The Exaltation of Humility

PALM SUNDAY

Perhaps you find it odd that neither the Gospel nor the Epistle appointed for Palm Sunday recount the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. Curiously, the Palm Sunday gospel narrative is actually read on the very first Sunday of the Liturgical year: on the First Sunday in Advent. But as it pertains to today: why is this the case? One answer is found in better understanding the main purpose of the Sunday propers. The Sunday readings appointed for each Liturgical season are in part chosen to help better exegete, or explain and bring to light more clearly the meaning of a given season: a deeper understanding of the Advent of Christ or His Epiphany to the Gentiles. Or the season of Lent which explicates the suffering and passion of Christ and thereby giving Easter its fullest meaning. In other words, the Sunday readings are chosen to lead us into a deeper understanding of salvation history as it is retold throughout the cycle of the Liturgical year: the redemptive purpose of God accomplished in the person and work of Jesus Christ: the eternal Son of God given for the salvation of the world.

Now, history is important. Christianity is an historical faith; the story of redemption is played out in time and progressively unfolds by the hand of God; the highpoint of history being, of course, the incarnation: the birth of Christ; his life; passion; death; resurrection and ascension. Salvation is historical. The gift of memory recounts the wondrous works of God in time, the grand redemptive story and our own story of salvation with its baptismal beginning, our conversion from the world and into the family of God. We understand the consummation of salvation historically as well, tied to a future event when Christ will return in history to judge the living and the dead; the perfecting of all things, even our bodies and souls as we behold the face of Jesus and gaze forever upon Beauty in the eternal city: no longer betrothed but consummated and united with our beloved.

Salvation then is historical, with all its accompanying data, artifacts and events. But salvation isn’t merely historical, its personal. We are not saved by history… we are saved by the God of history who entered into time; being born of a virgin. Jesus: fully God and fully man. History, all of history points to Him and it is in Him that all of history is finally explained and understood.  Palm Sunday commemorates and retells the historic (actual day) that Jesus of Nazareth entered into Jerusalem to observe his final Passover. Now St. John, in his Gospel peaks of three Passover feasts celebrated by Jesus. The first return to Jerusalem for Passover, found in chapter two, links Jesus’ entry with the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-25). His second journey to observe the passover is connected to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in John chapter six, which begins,

"After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias. And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased. And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples. And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh. When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? (Jn 6:1-6).

And, of course, Jesus’ third and final entrance into Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’, recounts the Passover of his death and resurrection, which has become for us the very basis for the Christian celebration of Easter. With St. Paul we will in a weeks time rejoice: “Christ our sacrifice has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast!” (1 Cor 5:7-8). Here St. Paul exegetes history, both the history of Israel and the Gospel Christologically- through lens of Christ- and in doing so attains a fuller knowledge of Passover, of the death of Christ and his resurrection. Likewise, John the Baptist, in one succinct statement summarizes the meaning and purpose of the incarnation: "Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world.”  Christ, then, is the hermeneutical key unlocking not only Holy Scripture but history as well; history and all its data is ultimately interpreted  through the lens of Christ.

In a similar way, the readings appointed for this Sunday are the hermeneutical key given to uncover and explain what the history of Palm Sunday- Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem- is all about. Let us begin with the epistle, which is taken from the second chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. It is possibly one of the better known Pauline texts, which speaks of the kenosis, or the emptying and abasement of the eternal Son of God, who by the incarnation, became as we are. Describing the condescension of our Lord St. Paul writes,

"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men…” (2:5-9).

Paul says, Jesus “made himself of no reputation” which is also translated as “emptied himself”. Here, the Apostle reveals the mystery of the Gospel in the history of Christ’s humiliation: or the mind of Christ. And what was the ‘mind of Christ’? Humility; neither grasping or tightly holding onto his pre-existent form of God and all of its glory, but rather, to take upon his person the form of man, with all its weaknesses, frailties, and vulnerabilities. He did not deem His equality to God a prize to be seized, but emptied Himself. In other words, He did not insist on His own eternal prerogatives, but, on the contrary, humbled Himself to the condition and sufferings of mortal man.  He gladly released (emptied) of his heavenly status and embraced humility and being made low, willfully enduring pain and death on a Roman cross.

