Gospel Reflection for the 5th Sunday of Lent – Palm Sunday – April 2nd By Fr Brian Maher OMI
“And so… it begins again…”
This is, I will admit, the way I usually feel as Holy Week begins each year.
Yes, I know it all works out well in the end, and yes, I know the Gospels were written in light of the Resurrection, but the rest of the week leading up to Easter Sunday is just so incredibly sad.
It is a week where we see a man, who exhausted himself doing nothing other than good for his entire life, succumb to a brutal, humiliating and totally unjustified death at the hands of his enemies. It is also a week where we see him betrayed by one of his closest friends and deserted by all but his mother and a mere handful of his disciples.
It is a week where, at every hands turn, evil triumphs over good and darkness prevails over light.
If we did not have Easter Sunday, this would be the final word. Another example of power, pride, jealousy, and greed conquering gentleness, forgiveness and integrity.
And this, I believe, is exactly where we must pause and be careful. It would be easy – too easy – for us to boldly proclaim the Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning as a means of avoiding the sadness and emotion of the rest of the week. We must not allow ourselves to fall into this trap, as to do so not only denies the reality of suffering and pain in our lives, but also takes from our experience of the victory of Easter Sunday.
The Cross was not something Jesus could avoid, much as he prayed that “this cup could pass from me”. He had no choice but to allow himself to be swept along by the lies, pettiness and raw power of those who wished to destroy him. Nor did he try to sidestep what he saw before him. He could no more turn away from everything he believed in and dedicated himself to, than deny the God who sent him.
In Jesus’ life, as in ours, the Cross is not something we can avoid. It is present, sometimes in the shadowy distance and sometimes so close as to blot out all else. Attempting to sidestep the Cross or pretend it is not there leads only to an endless running from reality, with resulting depression and anxiety. It also leaves us endlessly caught in our Crosses, unable to escape and experience the light and hope of Resurrection.
For Jesus, Easter Sunday could only be reached by accepting Good Friday. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus was given many opportunities to escape the Cross by walking away from everything he had taught and practiced in his life. A simple miracle for Herod to ‘prove himself’ would have set him free, or playing into Pilate’s weakness could have saved him, but in each case, we are told, ‘he remained silent’.
Jesus certainly did not choose the Cross. He prayed that it could “pass from him” and on the Cross he reached his lowest point, feeling forsaken even by God. The Cross, for Jesus, was real and awful and incredibly dark. It was only by going through it, rather than trying to avoid it, that the victory of the Resurrection could be gained.
Right through Holy Week, the followers of Jesus became more and more ‘out of control’ of their lives. As Palm Sunday led to the confrontation between Jesus and the sellers in the Temple, and onwards to the betrayal by Judas, the Last Supper, his arrest in the garden, the parody of trials he endured, and finally his condemnation and death, it was as if they were being swept along in a storm, frantically trying to hold on to what they had with Jesus, but watching it bit by bit disintegrate before them.
As they ran away on Good Friday evening, and huddled together in desolate terror all through Saturday, I cannot even begin to imagine what they were feeling. Their dream was over. The one they had pinned their hopes to was gone; not just taken from them but shamed and humiliated as well. Mixed with the despair, grief, fear and hopelessness they felt, there must also have been some hidden anger at Jesus for failing to be who they thought he was, as well as a very real guilt and shame that they had deserted him when he needed them most.
Not just had Jesus suffered his Cross, but now his disciples seemed condemned to live their own Crosses into the future.
If we have journeyed beside Jesus and his disciples since his Baptism in the Jordan by John, and watched with them his gentleness, humour, forgiveness and healing, then we must walk this final week in Jesus’ life with those same disciples, allowing ourselves to experience the unwinding drama and conflicting emotions they must have felt.
On Holy Thursday, Jesus’ celebration of the Passover with his friends became his Last Supper. What should have been the celebration of God leading Moses from the slavery of Egypt, became the last meal of an already betrayed and condemned man. We must allow ourselves to enter into this experience with them, feeling with them the sadness of the occasion, followed by the confusion, uncertainty and fear which came with his arrest in the garden.
On Good Friday, difficult as it always is, we must experience Jesus’ Cross with him. The very solemn liturgy of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday sets the scene and creates the atmosphere of desolation we are invited to embrace with Jesus. As we kneel to kiss or touch or in some other way venerate the Cross, we are brought face-to-face with the victory of evil over good. For the Apostles of Jesus, for his grieving mother, for Mary Magdalene and his loyal friends, their experience of Good Friday was that ‘it was over’, ended by Rome in a show of cruelty and raw power from which there was no return.
We must feel the same as we journey into Saturday, pondering what might have been and wondering where it all went wrong.
The extent to which we can journey through Holy Week, not avoiding but walking steadily through the Cross with Jesus, will determine the extent to which we can experience and enter into the awesomeness of Easter Sunday morning.
If the incredible, unbelievable, breathtaking joy of Easter Sunday is somehow muted within us, might it not be that we have, in some way, side-stepped or avoided the deep, awfulness of the Cross?
“And so… it begins again…”
Walk slowly and steadily through Holy Week. Be gentle with yourself, always aware that God “holds us in the palms of his hands.”
Accept the Cross as Jesus did, not wanting it, but knowing that he could not be true to himself and his life on Earth without accepting it. Don’t fear feeling sad or confused or filled with doubts as this week unfolds within you.
Next week, just as surely as day follows night, Jesus will once again Rise from the Dead, and our lives will be changed forever. With St. Paul, we can shout from the mountain tops, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”, or, with John Donne, the 17th Century poet, we can affirm with absolute certainty, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so….”
But for now… it begins again…
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at email@example.com
Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord!
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