Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion Year A
What must it feel like to take into your heart the pain, brokenness, and selfishness of the world when those around you have no idea?
That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and even outright declarations from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but like all of us who know our loved ones will die someday, we shy away from actually imagining what it will be like or acknowledging that it could happen. To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. They have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of, who knows what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome?
What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming fans but burdened by the pain he is already beginning to bear. This is the point of no return for Jesus. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is a fad, that he is not dangerous. Jesus is a threat that must be eliminated. And our immersion in these scriptures today, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, deliberately provokes a crisis within ourselves.
The crowd abruptly transitions in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to Jesus - to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified. The disciples move from proudly marching at his side through the streets of Jerusalem - to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is. While taking our place among the crowds on Good Friday shouting for Jesus to be crucified feels awkward and painful, the disciples’ experience of simply not affirming that we know him, of finding that our fear prevents us from being present with his pain, feels all too familiar.
Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centered around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our perspective of how God works in the world is so often misunderstood, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus, as his final days play out, and as he endures the pain of his passion.
In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away. They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away. Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus wanted to spend time with some of his closest friends, talking and eating and laughing, enjoying their presence one last time.
At their dinner together, Mary anoints his feet with costly ointment, and Judas berates her for not using her money to help the poor. Jesus’ defense of her reveals how heavily his approaching death is on his mind. “Leave her alone. She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle continues. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul and his divine conviction of what he has to do.
The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal. The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’” The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you. And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer ourselves, finding out that we are not the people we thought we were.
By Friday morning we have lost complete control of the situation. Having slid into the role of betrayer in a haze of confusion and fear, we suddenly find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers. There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross. Each second we’re hoping against hope, he will come down from the cross and save himself.
But nothing happens. Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries. Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us. He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.
The gospel says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment our souls are torn in two.
This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.
But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday. The reign of death is torn in two. And the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection. If we are willing to not skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience is in direct proportion to our willingness to enter into the pain of Jesus passion and our own.