“The Cross Is the Tree of Life” – Benedict XVI

Homily of Benedict XVI, Palm Sunday, 2006.

To understand what occurred on Palm Sunday and to know what it meant not only for that time but for all times, a detail is important, which became for his disciples the key to understand that event when, after Easter, they recalled those tumultuous days with a new look.

Jesus entered the Holy City riding on a donkey, that is, the animal of simple country people and, moreover, a donkey that did not belong to him, that he had been loaned for this occasion. He did not arrive in a luxurious royal carriage, or on horseback as the world’s great, but on a borrowed donkey. John tells us initially that the disciples did not understand this.

Only after Passover did they realize that in this way Jesus was fulfilling the prophets’ proclamations; he showed that his action derived from the Word of God and led to its fulfillment. They remembered, says John, that one reads in the prophet Zechariah:

Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your king is coming, sitting on an ass’s colt” (John 12:15; cf. Zechariah 9:9).

To understand the meaning of the prophecy and thus Jesus’ action, we must listen to the whole text of Zechariah, who continues saying:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:10).

In this way, the prophet makes three affirmations about the future king.

First, he says he will be a king of the poor, a poor man among the poor and for the poor. Poverty is understood in this case in the sense of the “anawim” of Israel, of those believing and humble souls that we see around Jesus, in the perspective of the first beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Meaning of Poverty

One can be materially poor but have a heart full of anxiety for wealth and power, which comes from wealth. The fact that one lives in envy and avarice shows that, in one’s heart, one is part of the rich. One wishes to reverse the distribution of goods, but only so that oneself will be in the situation that the rich occupied before. Poverty in Jesus’ sense — in the prophets’ sense — presupposes above all interior freedom from avarice and the will to power.

It is about a much greater reality than a different distribution of goods, which would be limited to the material realm, and which make hearts even harder. Above all, it is about the purification of the heart, thanks to which one recognizes that possession is responsibility before others which, in the sight of God, allows itself to be guided by Jesus who, being rich, became poor for us (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9).

Interior freedom presupposes the surmounting of corruption and avarice which at this point devastate the world; this freedom may be found only if God becomes our wealth, it may be found only in the patience of daily renunciations, in which it develops as authentic freedom. On Palm Sunday we acclaim Jesus, the king who points out to us the way to this goal, and we ask him to take us with him on his path

The Cross

Second, the prophet shows us that this king will be a king of peace: He will make the chariots of battle and war horses disappear, will cut off the bow and command peace. In the figure of Jesus, this is concretized with the sign of the cross. It is the broken bow, in a certain sense the new, authentic rainbow of God, which unites heaven and earth and builds bridges between continents over the abysses.

The new weapon Jesus puts in our hands is the cross, sign of reconciliation, of love that is stronger than death. Every time we make the sign of the cross, we must remember not to respond to an injustice with more injustice, to violence with more violence; we must remember that we can only overcome evil with good, without returning evil for evil.

The prophet’s third affirmation is the pre-announcement of universality: The kingdom of the king of peace extends “from sea to sea … to the ends of the earth.” The former promise of land is replaced with a new vision: The space of the messianic king is no longer a specific country, which would be separated from others, and which inevitably would take a position against other countries. His country is the earth, the whole world. Surmounting all limitations, in the multiplicity of cultures, he creates unity.

Penetrating with a glance the clouds of history, we see emerge from afar in the prophecy the network of Eucharistic communities that embraces the whole world, a network of communities that constitute Jesus’ “Kingdom of peace” from sea to sea to the ends of the earth. He comes to all cultures and to all parts of the world, everywhere, to the miserable huts and poor peoples, as well as to the splendor of cathedrals. Everywhere, he is the same, the Only One, and in this way, all those gathered in prayer, in communion with him, are also united among themselves in one body. Christ rules making himself our bread and giving himself to us. Thus he builds his Kingdom.

This nexus is made totally clear in another phrase of the Old Testament which characterizes and explains what occurred on Palm Sunday. The crowd acclaimed Jesus:

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9; Psalm 117 [118]:25f.).

This phrase forms part of the rite of the feast of tents, during which the faithful moved in a circle around the altar, holding in their hands branches of palm, myrtle and willow.

Then the people cried out before Jesus, in whom they saw he who comes in the name of the Lord. In fact, the expression: “He who comes in the name of the Lord,” had become the way to designate the Messiah. In Jesus they recognize him who truly comes in the name of the Lord and brings God’s presence among them. This cry of hope of Israel, this acclamation to Jesus during his entry into Jerusalem, has with reason become in the Church the acclamation of him, in the Eucharist, who always comes among us in the name of the Lord, uniting the ends of the earth in the peace of God.

Given that the Lord is coming, we come out of our exclusivist realities and become part of the great community of all who celebrate this holy sacrament. We enter into his kingdom of peace and acclaim in him, in a certain sense, our brothers and sisters, for whom he comes to create a kingdom of peace in this lacerated world.

The three characteristics proclaimed by the prophet — poverty, peace, universality — are summarized in the sign of the cross. Because of this, and rightly so, the cross has become the center of World Youth Day.

There was a time — and it is not totally surmounted — in which Christianity was rejected precisely because of the cross.

The cross speaks of sacrifice, it was said, the cross is a sign of the negation of life. We, however, want a full life, without restrictions and renunciations. We want to live, we just want to live. We do not let ourselves be limited by precepts and prohibitions — it was said, and continues to be said — we want wealth and plentitude.

All this seems convincing and attractive; it is the language of the serpent that says to us:

“Do not be fearful. Eat calmly from all the trees of the garden!”

Palm Sunday, however, tells us that the authentic great “yes” is, in fact, the cross, that the cross is the authentic tree of life. We do not attain to life by seizing it, but by giving it. Love is the giving of ourselves and, for this reason, is the way of authentic life…

This is the major excerpt from the Palm Sunday homily of Pope Benedict XVI, 2006

© Copyright 2006 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana