Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (B)
Entering into the mystery of the Passion - a glimpse of the Resurrection
Holy Week, which begins today, is ordered to the commemoration of Christ’s Passion, which begins with his entrance into Jerusalem. We recall Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem with the reading of one of the “entrance Gospels” as part of the entrance procession of this Mass. In the liturgy and in prayer, we follow in Christ’s footsteps, “so that, being made by his grace partakers of the Cross, we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life.” Jesus shows us how to enter into the mystery of the Passion. We cannot avoid suffering and death, but how we face our suffering and death makes all the difference in the world (and in the world to come). The cheers of the crowd at his entrance: “Hosanna in the highest!” anticipate the victory - the coming of the Kingdom that Jesus will bring, but in this liturgy, our focus is the Passion. It is “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.” The Passion can’t be avoided. The Passion can’t be ignored. We can’t take a short-cut to Easter. We must pass through the Passion - enter into the Passion - to share in the Resurrection. It is like we are getting a pre-view of Good Friday almost a week beforehand. Palm Sunday, with the reading of the Passion, helps to prepare us for the commemoration of Christ’s death on Good Friday. The church is telling us that we need time to meditate on death - to prepare for death, or we will miss the grace won for us through Christ’s Paschal Mystery. On Good Friday, we always read the Passion narrative from the Gospel of John. On Palm Sunday, we hear one of the other Gospel accounts to give us a different perspective in preparation for Good Friday. I was struck by reading Mark’s account this year how the way Jesus embraced the cross became a moment of conversion for many people. His divinity was revealed, not in a miraculous show of power, but in the way he faced his death - with a certainty that, as Isaiah says, “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” For those who took time to reflect on what they saw in Jesus, they recognized something very different - something attractive, something that was an answer to our greatest fear - the fear that I will die alone. Jesus was accompanied in death by the Father’s love, and in his resurrection, he promises to accompany us so that we can face death and conquer death in the same way. Those who accompanied Jesus in his Passion got a glimpse of the resurrection.
The Passion was not easy for Jesus. In the garden of Gethsemane, anticipating what he would suffer, “he began to be troubled and distressed.” He says to Peter, James, and John, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” Here, Jesus reveals what we all need in order to face death: prayer and the companionship of our friends. We need people who love us to stay with us and “keep watch” with us. “Keeping watch” is being open or alert for the presence of God - seeking Him in the time of trial. Despite the weariness of his friends, Jesus persists in prayer to the Father. He seeks the Father’s will: “Not what I will but what you will.” And this is a prayer he made more than once. Jesus is able to face his betrayer - he is able to face death - after his prayer with the Father. “Get up, let us go.” “Enough sleeping” he says to the disciples. “Sleep” is a metaphor for death. He is rousing them from death. It is an invitation. “Get up, let us go.” Together, they can face death. Here is a glimpse of the Resurrection. As Jesus is on his way to the crucifixion, the Roman soldiers press into service a man passing by to help Jesus carry his cross. Simon the Cyrene walked the rest of the way with Jesus - shoulder to shoulder. How do we know this random passer-by’s name unless he became a disciple? Mark references him as “the father of Alexander and Rufus”. Alexander and Rufus would have been known members of the community of the faithful to whom Mark was writing, about 35 - 40 years later. It was by encountering Jesus in his Passion that Simon and his sons became Christians. When the centurion, a Roman soldier, a pagan, “saw how Jesus breathed his last he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”. The centurion’s job was to preside over executions. He probably saw hundreds of men die on the cross. But he noticed something profoundly different in Jesus. This crucified man did not curse but prayed. He prayed for his enemies. He forgave those who killed him. He consoled one of the criminals crucified by his side. The way Jesus faces death - the way he dies, reveals the presence of God. The centurion is converted by this experience. He professes faith in Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea, “a distinguished member of the council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, came and courageously went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” Joseph was watching, i.e., seeking the kingdom, and just after witnessing Jesus’ death, he publicly associates himself with Jesus. He is not afraid to go to the very authority that put Jesus to death. He is not afraid to make a public statement contrary to the narrative held by his colleagues in the Jewish council. He has recognized a power greater than earthly power in the way Jesus faced death. Meditating on the Passion of Jesus, Joseph is converted.
Have you ever witnessed a “beautiful” death? I’ve heard more than a few people, to their own surprise, describe the death of a loved one in this way. What are they recognizing? They are recognizing the presence of Another that allows the person to face death and suffering with peace. They are recognizing the grace that the person has been given that often comes from the person being surrounded by prayer, the presence of loved ones, and the reception of the sacraments. I’ve personally witnessed it many times that when I go to anoint a dying person, they pass soon after the reception of the sacraments. It is not that I got there just in time, but that they were waiting for Jesus, and the Lord gave them the grace to go in peace. The way any of us face death can become a conversion experience not only for ourselves but for those who accompany us. One of the most painful things about the pandemic is that many people died alone - died in isolation - unable to be accompanied by family and friends and often unable to receive the sacraments. May we take some time this week to meditate on the Passion and seek the Lord in those who are suffering and dying, because our willingness to enter into the Passion is how we experience the surprising grace of conversion, a sign of the Resurrection. Let us “get up and go”. Holy Week is at hand.