“The Only Way Up Is Down”

Homily for Palm Sunday
March 24, 2024; St. Mary’s Cathedral


In keeping with the Church’s ancient tradition, we began our Mass today with a special ritual at the entrance of the church which involved a reading from the Gospel of St. Mark.  This is one of only two Masses in the entire year for which two Gospel readings are prescribed.

Fulfillment of Salvation History

The other one the Church celebrated a little less than two months ago.  Then, instead of the blessing and distribution of palm branches and the reading of the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, candles were lit and blessed and the Gospel reading proclaimed which brought to closure the Advent and Christmas cycle in the Church’s liturgical year.

I am referring, of course, to the feast day of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple.  That fortieth day after Christmas concludes the period in which the Church has us reflect back on the mystery of the Incarnation, and the next day turns our attention toward the upcoming Lent and Easter cycle, which is the very rationale for what she celebrates in the Advent and Christmas cycle.  That is, the feast of the Presentation underscores for us that God’s co-eternal Son was born under the Law and made himself subject to the Law.  He who is the Law-giver came to fulfill all that is contained in God’s Law of the Old Testament, the Law of Moses, and all that is in the Prophets: that is to say, all of the Jewish Scriptures. 

During this period in salvation history God was working out His plan of salvation for the human race: calling a people to Himself, making a Covenant with them, bringing them low when they wandered far from Him in order to win them back to Himself, giving them the Law so they might know how to live rightly in His presence, and sending them prophets to call them back to fidelity to that Covenant and to give them hope that He had something even greater in store for them.

Jesus, God’s Only-Begotten Son, literally embodies all of this for His people of old, and, indeed, for the entire human race.  This is the very purpose of the Incarnation: only God could rescue us from the eternal demise of sin and death caused by our corporate human disobedience, and so He had to take on a human body to do so because we human beings owed this debt back to Him.  So Jesus here fulfills all of the promises made to Israel and all of their aspirations; indeed, he even goes beyond them, working out this restoration to friendship with God and the gift of membership in God’s people and in His eternal Kingdom for all nations on the face of the earth, for all who profess faith in him and follow His way.

The Two-Fold Movement

Holy Week reminds us of what this entails.  What will unfold this week is already encapsulated in this liturgy of Palm Sunday: our Lord enters triumphantly into Jerusalem, only to be betrayed, condemned, and executed as the worst of criminals.  But then we know how it ends, as Holy Week will reach its culmination in the great Easter Vigil, spilling into the joy of Easter Sunday with the Lord’s glorious triumph over death.

We see here, then, a two-fold movement, captured in the great Christological hymn recounted by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians.  There is first the lowering: the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity lowers himself to descend from heaven and live among us in the dwelling of a human body, not clinging to any of his prerogatives as divine.  He even, as St. Paul tells us, takes on the form of a slave, making himself our servant, doing what is only in our interest and not his, so that we might know him and love him in this life and so live with him in perfect happiness forever in heaven. 

Even more, he lowers himself yet further, freely choosing to embrace death, he who is the deathless one.  And if that were not enough, he freely chooses to suffer the worst death of all: crucified as the most despicable of criminals.  This was the cruelest and most humiliating form of execution, reserved for the greatest enemies of the Roman empire and only for those who were not Roman citizens.  But then we see the counter movement.  Because of his obedience and acceptance of this death, God his Father exalts him above all creation.  He returns to his Father in glory, a glory in which he will give a share to all those who follow his pattern of obedient death to self.

This is the pattern he has left for us, his followers.  It is a pattern which can be summed up in what a wise bishop once told me: “the only way up is down.”  God exalts the humble, and this is the purpose of the season of Lent, and its most intensive time in this one week of the year which we call “Holy.”  Obedience unto death for us means death to sin, excising everything in our life which takes us away from God and separates us from God’s love.  That separation always comes down to some form of selfish indulgence, in one way or another.  Thus the logic of our penitential acts of self-denial during Lent, a recurring training camp in Christian discipleship, teaching us how to live humbly and wholeheartedly in God’s presence and sharing His love with others.


Let us then hasten with alacrity to the celebration of these days in which our salvation is fulfilled.  Let us make room for Christ in our hearts, so that his grace may make us capable of the happiness he wants us to have with him in heaven.  May it begin now it this life, and may it reach its perfection forever in the next.  And since the Church prays as she believes, it should come as no surprise that everything I’ve said here is summed up very succinctly in what we just prayed in the opening prayer for today’s Mass. 

May God grant us the grace to live every day the prayer of Palm Sunday: “Almighty ever-living God, who as an example of humility for the human race to follow caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross, graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering and so merit a share in his Resurrection.  Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.”  Amen.