Palm Sunday in Passiontide
With March running out on me, I had to fight hard this morning not to give in to the temptation to “steal” today from the Lord to do my taxes for last year and prepare my income estimate for the year in course. Lots of times I can spare myself such distractions or temptations, the waste of a Sunday reserved for the Lord, in this case Palm Sunday no less, by projecting a little plan for my reflection or by taking in hand that worthwhile book for the Lord’s Day. We need to be of mutual encouragement in that regard and help each other to fight all inclinations to cheat ourselves of this time with the Lord and use Sunday to “catch up”, when perhaps we have been guilty of frittering away no amount of time during the week.
Today I chose a simple strategy; I just wrote down all those Scripture passages which hit me during the course of this morning’s liturgy. In reading them again, I would say that in some cases they have served me well specifically for Palm Sunday, that is to further and deepen a bit my personal meditation upon these “great events by which we were saved”, and in other cases they started me on a response to situations of the last week where I was either without a response or not satisfied with the way I dealt with someone else’s question or lament.
Of late, a couple people have complained to me that all the controversy in the news, both local here in Trinidad of a political nature and world-wide (read Irish-German-New York Times), has ruined their Lent. I’m thinking of one lady in particular, whose lament of the week came back to me during the reading of the Passion:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the days will surely come when people will say, ‘Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?”
Only Jesus is innocent and upright; He is the “green wood”; we, sinners, we are the “dry wood”, which catches fire easily and burns. Any number of great spiritual writers remind us that although a reprimand, critique or attack might be undeserved and unjust, falsely attributed to us or to some other poor sinner, nonetheless, because we are deserving of reprimand for so many other things we have done wrong or failed to do, we should humbly accept unjust attacks as well. In the Passion Account from St. Luke, Jesus is bidding the women, who know and love Him, to put their tears to better use in making reparation for their own sins and those of their children. More than thirty years ago, a man I thought I knew quite well and who was a friend shocked me on one occasion by becoming terribly enraged in my presence over an injustice done to another, a stranger to us both. At the time I thought he was way too upset about yes an objective injustice. The other had big enough shoulders to carry this wrong, at least as far as I was concerned. My thought at the time was, “Who said this world of ours is fair?” Not only did my friend of long ago not seem to accept that, but neither could I say he aspired to the spiritual school that regardless of whether we might be innocent in a given case, the chastisement would do us good for another situation where we were truly at fault.
In our “Irish-German-New York Times” scenario, the exaggerations, inaccuracies, prejudices and spiteful words should not stir our self-righteousness so much that we forget reparation must be made for terrible harm done and for terrible things covered over at the expense of the weak and defenseless. My penance can heal me, but it can also repair harm done by others elsewhere. Excuse the almost Pollyanna-ish air, but how could my Lent be better spent than in making reparation for the sins of others as well as my own? Why not suffer with Jesus, the Just One, He who was more wrongly accused then we or anyone we love had ever thought of being?
Palm Sunday, as much as any other moment of Holy Week, paints us a detailed picture of Jesus, God’s Servant and His Son, in the hour of His ultimate trial.
“Am I a brigand that you had to set out with swords and clubs? When I was among you in the Temple day after day you never moved to lay hands on me. But this is your hour; this is the reign of darkness.”
“So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“…and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.”
The Passion of Christ eloquently brings to the fore the dimension of helplessness and the high drama involved in His Sacrifice to redeem the world. We need to review again our presuppositions regarding the image of Christ being swallowed up in death and thereby taking death’s fortress by storm, bursting its gates and leading forth its captives unto eternal life. Much of what Jesus experienced in His Sacrifice for our salvation must have been opaque; we need but think of His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, there is not only pain in His Passion; there is terror on every side. Why should my path through life be disassociated from His? My hope is secure, yes, if I fight the good fight, if I run the race with Him. “So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.”
Every chance I get in my work as a papal representative, I underline the notion that the Petrine ministry, which I share with the Pope, is that of strengthening the brethren. St. Peter’s function as a rock as handed down and lived out by his successors is illustrative of what that strengthening is all about. Red is the color of the Apostle Princes of the Roman Church, Sts. Peter and Paul: of Peter crucified and of Paul beheaded by the sword. Despite my own predilection for making of the Petrine office a wonderful thing, expressing itself in the words “binding the Church together in love”, we’re reminded that the Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for the sheep.
“Simon, Simon! Satan, you must know, has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers.”
Peter had his denials before cockcrow in that reign of darkness, but he did recover, he did turn again and strengthen his brothers. Could it not be that part of the lot which fell to Peter, part of his share in the Lord’s Passion, was that despite Jesus’ prayer for him, despite the mission which was his, that maybe the Accuser of the brethren assaulted him with memories and doubts about the fullness of his repentance and of the completeness of the Lord’s forgiveness for his having bolted and run on that tragic Holy Thursday night into Good Friday? Were Peter’s memories so healed that he had no regrets?
The image of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, eyes closed and burying his forehead in his pastoral staff surmounted by Christ crucified, comes to mind. He inspired awe in many because he embodied proximity to Christ crucified. We can’t all do that maybe just because our life history sets us closer to normal folk. There are many ways to be lifted up like Christ on the Cross; the light on the lamp stand or the city on the mountaintop can strengthen the brethren through clarity and teaching as well. I know any number of young men and priests who in their thirst for truth have found a port in the storm in the writings and homilies of our present Holy Father. He is indeed a bulwark, soft-spoken and steady. His gracious invitations to dialogue and to seek truth together may be non-threatening and reassuring to some, but it would be hard to deny that others come to a very different conclusion, just looking at the number of willful types who grind their teeth at the Successor of Peter these days in and outside the Catholic Church. That the crowd still shouts for the release of Barabbas should come as no surprise. We are thankful for this man of counsel and of peace who presides over the community of charity.
I wish you a blessed Holy Week and space to be challenged to move closer to the unity willed by Christ for His Church, strengthened and bound together by the teaching and example of the Successor of Simon Peter! May your worship experiences this week be marked by that gravity and beauty which stems from continuity with the tradition in response to the challenge offered to us by Pope Benedict XVI! May we be aided in efforts to turn toward the Lord, to turn toward the Crucified One, Who gave Himself up for all of us!
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”