On Palm Sunday we gather in joyful anticipation to celebrate the mass at which palm fronds will be blessed and distributed and we will hear the long proclamation of the gospel of the Lord’s passion, knowing that the most solemn days of the Church year are now very close. On this unique occasion in the year not one but two gospel readings are read, and the one that begins the mass sounds a clear note of joy:
The whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen. They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:37-40).
Joy turns quickly to a harsher reality in the next reading from the Prophet Isaiah, where we hear the “Servant of the Lord”—a prefiguration of Christ—say: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard; my face I did not hide from insults and spitting” (Isa 50:6). The psalm we sing today has a plaintive tone to it as well, as we repeat with the Psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2).
As much as we want to place ourselves on the side of the righteous who would be among the crowd on that first Palm Sunday crying “Hosanna!” we must acknowledge that we are also marked by the same sinful rejection of Christ that led the very same crowd to demand his death just a few days later, as they shouted “Away with this man!…crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:18, 21).
It strikes me that the turning point between these radically different perspectives is found in our natural human struggle to do what is good while we are nonetheless attracted by the apparent freedom to do otherwise—to do what we know is wrong. Saint Paul struggled with this throughout his life and he spoke eloquently of his spiritual battle in his Letter to the Romans: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:15, 19).
For Paul, the struggle was often against the temptation of spiritual pride and arrogance, something that he freely describes in several of his letters, and which he knew was his Achilles heel (see, for example 2 Cor 12:1-10). In the present day the Church as a whole, and especially her members who are her ordained ministers and leaders, are reeling from the shame of another sort of weakness: that of the abuse of her most innocent members and the cover-up of such abuse over a long period of time.
While they do not necessarily extend to the depths of sin mentioned above, we all have various patterns of sin in our personal lives that cause us to turn from the Lord and join the crowd shouting “Away with him!” Lent is the time given to us each year to humbly focus our gaze inward and to ask that God fill us with the grace to let go of whatever keeps us from praising the Lord with “Hosannas” rather than wounding him with our sins.
The good thief said to our Lord: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), let us imitate his compunction this Palm Sunday and Holy Week that we might rejoice in the fullness of Christ’s redemption on Easter Sunday and beyond.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.