The ceremony that you have just witnessed is at once a memorial and a symbol. As a memorial it carries the mind back to that faraway scene near the Holy City, which is so vividly pictured in the Gospel that has just been read. Our blessed Lord on His way from Jericho to Jerusalem comes to the little village of Bethphage, over the shoulder of the Mount of Olives. He sends two of His disciples into the village and directs them to bring Him an ass on which He is to make His entry into Jerusalem. This He does, as St. Matthew reminds us, that the prophecy may be fulfilled, which was foretold by the prophet: "Behold, thy King comes to thee meek, and sitting upon an ass."
There are with our blessed Lord, besides His disciples, a multitude of men. They followed Him as He came on His journey from Jericho, or have come out to meet Him from Jerusalem. Some spread thin garments on the path before Him. Others cut down the boughs of the palm tree and the olive that grow on the hillside, and strew them on the way. All join in the glad acclaim: "Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!"
Outwardly and to all human appearances this is a day of triumph for the lowly Galilean. Here is He who passed for the son of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, now openly hailed by His own countrymen as the Son of David, the long-wished-for Messias, the Expected of the nations, and Desire of the eternal hills. He comes, it should seem, to take peaceful possession of the throne of His Father, and to reign over a willing people in Jerusalem, the ancient seat of sovereign power, the chosen city of God.
One would need to be more than human not to feel that it is a great day, a day of exaltation and a day of joy. And He who draws near the city, He who comes, as was foretold by the prophet, meek, and sitting upon an ass, He, indeed, is more than human, more than the Son of David for whom the Jews own Him this day. He is the Son of God, the Son of the living God, who, "being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal to God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in fashion formed as a man." At this very moment, when the hosannas of a people are sounding in His ears, He knows that the time is near when He shall further humble Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.
He knows, for He is God, that some of the very men who are hailing Him Son of David, will, in a few days, be joining their voices with the rabble before the judgment seat of Pilate, and crying out: "Crucify Him, crucify Him." Hence, alone amid that jubilant multitude and surrounded by those tokens of triumph, He who is the object of all the acclaim, is grave and sad. We are told by another Evangelist that when He was now in sight of the city, He wept over it, saying: "Had thou known, and that in this thy day, the things that are for thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy sight."
Such, then, is the scene and such are the incidents which today's ceremony serves to recall to our minds. The scene is a touching one, and in its way typical. The multitude that confessed Christ on that day were like the great mass of those who have confessed Him in every age since then. Alas, for the fickleness of human nature! We see our own lives mirrored in the Gospel scene. One day we acclaim Christ our King, and the very next day, perhaps, we desert Him, and go over to the enemy, take up again the works and pomps of the devil which we renounced in baptism. We serve Him when we feel like it.We are fair-weather friends. We follow Him when we find it easy to do so. We are ready to work for Him and with Him when all goes well with us, and to shout hosannas, but we murmur when trials come upon us, and when we are called upon to share His Cross we shrink from the sacrifice.
Let us look at the symbolic meaning of today's ceremony. The branches with which the multitude strewed the way were cut from the palm and olive trees. The men who cut and strewed them simply meant to honor our Lord. They little thought, in all likelihood, that their action had a symbolic significance. Yet it is plain to us who look back on the scene that those branches bore a hidden meaning and were fitting emblems of Him who was making His solemn entry into the city of His fathers. For the oil of the olive tree is used in anointing, and Christ is the anointed of the Lord - anointed above His fellows with the oil of gladness. The olive, too, is the emblem of peace, and He who went by Bethany that day into the holy city is the Prince of peace, and the Giver of that peace which passes understanding. The palm, on the other hand, is the emblem of victory, and our Lord was on the eve of the great struggle in which He was to snatch from the very jaws of defeat the victory of victories - victory over death and the powers of darkness.
Today, then, in memory of those far-off events, we take the blessed palm and carry it to our homes. We, too, have been anointed with the oil of gladness, God's sweet grace, in baptism, and in the tribunal of penance have heard as from the lips of Christ Himself: "Go in peace; thy sins are forgiven thee."
We, too, as followers of Christ, must be girded for the battle, seeing that the life of man is a warfare upon the earth. Let us bear ourselves in the day of our trial as true soldiers of Christ. Let us fight the good fight that we may one day be found worthy to wear the crown - to join the great multitude of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, who stand before the throne of God and in sight of the Lamb, clothed in white robes and with palms in their hands.
Adapted from Plain Sermons by Practical Preachers, Vol. II(©1916)
Homily by Bishop Alexander MacDonald
Nihil Obstat: Remegius Lafort, S.T.D
Imprimatur: John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York