Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: Mark 11:1-10, Isaiah 50:4-7, Psalm 22, Philippians 2:6-11, Mark 14:1 – 15:47.
Holy Week is upon us. Three liturgical celebrations stand out in the life of the Church over the course of a year: The Nativity of Our Lord, Palm Sunday, and Easter. While we are invited to encounter Christ every day of the year — his Incarnation and Birth, His suffering and sacrifice, and His great Resurrection — these three celebrations stand out in the structure and content of the Mass.
Today is one of these three and it struck me as I marveled at the triple-normal attendance filling our pandemic-distanced chapel that we had all come anticipating the great and terrible narrative that was to fill the air. We knew that the initial hosannas would quickly fade into the long gospel reading detailing Christ’s betrayal, torture and death. Not only did we know it, we had gathered in numbers triple our normal size so that we could bear witness to it, mourn with Mary at His tomb, and receive sustenance from the very Body and Blood that was torn apart on that day. Even for people who weren’t completely engaged with the reason that they were there, something drew them to come, some knowledge imparted from the Church that instilled in them how important this day is.
This entire phenomenon makes me reflect on the narrative that makes us who we are as Christians and how we participate in the telling of the story.
There is a grand scope to the narrative on Palm Sunday, and in the Catholic Church, we are asked to participate in its telling in a very performative way. Although this year was slightly different due to pandemic precautions, consider how the liturgical celebration starts: it starts outside the chapel. Before processing into the chapel as the Church, we read “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'” And this is what we do. We are a performative Church. We hold our palm leaves and sing a song of hosanna as we walk into the new Jerusalem with Christ. This is not “mere” theater. This is a huge reminder that what we do as a Church in every liturgy is performative as well as commemorative. By “performative,” let me be clear that I do not mean acting, as if we do not believe or actually live out what we’re doing. I use the word performative as in performing a ritual act. Religious ritual acts (in which the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is steeped, and is common to all religions) are special: done in a special place, in a special way, with special gestures and special words. This post is about interrogating the depths of meaning behind the performative acts in our liturgical life. So, to be clear, we actively celebrate Christ’s sacrifice in the form of the liturgy.
The first reading connects Isaiah to Jesus who will come after him: “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” Both men are prophets who share the Word of God as a salve for humanity. And, then: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” Isaiah also lives out the mocking and beating that Jesus will, this very day, be subjected to. And, finally, the firm faith that enables such treatment to be endured: “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.” We need to hear these final words of the first reading, knowing what we know about the Passion narrative to come. It helps us to endure our sympathetic suffering with Christ. It helps to palliate the treatment of our Lord.
The responsorial psalm — oh, the psalm! It gives us the fuller context for Jesus’s final words on the Cross. The refrain of our psalm is the famous line “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” As Jesus utters these last words, we can both sympathize with the sentiment and be somewhat troubled by the implication. On one hand, we will see how the Passion narrative displays Jesus’s increasing abandonment by everyone who is close to Him. If we take this line on its own, it seems to be that Jesus expresses complete abandonment, even by the Father. Theologically, this is greatly troubling, and actually makes no sense. The first Person of the Trinity would never (could never) abandon the second Person of the Trinity. Their love unites them in a way that is fundamental to the fabric of the universe.
What else could be going on here?
The content of the psalm is not as dire as the first line makes it out to be. The words certainly express the distress of an individual in need of help, one who has endured scorn and who feels abandoned. But the psalm also includes verses like, “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” Also, more to the concern of the opening line: “he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” It also ends on a very positive note of praise and deliverance. We hear, “future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” When taken as a whole, the psalm not only speaks to the emotional condition of a man like Jesus as the culmination of His torture, but also to His redemptive action in the world.
Just like we should not take the opening line out of context from the whole psalm, we we can learn from the context of how the Jewish tradition employed it. Rabbis attributed this psalm either to King David or Esther. The connection to Esther is so strong, in fact, that it would be prayed annually during the Fast of Esther, on the eve of the festival of Purim. Christ would have grown up praying Psalm 22 during that day and night of fasting, commemorating the three days of Esther’s fasting and prayer before she presented herself to the Babylonian King Ahasuerus and advocated to save the Jews from slaughter. The Jews prayed Psalm 22 to link themselves to this great model of petitioning the Father. The result was that God heard her prayer and saved the Jews from annihilation.
