For some, Palm Sunday was a political event surrounding a political person that led to the greatest, most unexpected revolution the world has ever seen happen. Historically, the week leading up to Jesus’ Passion would have been the time of preparation for Passover, when many Jews from all the surrounding villages were in Jerusalem together. The gospels (Mt 21: 1-11) describe Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to the swaying of palm fronds and shouts of “Hosanna!” These were unmistakable prophetic signs of the Messiah-king, the one many Jews expected would finally overthrow their Roman overlords and re-establish Israel’s reign on earth, perhaps even violently—as a group called the “Zealots” expected. Yet there is a further symbol to this story: Jesus riding on a colt or ass, the sign of a humble and meek king. Jesus did not become the king they expected, but instead, the one God wanted. As Pope Francis said in his 2016 homily on the Feast of Christ the King, “The Gospel in fact presents the kingship of Jesus as the culmination of his saving work, and it does so in a surprising way. ‘The Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King’ (Lk 23:35,37) appears without power or glory: he is on the cross, where he seems more to be conquered than conqueror.”
Like Jesus’ followers then, today we are susceptible to temptations of limited expectations. It is possible to see Jesus merely as a political and ethical teacher who died a martyr’s death and nothing else. On the other hand, we might project Jesus’ kingdom to a purely “other-worldly” realm. Since Jesus apparently wasn’t setting up his kingdom on earth (so we assume), we are tempted to sanitize Jesus of any “worldly” political or practical implications, and simply assume political engagement has limited place, or even runs counter to our task of evangelization. As Pope Pius XI wrote in his establishment of the Feast of Christ the King, “It would be a grave error…to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power…although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them.” Both interpretations—that Jesus was strictly political or that his work was merely “not of this world”—fail to take seriously not only Jesus’ public ministry and preaching, but the truly earth-shattering consequences of Jesus’ kingship won at the cross.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Christ, “exercises his kingship by drawing all men to himself through his death and Resurrection.” Jesus’ death and Resurrection are, simply, God’s victory over the world’s powers of sin and death so as to bring about the restoration of God’s people. To say yes to Jesus’ Resurrection is to say yes to life as part of a new creation and kingdom that starts now. Paschal faith involves the risk of making mistakes, being misunderstood or ridiculed, of not conforming to the expectations of the surrounding culture in order to expect something greater. It involves joining in the kingship of Christ in serving others, something we are able to share in as a result of our baptism.
As powers of sin and death today loom heavy on our hearts, it is not enough to “have faith” but to do nothing. Following Christ calls us to witness to our faith in practical ways with full conviction because of Christ’s own experience of suffering, death, and Resurrection that has transformed our fundamental orientation to the world. As Christians, we desire peace, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. We serve our King by building up his kingdom on earth. Pope Francis challenges us, “A people who are holy…who have Jesus as their King, are called to follow his way of tangible love; they are called to ask themselves, each one each day: “What does love ask of me, where is it urging me to go? What answer am I giving Jesus with my life?”
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Exult greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold: your king is coming to you,
a just savior is he,
Humble, and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So begins the first liturgy of Holy Week on Palm Sunday. We hear these words referenced in the first of an unusual two Gospel readings during the procession into the church. We start our celebration of Palm Sunday, appropriately, by proclaiming and then reenacting the story in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a moment of great joy and excitement for the inhabitants of the city. Those in the congregation welcome the priest, who enters the church in persona Christi, as we echo the words of the people of Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the highest!” What a happy occasion! The Messiah, the One whom the prophets foretold, has come!
How fickle this joy seems, though, when we get to the Passion narrative. In a matter of minutes, we go from crying, “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” One minute, we’re giving Jesus a king’s welcome. The next, we’re condemning Him to death. I know I’m not the only one who feels a dagger through his heart every time we say—loudly—that refrain of condemnation. How dare I welcome Christ with such exuberance, knowing what I’m about to do to Him? Quite the emotional roller coaster, with Mass only halfway over!
Holy Week is exhausting. I find it the most taxing part of the liturgical year. Starting with Palm Sunday, I’m attending Masses, praying the Stations of the Cross, and singing with the choir for days on end, practically turning the Triduum into a 3-day long vigil. In recent years, I’ve taken to spending Good Friday on pilgrimage to the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., to place myself in an intentional state of prayer and reflection.
So why do I do this to myself? Why get on this roller coaster and make myself so physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained by the time Easter morning arrives? Quite simply, it’s because I love it. It’s the most rewarding experience of prayer that I have all year.
On Palm Sunday, we’re reminded of what we’ll bear witness to in the days to come. We’re invited to reflect on what’s about to be re-presented in a real-time reenactment of the focal point of Christ’s entire earthly life.
At the Chrism Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday, we bear witness to the consecration of holy oils for use in the upcoming year’s sacraments. We also see the gathering of all our diocesan priests, who renew their vows and participate in probably the largest concelebration of the year. It’s a moving and impressive sight.
Later on Holy Thursday, we see the reenactment of the Last Supper, the very institution of the Eucharist we celebrate to this day. We’re reminded, too, of the great humility we’re called to emulate: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
On Good Friday, we once again take up the cries of, “Crucify him!” as we see the events of Christ’s Passion and death unfold before our eyes. We’re called toward the sanctuary to kiss the gruesome device of our salvation, the ancient instrument of punishment used to redeem all of mankind. And after an unceremonious Communion service, the liturgy suddenly pauses and we just go home. The Church holds its breath as we wait.
And then, finally, the Easter Vigil—the happiest day of the year, of all history! We hear the no longer fickle, but truly joyous words of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation:
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
If I arrive at Easter morning feeling exhausted but strengthened, it means that I've truly entered into Holy Week, walking with Christ as He always walks with me. This Holy Week, may we walk more closely with Christ on His journey towards the cross, knowing that this journey continues with His resurrection. It is Christ's resurrection, His triumph over sin and death, that gives our Lenten journey meaning and enables us to exult with the Church and be glad!
Question for Reflection: How can you enter more deeply into Holy Week in order to better celebrate the joy of Easter Sunday?
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