Palm Sunday in Isolation

(Here are some words from contributor Father Mario Attard from Malta. We post these for the spiritual value in the advice he offers, not least for those ‘quarantined’ and isolated against their will. Our own opinion is that the enforced isolation of the healthy is itself unhealthy, with widespread deleterious social and spiritual consequences, and one need not look far to see evidence of such. But if one must suffer, at the very least one can ‘offer it up’, not least during Holy Week. As Blaise Pascal put it, many of the world’s problems could be solved by having everyone spend half an hour in a room alone. How many consciences might be awakened by such self-reflection? Who knows, so many more might begin to see reality as it really is...)

This Palm Sunday of 2022 is rather special for me. Since two of my brothers had covid-19 I am now in a mandatory quarantine for health reasons.

It is not easy to be in quarantine when Pope Francis visited our Island from 2 till 3 April 2022. Neither is it nice to be placed under quarantine if another member of your community tests positive for Covid-19 during the first quarantine period. But, if things go this way, there must be a reason why the Lord has allowed this to happen.

After celebrating today’s Palm Sunday within a fraternity of five friars and one in self-isolation in his room I can see God’s merciful love for all of you. Even if we are in quarantine I could feel the particularity of this day. We celebrated our Eucharistic celebration in an empty church. Nevertheless, in that silence, I could feel with me not simply our Marsa parish but also the entire universal church. I was very much encouraged by the introduction of the main celebrant who not merely illustrated to us the mystery of the Solemnity of Holy Week but also heartily encouraged us to be fully participants in its celebration so that we too can partake from its everlasting fruits. After all, authentic worship to the Lord is self-revelatory.

Dear friends in Christ, for five weeks of Lent we have been preparing, by works of charity and self-sacrifice, for the celebration of our Lord’s paschal mystery. Today we come together to begin this solemn celebration in union with the whole Church throughout the world. Christ entered in triumph into his own city, to complete his work as our Messiah: to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Let us remember with devotion this entry which began his saving work and follow him with a lively faith. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life.

The collect of the Mass of Palm Sunday presents to us God’s tender love for the human race shown in the sending of his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross. In so doing, Jesus gave us the example of his great humility. In this opening Mass prayer, we prayed to the Father to mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection.

In the first reading, taken from the Book of Isaiah 50:4-7, we notice that today’s reading was excerpted from the middle of the same book. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah has four poems which biblical studies term as songs of the suffering servant. In these poems the prophet reflects on the suffering of the servant as well as the price he had to pay for his YES to God. Even if originally the author thought of this servant as being an important figure for the people of Israel or a faithful group within the same people, the Church saw Jesus as fulfilling the Servant Songs by his life, passion and death.

The nature of this reading is certainly meditative, slow and personal. It made me enter into the Servant’s shoes. Upon listening to it I felt to challenge myself if I am always always faithful when I have to counter all sorts of difficulties, temptations and discouragement in my Franciscan Capuchin vocation.  so as to be interiorised in those who listen to it. But, as I heard the phrase towards the portion of this reading, The Lord God is my help all worries simply vanished. I remember proclaiming that sentence with strong determination knowing the Lord will be at my side any time I call his Name with filial trust.

The second reading, from the Letter to the Philippians 2:6-11, we have here Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, who is adapting an ancient church hymn. The content of this hymn is of superlative importance since it sings Jesus’ pre-existence, his incarnation, suffering and exaltation. The more I listened to this fabulous hymn the more I came to realise who Jesus is and the special mission he was sent to accomplish here on earth, namely to save us from sin and death. Thanks to this ancient song I got to realise that Jesus was eternally divine (in the form of God), nevertheless he emptied himself and became human like you and me, he remained faithful to his human condition by accepting to undergo its greatest weakness, namely death by his crucifixion. However, as he reached to his extreme human limits God reached out by exalting him, conferring unto him the greatest title in the entire universe. As one of the Christian faithful, I myself felt to acclaim him, with all creation, as Lord of all! It is simply amazing how the reading itself helped me to live this existential crescendo, by being part of every tongue in both heaven and earth, in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord!

 Aided by Psalm 22, the passion narrative according to Luke 22:14―23:56 made me think of how Jesus passed from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem to his tragic death. However, in that tragedy, where a betrayal and a threefold desertion of Jesus take place there is the element forgiveness, prayer and hope. On his cross Jesus prayed: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:3). This prayer in Luke is so central that later on it will be employed as a model in describing the killing of Jesus’s follower, Stephen, by the Jewish leaders (Acts 7:60).

The passion narrative by St Luke took me to that marvelous homily given by Pope Francis on Palm Sunday of 2014. It would be wise if we read it and meditate on it.

We have just heard many, many names. The group of leaders, some priests, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, who had decided to kill Jesus. They were waiting for the chance to arrest him. Am I like one of them?

 We have also heard another name: Judas. Thirty pieces of silver. Am I like Judas? We have heard other names too: the disciples who understand nothing, who fell asleep while the Lord was suffering. Has my life fallen asleep? Or am I like the disciples, who did not realize what it was to betray Jesus? Or like that other disciple, who wanted to settle everything with a sword? Am I like them? Am I like Judas, who feigns loved and then kisses the Master in order to hand him over, to betray him? Am I a traitor? Am I like those people in power who hastily summon a tribunal and seek false witnesses: am I like them? And when I do these things, if I do them, do I think that in this way I am saving the people?

 Am I like Pilate? When I see that the situation is difficult, do I wash my hands and dodge my responsibility, allowing people to be condemned – or condemning them myself?

 Am I like that crowd which was not sure whether they were at a religious meeting, a trial or a circus, and then chose Barabbas? For them it was all the same: it was more entertaining to humiliate Jesus.

 Am I like the soldiers who strike the Lord, spit on him, insult him, who find entertainment in humiliating him?

 Am I like the Cyrenean, who was returning from work, weary, yet was good enough to help the Lord carry his cross?

Am I like those who walked by the cross and mocked Jesus: “He was so courageous! Let him come down from the cross and then we will believe in him!”. Mocking Jesus….

 Am I like those fearless women, and like the mother of Jesus, who were there, and who suffered in silence?

 Am I like Joseph, the hidden disciple, who lovingly carries the body of Jesus to give it burial?

Am I like the two Marys, who remained at the Tomb, weeping and praying?

 Am I like those leaders who went the next day to Pilate and said, “Look, this man said that he was going to rise again. We cannot let another fraud take place!”, and who block life, who block the tomb, in order to maintain doctrine, lest life come forth?

 Where is my heart? Which of these persons am I like? May this question remain with us throughout the entire week.

 May this Palm Sunday fill us, me the first one, with a deep sense of sorrow and give us a great resolve of not offending Jesus and crucifying him by our sins! In this sense, the Palm Sunday of 2022, celebrated in quarantine, has been an immense gift to me by the Lord.

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.