So, we can conceivably interpret Christ’s utterance on the Cross as beginning this same fast, this three days where He will disappear from the earth, enter the underworld to rescue humanity from the grip of death. He will enact the deliverance of the world on Easter, but here on the Cross, as He begins this fast in great sympathy with the Jerusalem He had just cried for, He is imploring the Father’s help and praising the Father as He always has.
Returning to the Palm Sunday Liturgy of the Word, it is difficult to encounter this great text in part because it stretches over many days and many episodes central to our religious practice. We will reflect more on the Last Supper on Holy Thursday and upon the treacherous death on the Cross on Good Friday. One of the things that struck me as I stood in our chapel today listening to the priest and two lay people read the parts of the Passion were some of the details supplied by St. Mark in his almost breathless account. These details act like symbolic signposts, standing in for the impossible spiritual depth of the action at that moment. For me, they help to orient me within the Church as I participate in Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Below are just a few of them.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head … They were infuriated with her. Alabaster is a gorgeous, translucent white form of gypsum, often used to hold expensive oils in the ancient world such as those given as part of a woman’s dowry to her husband. The gesture from Mary of Bethany is the gesture of the Church to her Bridegroom. Mark tells us that she “broke” the jar, and whether this means a wax seal or the neck of the jar, the action is absolute and the ointment cannot be re-sealed and reused. This is an absolute devotion, using the most expensively perfumed oil. Jesus Himself notes the appropriateness of her actions: “She has anticipated anointing my body for burial,” and even christens it as an act truly representative of the Church to come: “wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Yet the other disciples were infuriated with her. Their rebuke of her is redolent with earthly concerns — noble, to be sure, in that they seek to help the poor — but these are at odds with the spiritual gravity of the moment as the ground is shifting to the Passion. Mary must have been seized by the Holy Spirit in a way that the others were not. She anoints the Anointed One of God just before He is to give them the Eucharistic sacrament. Jesus’s response to the disciples is one of my favorites: “The poor you will always have with you … you will not always have me. She has done what she could.” This is not just a carpe diem message, but a message of focus and intent. This is consistent with all He has said to the Pharisees about them fetishizing the law and what they “should do” over bringing the spirit of love into the world. There is supreme benediction in Christ saying, “she has done what she could.” What more would we like to hear when we are encountered with our judgment?
Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked. Who is this young man? He is not identified as a close disciple of Jesus. For me, he stands in as all of them, all of humanity in that moment. It’s as if the Holy Spirit has instilled in St. Mark a deeply felt memory of this moment when Jesus’s closest followers scramble away and disperse. Think about this — how does a person escape when seized, leaving behind the only piece of clothing he was wearing? It takes a good deal of panicked struggle, wriggling free, letting all sense and dignity leave you in your crazed flight response. This young man, these disciples, all of humanity, desert the Lord without their dignity in a wild flight away from the scene of His arrest. High-minded ideals are gone. Plan-oriented dreams of an ordered future disappear. Scandal has stripped us of our dignity and we run, like animals without a God.
And so Mark records this ghostly image of a linen cloth glowing white in the darkness with nothing inside it. Why linen? Why empty? We will encounter this very same image when the stone is rolled away from the tomb! The human has left, has entered a new plane of existence. Just as Jesus Resurrects in Body and then ascends to heaven, humanity in the form of this young man disappears in its fright only to return as the Church, sanctified and Resurrected in Christ’s Spirit. The image, while representing the base betrayal of humanity, becomes an astounding promise in the midst of this horrible night.
