. Through the crucifixion of the Lord, the word of the Psalm is fulfilled: ‘Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.’[20]

The only time in the history of mankind that truth has sprung out of this earth ‘that lieth in wickedness’,[21] in falsehood and corruption, was when Christ was lifted up on the Cross. This was the moment when divine righteousness appeared to the world. Not the justice which judges and punishes, but the justice that judges evil and has mercy on man.

The blameless righteousness of God, who freely imparts mercy to sinful man, looked down to the earth and His wondrous peace was made manifest, which guards the heart and mind of man ‘in Christ Jesus’.[22] This is why Prophet Zechariah says: ‘Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt,’[23] ‘He is not coming as a punisher, but as a redeemer.’ The Cross of the Lord is a fearful judgment. Awe overwhelms us, as our measure is very meagre and we cannot accommodate the love of God, which ‘casteth out fear’.[24]

Saint Gregory Palamas comments in his homily on Holy Saturday that: ‘If He [Christ] had not taken flesh and endured the Passion while we were still ungodly, we should not have desisted from the pride… Now that we have been exalted without contributing anything, we stay humble… and from humility comes salvation.’[25] In other words, if Christ had not endured incomprehensible sufferings, while we were fallen and godless, we could never have overcome the passion of pride. Yet, seeing now Christ suffering and being mocked by those for whom He died, we are driven to ever greater depths of humility. And humility is the key, which even at the eleventh hour, a few days before Easter, can open our hearts so that the Lord can enter triumphantly therein.

Christ came into the universe to fulfil the will of the heavenly Father for the salvation of the world: ‘Lo, I come to do Thy will, O my God.’ By His earthly Cross, the Lord revealed to the world the great mystery of divine love.

In Saint John’s Gospel, a few verses after the description of the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that is, as soon as Christ entered the place where He would be sacrificed, He said: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’[26]

The grain was Christ Himself, the divine seed and this word was verified at His crucifixion, when the heavenly seed began to bear fruit.

What were the first fruits? First, the thief on the right hand, whose heart was transformed at the sight of the blameless Christ suffering unjustly while praying for those who crucified Him. The thief was a savage and ferocious man and he probably had committed brutal crimes. Yet in an instant, his soul underwent a good transformation: he reproached himself, saying, ‘We indeed [are punished] justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.’[27] Self-reproach opened his mind, and he immediately began to theologise. He confessed that the man who hung beside him like a malefactor was the King of all, and announced prophetically that He would come again, praying: ‘Remember me, Lord, when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.’[28] How did this malefactor, who had never heard the teaching of Christ, know that after the Cross, Christ would come into the heavenly Kingdom? How did he know that Christ would come again? How did he know that Christ had the power to receive his soul? It is clear that this knowledge was the work of God in his heart.

Another fruit was the pagan centurion who saw Christ crying out as He gave up the ghost: ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.’[29] Such a sight converted the centurion who confessed: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.’[30] Also, frightened by the terrible events, the disciples had deserted the Lord and scattered, but then straightway gathered again around the empty tomb. Joseph, who had hitherto been afraid to confess his faith and reveal that he was a disciple of Christ, suddenly acquired such boldness as to present himself before Pilate and crave for the dead body of this Stranger, Christ.

Surely, the greatest fruit of the Cross was the coming of the Holy Spirit, abundantly poured out on the face of the earth and established in the hearts of the faithful.

Who would be able to number the fruits of the Cross in the centuries that followed?

The mystery of the Cross and the fruits it bears have been at work unceasingly throughout the long centuries of Christianity and will remain at work until the end of the world. In fact, it is not excluded that, as the last days draw nigh, this mystery will act with even greater power. The persecutions will be greater, temptations will arise from every side, life will become harsher and harsher, and the enemies of the Cross will be more vicious. However, the grace that pours forth from the Cross will also superabound ‘still and still’.

It is not by chance that the Book of Revelation describes a scene that closely resembles the feast of Palm Sunday. The evangelist John sees the souls of the righteous as an innumerable multitude from all the tribes of the earth, gathered before the throne of the Lamb-Christ, clothed in white robes, carrying palm branches in their hands and crying out: ‘Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.’[31] While at the same time, terrified by the dreadful signs and calamities, the mighty of the earth and the wise of this world ‘say to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”‘[32]

When John asked who were those arrayed in white robes, and whence they came, the answer he received was: ‘These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’[33] Which great tribulation could this be? The great tribulation consists of the struggle to keep the commandments of Christ in this fallen world. Those who constrain themselves to ‘keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ’,[34] inevitably undergo suffering in this life. These are they ‘which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.’ [35] They walked the path of Christ and ‘they loved not their lives unto the death.’[36]

In the Old Testament, kings were hailed with palm branches. It is also with palm branches that the faithful render glory and honour to Christ, the eternal King. The souls of the righteous washed their robes white in the Blood of the Lamb because only by the Blood of Christ could man make the garment of his soul white again. Even if there were men willing to offer themselves as a whole burnt offering to God, their sacrifice would not be pure, because they would still bear the defilement of sin within them. Whereas the sacrifice of Christ was perfect thanksgiving to God the Father, because the Lord Himself was sinless.

