For me the most beautiful liturgical time of the year has always been Holy Week. Through the readings at daily Mass I can relive the unfolding drama of Christ’s Passion leading up to the climax of the Cross. Then after pondering those events in my heart outside the tomb on Holy Saturday, I awaken with deeper joy at the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Every year, although it’s the same story, I find myself accompanying Christ differently, depending on where I am in my own journey at the time, and how God speaks to me through the liturgy. I find he never stops speaking to me and revealing himself to me in different ways. This year, with the circumstances we’re living, I’m expecting Christ to reveal something great, even though I can’t participate in the beautiful liturgies that I love so much (at least not in the way I always have in the past). I am convinced that he desires for me to have this strong experience of him in my life during Holy Week. I believe he wants it for every one of us. And because he is God, he will deliver.
After all, isn’t that what Holy Week is all about?
More than anything else, Holy Week is about who Christ is and what he has done for us. It’s all eyes on Christ – abandoned and forsaken, face set like flint, obedient on to death – the King. The readings for Palm Sunday set the tone for the whole week. If we delve into them, and follow the readings for daily Mass and the Holy Triduum services this week, we can receive the spiritual grace to be with him and feel what he feels all week long. Ask God for the grace to use this opportunity to live and suffer with Christ, that you may share this difficult time – his and yours – together.
Here are 5 suggestions for how you can use this Sunday’s readings to help you do that.
1. The Procession with Palms (Matthew 21:1-11)
Why not have one? Here is something you can do with your family in or outside your own home. In America we call Passion Sunday “Palm Sunday” and we typically use palm branches for this service. In other countries they call it “Branches Sunday” (for example, in Spanish it’s el Domingo de los Ramos). In the Gospel reading it does not specify what kind of branches they laid down before Jesus as he entered into the Holy City, it just says that they were branches – probably olive branches, as the scene opens with Jesus looking down on the Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. In Mediterranean countries, including Southern Europe, they use olive branches, because that’s what they have.
Why not use what you have and perform the ritual yourself? Your kids are likely to ask, “What’s going on?” which is amazing, because that is just what the Jews did in Jerusalem when the crowds ushered Jesus in, riding on the back of a donkey.
The crowds preceding him and those following
kept crying out and saying:
“Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest.”
And when he entered Jerusalem
the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”
And the crowds replied,
“This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The point to this Gospel being where it is in the Liturgy – i.e., at the beginning rather than at the end – is that it is meant to catch our attention. This is the only time during the year when we start with the Gospel. The Church is saying, “This is different, so pay attention.” It is a teaching moment. If you choose, you can make it a teaching moment for your family too when they ask, “What are we doing and why are we doing this?” And if it is a teaching moment, then what is the lesson?
The lesson is that we are part of the crowd. Within one week, the very crowd that shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest,” those same people will cry out with their fists in the air, “Crucify him!” and “We have no king but Caesar!”
This week as you accompany Christ by following along with him in the daily readings (which are always available here), you may identify with the different characters. At times they will be close to Christ, as they are at the Last Supper; at times they will be distant, as they are when he is handed over. They will desert him, deny him, betray him. Some will mock him, spit on him, and strike him. Some will weep over him. Some will be called upon to help carry the cross. Who are you?
The unfolding drama of Christ’s Passion starts with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Place yourself on the scene and proceed with him into the Holy City, where he will be condemned to death. Then walk with him every step of the way to the Cross, each day, through the daily Mass readings.
2. With Face Set Like Flint (Isaiah 50:4-7)
From this point onward, Jesus Christ is resolutely set out on a collision course with destiny. The die is already cast. People go about their everyday lives as Jesus proceeds with sheer determination, having freely accepted the outcome, which is to drink from the chalice his Father has prepared for him, the chalice of our salvation. He will be handed over to be beaten and tortured, mocked, scourged, and crowned with thorns, and finally crucified, shedding his blood for our sins and our salvation.
All the while, the world is oblivious to the things that are to come. This world around him and our world today does not recognize him or his sacrifice. With face set like flint, our Lord does not flinch. He stays true to his purpose and fulfills his mission, despite the indifference of the world he came to save. He does it alone.
Yet knowing the outcome ourselves, we can at least watch with admiration as our Lord completes the work of our salvation. This week, as you accompany Christ in the readings, ask the Lord for the grace to follow him closely, to want what he wants, and to feel what he feels. Appreciate and admire who he is and what he does for you.
3. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Psalm 22)
The Responsorial Psalm for Palm Sunday deepens the tone. Shortly after the first Gospel reading where throngs of people cheer Jesus on, the Responsorial Psalm presents him to us hanging on the cross and crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:2). Every last one of his Apostles departed from him. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. No one stood by him. He had no advocate when they put him on trial. No one spoke on his behalf before Pilate when they shouted to have him crucified. Soldiers rolled dice for his clothes right in front of him. Passersby mocked him as he hanged nailed to the cross. Even one of those crucified along with him ridiculed him. Jesus Christ, with a human heart, calls out to God, “Why!” He even feels abandoned by God.
While this is a great mystery – how can God feel abandoned by God? – there is much for us to gain by contemplating these words from our Lord. On the one hand, it is the brutal reality of what he feels and what he suffered for us. On the other hand, there is the fact that he suffers it all alone. We can accompany him, yet there remains the great truth that God brings to our attention, which we are asked to recognize and respect: Christ is doing for us, what we ourselves cannot do. That is, we cannot save ourselves, only Christ can.
Let us look to our Lord with great admiration, adore him on the cross, appreciate the extent to which he suffers for our sake, and conclude that we can never fully know how much he loves us. Let us ask for the grace to always grow in our knowledge of his love, and love him more each day in return.
4. Obedient onto Death, Death on a Cross (Philippians 2:6-11)
St. Paul’s Canticle in Philippians 2 poetically portrays the character arc of Christ, from his equality with God the Father from on high, to his incarnation as man, his humble servitude on earth, and untimely death.
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This Canticle of Christ ends with his exultation, which you can consider one of two ways: his being lifted up on the cross for the world to see, thereby drawing all people to himself (John 3:14-15); his triumphant resurrection from the dead and glorious ascension into heaven, where he reigns at the right hand of God the Father forever. Ultimately, this canticle of the suffering Christ points us to the end game, which is the glory of God in which are we all called to participate on account of the graces bestowed on us through his passion and resurrection.
Once again, the reading invites us to adore Christ, by bending the knee, confessing his Lordship, and acclaiming him as our God. His noble traits of humble obedience, service, and sacrificial love are presented for us not only to admire, but also to emulate. Christ, through his example, shows us the way to the Father. Let us pray that by contemplating the example he set for us, in his life and death, we may come to love him to the point that we cannot but follow him more closely every day for the rest of our lives, and that though our lives of humble service to him, others may experience the love of God.
5. The Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:14-27:66)
Let’s begin by noting a few subtle parallels between the two Gospel reading for this day, both of which are from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Both accounts begin with Jesus sending his disciples ahead of him on an errand into the city. In the first instance, it is to get a donkey, in the second, to reserve a room for the Passover. In both cases, they are instructed to simply tell whoever it is that they encounter of their master’s need and it will be granted to them. The point to this parallel is to set up the following ones that may not be so obvious.
Subsequently, in both stories, Christ is brought into the city where he is elevated to be viewed by the crowds, who greet him with shouts. In the first text, they proclaim him as the “Son of David,” which is to say, their King, the Messiah. In the second, they denounce him as such, or else they deride him saying “Hail, King of the Jews,” as the spit and strike at him. Despite the stark contrast, on account of Matthew’s use of parallelism starting at the beginning of these two texts, we are to understand that Jesus Christ is in fact the one and same Messiah, whom the people acclaim in the first text, and denounce in the second.
Nevertheless, the part the people play in this drama fulfills the Scriptures of the Messiah in manifold ways. Matthew portrays Jesus as the Suffering Servant, the Lamb led to the slaughter. The Jews symbolically acknowledge him as such when they shout back at Pilate, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” The unwittingly prophetic words voiced by the crown reiterate the people of Israel’s acceptance of the terms of God’s covenant with Moses at Mt. Sinai, after which Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the people to seal their covenant with God. Thus, Through these signs, St. Matthew invites us to acknowledge Christ as the sacrificial victim for the sake of his people, the High Priest who mediates the Covenant sacrifice, and the Lord of the Covenant (Yahweh) with whom the Covenant is established. In other words, through the sacrifice of Christ’s blood on the cross we enter into a new Covenant through Him, with Him, and in Him.
The Passion Narrative is far too long for an extensive commentary, which is not the purpose of this post. Today and throughout this week, you are invited to read and meditate on these texts, as well as the ones for daily Mass, and follow Jesus along the way of his sorrowful Passion. The goal is to live with him more closely during these days and to unite your desires, your work, and your sufferings with His.
Ask God for this grace, that by contemplating his Suffering and Death on the Cross, you may be drawn closer to Him, so as to rejoice in Resurrection more fully when it comes on Easter Sunday.
Lord, Jesus Christ, grant us the grace to know you to the point that we cannot but love you; to love you to the point that we cannot but follow you; follow you to the point of dying with you, that we may join you forever in heaven. Amen.