Paul continues, “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Now, it is not by accident that the the humility of which St. Paul speaks of is most vividly and viscerally illustrated in today’s appointed Gospel, the Narrative of our Lord’s Passion. You see, the ‘Mind of Christ’ must also have the ‘body of Christ’. The humility which the eternal mind willingly embraced is evidenced and fully demonstrated in his body: by his very words and by his very actions.

He was falsely accused and brought before Pontius Pilate, and our Lord "answered Him to never a word."  He maintained a dignified silence except when truth demanded words.  False accusers brought their many false accusations against Him, but it was as if He heard them not. Our Lord was patient when a robber and a murderer was preferred by the people to Himself, and when falsely condemned for blasphemy and treason, the highest offences against the powers of heaven and the powers of earth, he remained silent in humility: for indignation is human, silence is divine. He never once uttered a word of defense or begged for mercy from the religious leaders and people calling for his crucifixion. Not a finger did he lift in retaliation against those who whipped, scourged, and beat his body.

“And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull, they gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. And they crucified him.”

Humility in pain, refusing the cup of partial relief: under the abuse of the thieves, the cruel indifference of the passers-by, the bitter taunts of the priests, the felt desertion even of God.  He suffered in every way: emotionally, psychologically, and physically… Meek, lowly, humble unto the point of death.

The Son had no regard for Himself in retaining the glories of the Godhead; but He looked to the regard of others, and therefore descended to humanity and death. His heart was not so set upon holding onto pre-existent glory, for there was something which he coveted more—the redemption of a fallen world by His self-abasement and death. Having “this mind,” he descended and appeared not as a God in glory, but clothed in flesh; not in royal robes, but in common dress; not as Deity in fire, but a man in tears; not in a palace, but in a manger. … And in doing so has given us an example of self-denying humility and godly love.

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble (lowly) and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

He who comes in humility enters into Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. Lowly and in peace will he gladly ascend unto the cross of suffering and shame. He comes gently; not on a horse of war but meekly on a foal, for he is the prince of Peace and the author of salvation; salvation won not by the sword but self-denying love and humility: these are Messiah’s weapons. By his obedient death Christ has conquered death and removed its sting. We find then, that Palm Sunday is about the grace and mercy of Divine humility which St. Paul and St. Matthew’s writings evidence by retelling and reexamining the willful, historical death of our Lord. But humility is finally justified by exaltation.

“And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD, to the glory of God the Father.”

Friends, Humility was restored and exalted to the highest place of preeminence and glory. For He who was made a little lower than the angels; has been crowned with glory and honor… all things have been put in subjection under his feet. Thus was the humble, self-denying love of the Son rewarded for His exaltation was grounded upon His humiliation, and His mediatorial crown was the reward of His Cross. This we see forever enshrined in the name of Jesus. It is this name (Jesus), His human name, the token of His Humility and of His Passion, which is to be His name forever. He to whom worship has always been as the Son of God, now receives worship as the Son of Man, and it is specifically "at the name of Jesus that every knee should bow.” For peace and salvation has come through Him whom "God hath made both Lord and Christ, even this Jesus whom ye crucified." In Jesus, God's highest glory is not His divine power, but the power of His humble and self-denying love.

Christ is not only our savior but our example as well. St. Paul says, “Let this mind be in you…” In other words, be as Christ Jesus. Have the mind of Christ which is the way of humility; the way of dying to self; the way of the Cross. No one is exalted except by the Cross: humility, obedience, and love. To be in Christ is to be as Christ and if we are in Christ then we too shall be as he is, in fact, St. Paul says that even now we are, in some sense, exalted with our Lord,

“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus”

And how will God show the riches of his grace and kindness in the ages to come: in future ages beyond this age? Perhaps St. John was given a glimpse into the grace and kindness which awaits the humble. In the Revelation St. John writes,

"After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands." To one day obtain and behold the Lamb of God. Surely this is the grace and kindness of God that we will one day experience in the ages beyond this age. Amen.