April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

Psalm 118:1-4; 19-29                                                                                                                        


Can anyone tell me what day is March 13? What significant event happened on that day? This year, it marks the third anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope. On that day, in St Peter's square, thousands of devout Catholics gathered and waited faithfully in wet weather and cold temperature. They waited to get a glimpse of the new Pope for the very first time.

And when the Argentinian Cardinal was finally introduced as the new Pope, crowds swarmed outside of the metropolitan cathedral in Buenos Aries. They chanted and waved the Argentinian flags. On the steps of New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral, immigrants and tourists alike praised the news. At Mexico City’s Basilica of Guadalupe, the crowd was thrilled.[1]

A new Pope had arrived. The head of more than one billion Catholics had been elected. The hope for a renewal within the church was revived.

But, despite all the jubilation and celebration, questions lingered in many people’s minds: “Who is this man?” “What kind of Pope is he going to be?” “What kind of message is he going to deliver?” “Is he going to be a reformer of the church or is he going to be ‘business as usual’?”

Another celebration, filled with similar expectation and anxiety, occurred around two thousand years ago. But this celebration did not happen in St Peter’s Square; this celebration occurred near Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish spirituality and politics. A big crowd gathered on the road, down from Mount Olives to Jerusalem, waiting expectantly and anxiously for a man: Jesus of Nazareth. They had been waiting for a long time for someone like him to rule over them.

But nobody really knew who Jesus was and what his rule would be about. Only a few years ago, a King, Herod the Great, ruled Jerusalem. When he died, Archelaus, his son, returned to Jerusalem and replaced him as the king.  Archelaus ruled with great cruelty and his reign of terror lasted for 10 years until he was deposed by the Roman Empire in 6 CE.[2]

The crowd who gathered on the road to Jerusalem, to welcome Jesus as their King, must have still remembered Archelaus’ reign of terror. “Will Jesus be different?” some people in the crowd must have asked to themselves and one another. “Or will he be the same: a ruler who would abuse his power and have no regards whatsoever for his subject’s life and wellbeing?” “Who is he really?”

The first sign of what kind of ruler Jesus was could be seen from the animal he rode. Jesus came with a colt, not a warhorse. Unlike the ancient rulers who often entered the city they conquered riding on a warhorse, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt: an animal not suitable for battles. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel, however, pointed out that this gesture was the fulfilment of Zachariah’s prophecy about the Messiah - the one who would liberate the people of Israel. Zachariah prophesied that the Messiah would come into Jerusalem “triumphantly and victoriously”, but also “humbly, riding on a donkey”.[3]

Indeed, Jesus was accompanied not with soldiers, but a with large crowd of ordinary people, including his followers. Jesus would not become an arrogant king who would rule with violence. His kingdom would be marked not with cruelty, but with humility. His reign would not be a reign of terror, but of peace.

Jesus is a servant king. Later on, in Jerusalem, on the night when he was betrayed and arrested, he said to his disciples,

“... the greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant....
I am among you as the one who serves....”[4]

The writer of the Gospel of John even told us how Jesus acted his message of servant-hood by taking the role of a slave/servant and washed his disciples’ dirty feet.[5]

Friends, somehow I can hear Jesus’ voice of humility and service in the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Pope. The lingering uncertainties in many people’s minds about him have been partly answered by a series of actions that showed his humility.

On his first day as the pontiff, instead of asking his aides, he stopped by his hotel to pick up his luggage and pay the bill himself. When he was introduced as the Pope, instead of wearing the glamorous red cape, he chose the simple white robe and kept the cross from his days as bishop.[6] In his first act as the pontiff, he broke away with tradition by asking the 150.000 strong crowds in St. Peter’s Square to bless him and pray for him, rather than him blessing and praying for them first. He even refused to stand on the platform, provided to raise him above the other cardinals, when he was introduced to the world for the first time. “I’ll stay down here,” he said to the cardinals.

But he did not do these acts of humility only after he became the Pope. Bergoglio had always lived a simple life. As the archbishop in Argentina, he chose to live in an apartment rather than in the archbishop’s palace. He chose to take public transport everyday than to be chauffeured in a limousine. And he cooked his own meal.[7]

He is known for his work with the people who live in the slums in Buenos Aires and has the reputation as the voice of the poor in Argentina.[8] He said in his inaugural speech, “The role of the Pope is to open his arms and protect especially ‘the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew list in the final judgement on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.’”[9]

He chose the name of Francis as his papal name. The name is taken from Francis of Asisi, the founder of Jesuit Order, in which Bergoglio was a member.

Assisi was known as the servant to the poor and the destitute. He lived in rags with beggars in St. Peter’s Basilica. He often met with lepers, whom he sometimes caringly embraced and kissed.[10] Bergoglio himself, inspired by Asisi, once kissed the foot of an HIV+ patient. Indeed, Asisi’s life and work has become Bergoglio’s model and inspiration and he would like it to inspire his time as the Pope as well.

No wonder, despite his many critics, a great many people receive Bergoglio with great joy and excitement. His papacy is still young, but people have already called him as the People's Pope. I still remember one member of this congregation who once told me that she was really excited with the new Pope, as if she had been a Catholic. She is not alone. Many people, including myself, are impressed by his acts of humility and find in him a figure who reflects the kind of humble leadership that Jesus preached and acted.

Today, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, we are called also to a life of service. We are called to be like Mario Bergoglio who does not see his role and status as the new Pope as a right, but as a greater opportunity to humbly serve the weak. We are called to be like Francis of Asisi who chose to live a simple life and be in solidarity with the poor and the destitute. We are called to be like Jesus: the King who came to be among us not to be served, but to serve.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Catherine E. Shoichet, First Latin American Pope 'Very Exciting,' Faithful Say, on
http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/13/world/americas/latin-america-pope-reaction/index.html?iid=article_sidebar (Updated: 17.25 GMT [01.25 HKT] March 14, 2013)

[2] William Loader’s Palm Sunday Reflection on

[3] Matthew 21:4-5, Zechariah 9:9 (Good News Translation)

[4] Luke 22: 26-27 (Good News Translation)

[5] John 13:1-20

[6] The Associated Press, New Pope Picks Up Luggage, Pays Bill at Hotel on First Day as Pontiff, on http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/03/new_pope_picks_up_luggage_at_h.html (Posted: March 14, 2013 at 8:50 AM; Updated March 14, 2013 at 8:57 AM)

[7] Holly Yan, 5 Things to Know about the new Pope, on http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/14/world/pope-5-things/index.html?iid=article_sidebar (Updated: 04.41 GMT [12.41 HKT] March 17, 2013)

[8] Dana Ford, From Public Transport to Popemobile: Bergoglio's Journey to Top of the Church, on http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/13/world/europe/vatican-pope-bergoglio-profile/index.html?iid=article_sidebar (Updated: 11.58 GMT [19.58 HKT] March 14, 2013)

[9] Pope Francis Began His Reign, on www.theaustralian.com/news/world/gallery
(Retrieved: March 22, 2013)

[10] Michale Martinez, St. Francis of Assisi: 'A Great, Great Figure in the Church', on
http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/13/world/st--francis-of-assisi-profile/index.html?iid=article_sidebar (Updated: 20.16 GMT [04.16 HKT] December 17, 2014)