The next week marks the high point of our Church year. The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “There is no sun without shadow. It is essential that we know the night.” Christians know that there can be no resurrection without the cross.
We hear two different versions of Jesus’ Passion this week. On Palm Sunday we hear Matthew’s account, sprinkled with references to the Old Testament and the way that Jesus fulfilled the words of the great Hebrew prophets. On Good Friday, we hear the Passion according to John, the same story but told from the other side of the resurrection, when there’s no doubt about the outcome, no question of who is in control of everything that takes place. It reminds us that faith is often a question of perspective. God’s truth shows itself in our lives in different ways.
It’s not quite 40 days since we were signed with the ashes of last year’s palms, praying that this time we wouldn’t run from the cross. The cross is before us now with its wordless challenge to love beyond death.
We gather at church on Palm Sunday and wave our palm fronds in the entrance procession. During the reading of the passion, we may take the parts of the crowd, shouting almost in spite of ourselves, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
We might think this is merely a bit of liturgical playacting. It may be that we come to church because it’s what we’ve always done or because someone is telling us that we have to. We may not give much thought to why we gather here for these holy days.
Like the Jewish celebration of Passover, which not only remembers the historical event that changed forever their lives at the chosen people of God but makes that saving event a reality in the lives of those who celebrate it down through time, the events of Holy Week are far more than a dramatization of the last days of Jesus’ life. We enter into the saving mysteries of the passion, death and resurrection. Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood at the Last Supper takes place each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist.
Our actions here at Mass may give us a deeper insight into our relationship with God. How often do we turn on God when things don’t go the way we had so carefully planned? How often do we stand waiting for a glorious celebration of victory, only to find ourselves staring in confusion at a cross? The palm branches drop from our hands and we raise our firsts to heaven, hoping to hide deep disappointment in self-righteous defiance.
A long-standing tradition among Catholics has been to braid palms into crosses. There are many different methods for doing this. I was surprised to find a variety of patterns and instructions on the internet. Crosses take many different shapes. Whether or not you take part in this folk tradition, it’s a metaphor of the way this day begins with a palm and ends with a cross.
Take some time this week to think about events in your own life that have given you an experience of Jesus’ command to pick up your cross and follow him. You might find that something you always wanted has turned to bitter disappointment. See beyond that disappointment to the God who is in control even in the blackness of death.