Isaiah prophetically saw Christ as a wound that could not be bound: ‘From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.’[37] The Lord became for us an ‘man of sorrows’ and a ‘suffering servant’. ‘Every member of His holy body endured dishonour for our sakes.’[38]

The hymns of the Church during Holy Week describe what the Body of the Lord endured. But what human language could describe the heart of Christ? What human mind would dare to enter the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, and behold what was taking place in the blameless heart of the Lord during His Passion and on the Cross?

Holy Scripture and hymns give us an opportunity to approach, even a little, the state of the Lord during His Passion. In the Gospels, no detailed description is given, but the main events at the crucifixion are mentioned; the fact that the Lord thirsted, the words He spoke, how He delivered His Spirit, the darkness and the terrible signs that followed. Yet, in the twenty-second Psalm of David, which is messianic and refers to the Passion of Christ, we are given a glimpse of the state of His holy soul. ‘I am a worm, and no man… my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’[39]

Christ bore the knowledge of God the Father within, and no one could take it away from Him, even during His last Passion. This is why He confessed to the disciples: ‘Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.’[40] He knew that He was fulfilling the will of the Father, and yet His kenosis was perfect. He reached the climax of self-emptying when, hanging on the Cross, He cried out: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’[41]

The abandonment of Christ was real and He endured it in our place. That is why the cross of no other earthly mortal can compare to His Cross. Saint Sophrony states that the human mind is unable to grasp what Christ meant when He said, ‘It is accomplished,’ nor can it go beyond these words. However, from the lives of the saints, we know that godforsakenness often comes at times of extreme tension in keeping the commandments, and this is why he who endures it, lives it as a bitter cup and a true crucifixion.

Christ ascended to the Cross with the whole Adam in His heart. It is very telling that the last two events before the Passion, whichthe Lord took with Him, as it were, as He was walking towards Golgotha, were the resurrection of Lazarus and the conversion of the harlot who anointed His feet with myrrh, that is, man’s physical death, which is a consequence of sin, and the spiritual death brought about by immoral life. It is again with the whole Adam in His heart, that the Lord descended into hell; with the whole Adam, He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven.

The resurrection of Lazarus is a prophecy, pattern and symbol of the Common Resurrection on the Last Day, just as Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem is a pattern of the glorious appearing of the Lord Jesus.

As Christ entered Jerusalem meek, humble, just and saving, so He enters our lives without observation; without intimidating us or violating our freedom. Which of us though, has a pure heart, so that he may come to meet Him with the sincerity of an innocent child, saying: ‘Hosanna, blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord’? If we examine our lives, we find that we have offered the Lord a ‘bitter cup’, a cup of disobedience, ingratitude, negligence, apostasy.

However, even if this realisation is true, we should not despair. We must always remember the example of the great Peter. His fall, when he denied the Master, was terrible, but he did not give in to despair. ‘He went out and wept bitterly.’[42] And he had never been closer to the Lord than after those bitter tears. Before, there was always something that separated him from the Master. When for example he said: ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I,’[43] this ‘I’ rose as a barrier between him and Christ.

It is not enough for us to hold a palm branch in our hands and sing the hymns of the Church. The way for us to become contemporaries of these eternal events is through our bitter tears, which will unite us with Him Who drank the bitter cup for our sake. If we offer our bitter tears, then all our temptations and even our trials become for us opportunities of return to the current of the divine will, because in His goodness the Lord accepts our painful repentance and makes the mystery of the Cross active in our lives. Our tears are thus turned into the raiment that will allow us to enter the Bridechamber of Christ.

We enter Holy Week with the humble supplication that the Bridegroom Christ may come and build His dwelling place in our hearts. And if our love for Him is lacking and we are too ashamed to cry aloud the triumphant hymn, ‘Hosanna, blessed is He that cometh’, we can at least say: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Who hath come into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief.’

[1] Phil. 4:5-6.
[2] See Heb. 12:28.
[3] Cf. Isa. 53:8.
[4] Rom. 12:21.
[5] S. of S. 8:6.
[6] Phil. 4:6.
[7] Phil. 4:8.
[8] Cf. Mark 9:1.
[9] Luke 22:53.
[10] John 3:16.
[11] Matt. 27:24.
[12] Luke 23:34.
[13] Job 1:12.
[14] John 17:19.
[15] See Isa. 7:16.
[16] John 14:30.
[17] Saint Gregory Palamas, Homily Sixteen, ‘About the Dispensation According to the Flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ in Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, trans. Christopher Veniamin, (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), 23, p. 125.
[18] See ibid., 27, p. 127.
[19] See ibid., 31, p. 129.
[20] Ps. 85:10-11.
[21] Cf. 1 John 5:19.
[22] Cf. Phil. 4:7.
[23] Cf. Zech. 9:9; John 12:15.
[24] 1 John 4:18.
[25] Saint Gregory Palamas, op. cit.,18, p. 123.
[26] Cf. John 12:24.
[27] Luke 23:41.
[28] Luke 23:42.
[29] Luke 23:46.
[30] Mark 15:39.
[31] Cf. Rev. 7:9-10.
[32] Rev. 6:16.
[33] Rev. 7:14.
[34] Cf. 1 Tim. 6:14.
[35] Rev. 14:4.
[36] Rev. 12:11.
[37] Isa. 1:6.
[38] Matins of Holy Friday, Lauds, Stichera Idiomela.
[39] Ps. 22:6, 14.
[40] John 16:32.
[41] Matt. 27:46.
[42] Matt. 26:75.
[43] Mark 14:29.