Today, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of the holiest week in the Church's liturgical year. This morning’s readings from Scripture, which trace out for us the path we will follow in this week’s liturgy, are held within two almost ironic bookends.
In the first Gospel read at the blessing of the palms, we see Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem where He is hailed as King of the Jews—explicitly in the option from John (12:13) and implicitly in Mark’s Gospel (11:10). To those laying down their cloaks and palms this was the climactic moment, Jesus was revealing Himself as the Messiah, the King; they expected that He would now overthrow the Romans and establish His kingdom.
And they were right—but in a way they never expected and, indeed, did not recognize.
We hear those words “king of the Jews” once more in the last Gospel reading (Mark 15:2,9,12,18,26), but instead of being shouted in electric exhilaration and exultation by the Jews as they welcomed Jesus as King, we hear them on the lips of Pilate as he questions Him, from the mouths of the soldiers as they beat and mock him, we read them on the inscription of the charge against Him. What was once shouted in adoration as we began Mass is now shouted in indignation and mockery. What was first acclamation is now defamation. In between these two bookends the drama of Holy Week unfolds.
The Jews crying out in exultation, welcoming their King, were not wrong in their expectation of the impending victory of their Messiah. Their King was King indeed as he reigned from Pilate’s cross, conquering their foes and subjugating even death to his sovereignty. What they mistook for utter defeat would be revealed in three days as absolute triumph.
As the prophet Elijah wrote, “Who would believe what we have heard?” (Isaiah 53:1) Who would believe that the great victory of the Messiah would be through loving obedience in pain and suffering, even death? Who imagined that the great messianic hope of the people would be accomplished through oppression, persecution and death? It can be so easy to think that if we had been there we would have recognized Christ for who He was and His death for what it was.
But if we don’t recognize the same process in Christ’s body, the Church, why are we so sure we would have recognized it in His Head? For St. Paul tells us, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians is to enact, to enkindle Christ’s life in us, to bring Christ’s body into full unity with His Head, and this process involves suffering and death.
On Calvary the cross looked like utter waste, the hope of Israel rendered completely useless. As Isaiah says, “Seized and condemned, he was taken away. Who would have thought any more of his destiny?” (Isaiah 53:8) So often when we meet with pain and suffering in our life we see it as futile and useless, as Christ's death appeared to the Jews. We cry to God to remove it (just as Jesus did in the Garden) and yet are troubled and confused when He allows it to remain. We will all suffer in this life, the sin of Adam wove pain into the fabric of human existence; but Jesus, the Son of God, has transformed that suffering from something life extinguishing to something life-saving. The marks of slavery Jesus has endowed, by His own suffering, with redemptive value.
The drama of the Passion happened in history 2000 years ago, and we experience it every year in the Church’s liturgy. But it must go deeper than one week every Spring; we must let Christ live in us, let His salvific life, passion, death and resurrection truly be lived also in our life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It is so easy to hail Christ as our King when He’s entering the Holy City in triumph, when everything is joy and celebration. Yet we must hail Him our King no less when He hangs from the cross and invites us to take up our own cross and follow Him who is The Way (Matthew 16:24).