Seeing Sacred Signs: A Palm Sunday Reflection

As I contemplate the readings for today’s Palm Sunday, I notice a theme of signs, and how humans may misinterpret signs from God. In three instances within today’s readings, men misunderstand what signs God would show them, to their detriment. Each of today's readings expound upon this theme. Let’s explore these, and see what we can learn.

Reading from Isaiah

Within the reading from the Book of Isaiah, we see the words: “... he wakens my ear to hear...” (Isaiah 50:4) and “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.” (Isaiah 50:5). The passage continues, noting how God helped its author not be confounded, but rather how God helped him to know what was right and how to set his face strongly against all else (Isaiah 50:7). 

Reading from the Psalms

Portions of Psalm 22 tell us: The Lord is “my help” (Psalm 22:19) whom we ought to “tell of thy name to my brethren” (Psalm 22:22). We are taught to “fear,” “praise,” “glorify” and “stand in awe of him” (Psalm 22:23).

Reading from the Letter to the Philippians 

Philippians 2 tells us that all of Christ’s followers ought to bend their knee at the sound of his name, and confess him as their Lord. Even the angels do this alongside us (Philippians 2:10-11).

Reading from Mark, and Signs

It is in the Gospel of Mark that we see the meat of the theme of signs. First, a woman is scorned by men for pouring costly ointment over the head of Christ (Mark 14:3). She did this, out of her conviction, likely guided by the Holy Spirit, to prepare Christ for his coming burial (Mark 14:8). The men who witnessed this did not see, with their human eyes, the beauty that Christ saw. They did not see how this woman used material to best cover the material body of God, how she did her best to provide dignity to the sacred body of Christ through the ointment, and the meaning that this material substance held. They reproached her, because they did not understand the importance of material gifts given to a God who took on material flesh (Mark 14:5). They misunderstood this woman’s beautiful gift, which even Christ loved. Jesus corrected them, a correction which was meant to help even us, today (Mark 14:9). God loved a sign that men did not love. He loved it because it properly understood his Incarnation, the way earthly things can be used for good, his coming death and resurrection, and the sacrifice humans ought to make to God.

At the Last Supper, Peter, hearing Jesus saying that someone will betray him, promised Christ that he would never betray him (Mark 14:29). Jesus, in response, explicitly told Peter that he will, indeed, betray him. Imagine that: Jesus, telling you, face to face, in spoken words, a prophecy about what will happen, which includes you. Imagine denying that prophecy, to Christ’s face. But Peter does so (Mark 14:31). He turns from Christ (Isaiah 50:5). He is not strong in Christ against sin (Isaiah 50:7). Why would Peter deny Christ’s prophecy to his holy face? Because he believed his faith so strong, otherwise? Because he believed Christ wanted his disagreement? Because he couldn’t face the possibility of his weakness? What a strong message from God Peter received. And yet he denied it. He could not face it. Likely, he could not face it because of his human weakness. Peter could not conceive of himself as someone who would deny Christ, and he chose to continue to see himself in a good light rather than believe Christ’s own, spoken words. Peter would rather see himself as a good follower than hear Jesus’ words and humble himself in recognition of his weakness.

Judas offers us a foil to godly signs. His kiss (Mark 14:45), grounded in love for money and acceptance by other men (Mark 14:11), is a sign to other men of whom he is about to betray. Instead of telling Christ's name for what it is (Psalm 22:22), Judas tells it precisely for what it is not, and tells it wrongly in order to gain earthly things. Instead of bending his knee to God (Philippian 2:10), Judas hopes to bend Christ's knee for his own gain. Little did he understand that Christ could use even this humiliation for the greatest salvation of others (Hebrews 2:14; 1 Peter 3:18). Where God gives us signs that we ought to be mindful of, other people may contrive signs and languages to us to persuade us to pursue evil. 

Once Jesus was thrown into court, Peter found himself among others, waiting. He then thrice denied knowing Jesus, when asked (Mark 14:68-71). Peter only recognized his fault once the sensory stimulus of Christ’s prophecy was given to him (Mark 14:72). Peter, human as he was, needed the promised auditory sensation to recall Christ’s own spoken words, and felt the pain of his sin thereafter. Christ’s sign at the Last Supper was heard by Peter’s ears, but Peter needed to go through the humiliation of sin to truly hear Christ. Jesus’ sign was not easily received.

While Peter was given a true sign from God and did not understand it, others believed they would see a sign, if it came from the true God, and, because they didn’t see what they expected, did not believe when the true sign was before them. People passed by the cross upon which Christ hung. They saw gravity tugging on his body. They saw the nails stretching within his hands and feet, his blood spilling. However, they did not perceive what they saw. The deeply misunderstood (Mark 15:29-32). They thought themselves to be followers of God, and thought that God would perform a miracle if they asked. They thought that God, certainly, would not subject himself to the humiliation of death on a cross. They thought that Christ’s own words about the temple being rebuilt were about a building, not his holy body. His holy body hung before them, and they didn’t see that sign. They didn’t see it because they didn’t heed his words. They shook their heads at his words (Mark 15:29). They thought they knew better.

What signs are we missing, today? What signs can we see in this material world, that speak to us of Christ's goodness and beauty? What signs can we perceive in Christ's direct word, even if they humble us to truly hear? What signs can we perceive before us from God, even if they go contrary to what we thought we previously understood about how God works? 

Closing Prayer

Let us pray to be more like the woman, who knew how to use material properly to praise God. Let us pray to learn from Peter’s sin, and to know our weakness readily, and to mend it before God. Let us pray to learn from the sins of those who passed by the cross, that we might perceive God when we see him, and always hear his word for what it is: true and good and beautiful, and our guidance. 


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1 comment

Heather McKenzie

Amazing insights and narrative; Thank you.

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