The soldiers assembled the whole cohort. They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. This image persists in most Catholic depictions of Christ — the brutal Crown of Thorns. Why? Are we fascinated in some way at this torturous form of mockery? Let’s pan out, to use a cinematographer’s term, and see the scene as Mark has described it. The soldiers take Him away from the Jewish crowds and into the inner courtyard of Pilate’s palace. Jesus is first betrayed by an Apostle, abandoned by his disciples, and denied by His chosen “Rock,” Peter. His is now isolated, away from His own people, the Chosen Ones of God’s Covenant. He is utterly alone in pagan hands. It is easy to overlook His increasing isolation because the narrative is full of people — crowds greeting Him in Jerusalem, guards and arresting mob, priests and soldiers, streets lined with jeering onlookers, and a crowd gathered at the base of Golgotha. But Jesus has been isolated completely.
So the soldiers assemble the whole cohort, which must include all of the soldiers stationed there as well as Pilate’s non-military court. Here around Him is the entire pagan world. How do they greet our Savior? It is a telling image. They dress Him as a King. Yes, it is mockery, yes it is in jest and, yes, they beat Him and spit on Him while doing it. But nonetheless we have a vision of Christianity in the world. It is impossible not to acknowledge the kingship of Christ, even while scoffing. For underlying all of the worldly disbelief we claim or the hurtfulness of our actions, the truth remains: Christ is King. We can’t escape that or change it. What’s more, those who walk with Christ into the greater world will be met with mocking and crowns of thorns as well. This is the reality of being on the Way to the Kingdom, given to us in a brutal coliseum of pain.
Pilate was amazed that he was already dead. The seat of earthly power is amazed at the quick passage of time. This must make him take stock in his own mortality. This must make him wonder about that man he just had crucified. This is something weird; is it a sign? This thought might continue to nag at him for months, years, until he decides to do something about that nagging thought — perhaps inquire with one of this new group of Christians that has persisted long after this man’s death. This leads to another moment of astonishment as he is told about the amazing life of this Jesus Christ who he crucified.
This is the way God works. This is the way God never gives up on humanity; the way He offers mercy and forgiveness even to the most detestable of us. We must be open to the fact that Pilate himself can be saved if he recognizes God, repents for his sins, and follows the Way. More than that — we must want Pilate to be saved. That is what it means to walk with Jesus. We must fill ourselves with the absolute, unwavering love of God that heals all. We must want every single one of His sheep to be with Him forever in the Kingdom.
There are, of course, many more images in the Passion narrative; indeed, in all of the gospels. This is how we can encounter Christ in a new way and in a new depth each time we turn back to scripture.
But more: let’s return to how our Catholic liturgy participates in the Passion. The Holy Spirit, as promised by Christ, guided the Church from its earliest days to put into practice the depth of imagery and symbolism we encounter in Christ’s life, Death, and Resurrection. The most obvious example is the Eucharistic feast and its remembrance and enactment of Christ’s sacrifice as well as the Last Supper. But the Church, living the liturgy every second of every day inside and outside of the chapel, performs the very work of the Bride of Christ in its anointings (sacramental as well as simple, such as the gentle touch and kind word to a stranger). The Church points to the empty linen cloth every time we choose humanity over politics or spirit over rules: for the cloth is made of this earth while we exist in a different spiritual plane on a specific spiritual path. The Church wears the purple robe and crown of thorns as our priestly sexual misconduct is paraded before the world, the evil that creeps in to mock our holy mystical Body of Christ. And the Church is made up of converted Pilates searching out other Pilates to bring to Christ for healing.
All of these things reach a much more organized level of liturgical function in the Mass, however. It is performative in that we stand to greet the Lord, to collectively pray our Creed and the Our Father. We process to the altar both as the ministers at the start of Mass and as a people when receiving Communion, re-enacting Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We kneel with Christ as if with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane as the Eucharistic blessing is prayed. We listen to the Word of God being proclaimed to us as every Christian once did since the first Apostles, for we are all converts to a New Covenant. There is so much more! The point is that if we want to live a deep Christian life, we must know and embrace the depth of our faith not just in its wisdom and words, but in its symbolic and real actions both inside and outside of our churches.
Holy Week is upon us, and it delivers to us so much meaning, so much density. Let us prayerfully try our best to take it in.
Michael, thanks again for your thoughtful analysis – Paul Eleazer