The year was 1974 and I was one of 3000 people attending a Catholic Conference in Rutherford, New Jersey. The conference began on Friday night and ended with a mass at noon on Palm Sunday. The conference began with a powerful presence of God and each day that presence was greater than the prior day. On Palm Sunday the closing mass included approximately 50 priests in the entrance procession. Those in the entrance procession and all in attendance were waving their palms greeting the presence of Christ while singing “The King of Glory Comes, the nation rejoices.” Everyone there was greeting Jesus; we had captured the essence of early Jerusalem greeting Jesus – Hosanna in the highest- the king of glory was among us.
I cannot listen to the readings of Palm Sunday or attend a mass on Palm Sunday without remembering that day. It wasn’t the physical beauty of such a large procession or the intensity of worship that remains with me as a vivid memory. What remains with me was how Jesus comes meekly into our lives and invites us to open ourselves to receive forgiveness. The scriptures tell us God does not “… delight in sacrifice but…in a contrite heart” (Psa. 51). The memory I have has nothing to do with the visuals that day. The memory of that day reminds me and all of us how God responds to us when we give him our hearts not our attempts to get his attention.
The song, the king of glory comes, has a line that says “open the gates before him.” The scriptures are full of this image of gates and doors. Jesus tells us he is the sheep gate and we must go through him to father. Jesus tells us that he stands at the door and knocks and if we open he will come in and dine with us. The psalmist says “lift up the gates that the king of glory may come in.”
How do we open the gates of our hearts so we can allow the full meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to free us to sing his praises? In 1974 I was having a hard time doing just that and never realized it until that day. I was at that time living a lie that told me I was fully engaged in my relationship with God. Those people in Jerusalem were engaged as they shouted hosanna.
I now understand that this is the state of most of us. We are engaged in spiritual growth programs, in bible studies, in meeting with others to learn kerygma or doctrines of our faith and we are engaged in various methods of prayer. We are engaged in so many spiritual activities but are our hearts open. Have we allowed Jesus and the Holy Spirit to show us the way to the Father?
Jesus, as he enters triumphant into Jerusalem, was on the first steps of his journey to Calvary. We get to that step easily enough. We get to the joyful journey easily enough and we feel great about ourselves because we are in the presence of Christ and with others who worship him. We like Peter at the transfiguration want to remain there for it is a wonderful and powerful place where God is present to us. However, like Peter we must leave that place and continue the journey.
Jesus on that day was on a journey to die for the sins of each of us. Here is something I learned that day in Rutherford and it was obvious I was journeying but it was not a journey of becoming a new creation. It was simply a journey of becoming a better person. It is not a bad thing to strive to become a better person. If everyone did that we would all become better spouses, parents, friends, employees, employers and citizens. Jesus did not die for us to be better persons; he died so we would live in the kingdom of God as heirs to the kingdom.
So today we will attend a Palm Sunday mass and I am not certain how engaged everyone around you will be. But I invite you to do something more than holding a palm and sing the opening song.
I encourage you to close your eyes and while holding that palm imagine Jesus before you and wave that palm at him to get his attention. Imagine him looking at you and as he does simply say Lord show me the meaning of this day and that day on Calvary. As he continues to look at you say “Lord I do want to know you and the power flowing from your resurrection (Phil. 3:10).” Then in your mind sing your praise to the king of kings. Sing, “…the king of glory come the nations rejoice open the gates before him lift up your voices. Who is this king of glory, how shall we call him. He is Emmanuel the promise of ages.” Then offer him your heart.