Palm Sunday – “Shaken”

Homily for Palm Sunday 2023.

Two of the most difficult years in my life were my first two years studying to be a priest. Despite the opportunities for daily Mass and personal prayer, I never felt more distant from God in my life. I was discouraged and deeply confused by this. I thought things would be easier. I thought I’d be happier. I assumed that once I made the decision to follow God’s will, it would be smooth sailing from there. Instead, I found myself crossing a stormy sea, with no safe haven in sight. It felt like God had abandoned me, and I was almost ready to abandon him. 

That summer after second year I had the opportunity to go on an eight day silent retreat. I had been on retreats before, but they were never that silent or that long. Each day of the retreat we were asked to pray five times, each for an hour long. We were also asked to meet with a priest each day to discuss our prayer and receive guidance from him. I didn’t know what to expect from all this, but I had the sense that God was going to do something big in my life. I had the sense that, if I was open to it, I would leave these eight days a changed man.  

And this, brothers and sisters, is what God wants to do for us during these next eight days. Every year, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, we are invited to go on an eight day retreat with Jesus. We don’t have to leave our homes, our schools, or our workplaces to go on this retreat. The invitation is not to a change of venue, but to a change of heart. And if we are open to it, if we make time to participate in these holiest days of the Church’s year, we will leave this time of retreat changed. 

As a priest, I’ve never had the opportunity (or the challenge) to prepare a homily for each day of Holy Week. I’ve always been able to share that responsibility with another priest. But what I’d like to do this year is to focus on one word—just one word—for each day’s homily. Often, when you go on a retreat, there will be a theme for the retreat: either a theme for the retreat as a whole, or perhaps a theme for each day of the retreat. My hope is that each day’s word will give us something to reflect on as we journey together through Holy Week. 

The word for today, for Palm Sunday, appears twice in our readings: once in the Palm Sunday narrative we heard at the beginning of Mass, and once in the Passion Narrative we just heard a few minutes ago. It’s a single word in Greek, but it is translated using two different words. The word is “shaken” or “quaked.” When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the gospel says that “the whole city was shaken and asked, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds replied, ‘This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.’” 

This word is used for a second time in the Passion Narrative to describe what happened after Jesus died: “The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised…The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God!’” 

Interesting, we will hear this word used for a third time at the Easter Vigil to describe the event of the Resurrection. We will hear how the guards were “shaken” when Jesus rose from the dead and an angel came to announce the good news of the empty tomb.   

This word “shaken” or “quaked” is used only three times in the Gospel of Matthew: in the Palm Sunday Narrative, the Passion Narrative, and the Resurrection Narrative. And each time it’s used, it points to a change in people’s understanding of who Jesus is. When Jesus comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the people are shaken, and they identify Jesus as a prophet. When Jesus dies on the cross, the earth quaked, and the soldiers identify Jesus as the Son of God—or at least the Son of God in the past tense, “Truly this was the Son of God.” When Jesus rises from the dead, the guards are shaken, and an angel identifies Jesus, not in the past tense, but in the present: He is not dead, but alive; not a was, but an is! 

As we begin these eight days of Holy Week, as we enter this time of retreat, my challenge to all of us is to allow ourselves to be shaken. Allow the earth to quake, to shift beneath our feet. The events of Jesus Passion, Death, and Resurrection are meant to change us. And they will change us, if we are open to it. My own eight day retreat after my second year in seminary changed me. How it exactly it changed me, I’m not going to tell you. That’s my story. This week is your story; or, rather, it’s Jesus’ story—and if you let Him, He can change your story. He can bring light where there is darkness, new life where there is death. Amen.