As the official kickoff to Holy Week, Palm Sunday is one of the more important days in the liturgical year. The imagery is striking — Jesus triumphantly enters town on the back of a beast of burden, hailed as a king only days before he suffers a brutal and, frankly, humiliating death.
Scrooge that I am, I was not really looking forward to it. Of course I appreciate Palm Sunday’s significance. The passion narrative documents an emotional and spiritual roller coaster that, beyond its resonance for the Catholic faith, is a dramatic masterpiece. Having heard it all before, though, the Gospel readings displaying Jesus’s passion and death can seem so…loooooooooong.
I am embarrassed to admit it. The agony in the garden? Peter’s denial? Jesus’ tight-lipped demeanor in front of Pilate? ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ What an incredibly dense and poetic series of events!
But familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. Or, in this case, boredom.
The day after Mass I took another crack and spent a few moments interacting with the readings, trying to sink into Ignatian contemplation, or imaginative prayer. With eyes closed, I attempted to envision myself in the setting of these extraordinary events.
How might I have reacted as a member of the throng watching Jesus arrive on a donkey? I probably would have been skeptical of his supposed kingship. As Father Robert Barron noted in a Lenten e-mail message, “The wealthy and powerful might own horses or a team of oxen and a political leader might ride a stately steed, but none of them would have anything to do with donkeys.” Humility and an attitude of coming to serve rather than be served is one of many unique marks of Jesus’s lordship.
What about the Last Supper? How might I have responded to Jesus handing me a piece of bread and telling me it was his body that would be sacrificed for my sake? The words are familiar as part of every Mass, but they are jarring when explored in this light. I think I would have frowned with surprise, unsure of what Jesus meant, before shrugging. After all, Jesus was often making confusing comments and engaging in perplexing behavior. This bread is your body? Par for the course, Jesus.
Though the Holy Week we have now entered is like the ones we travel each and every year, there are always new insights and discoveries, new ways we can look at what Jesus and his disciples experienced. For while Holy Week acknowledges events that took place 2,000 years ago, our faith is truly about what God is doing now.
Originally published March 19, 2016