The liturgical name for today is Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, juxtaposing the victory of redemptive love and the fatality of ancient pride. Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday marks the beginning of the Christian Holy Week after the long period of Lenten fast and prayer. Today, with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the Church enters the most important and sacred week in the life of believers, when the entire event of salvation becomes real in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.
There’s this imagery of Jerusalem as a city to which people go up. Psalm 122:3 says: “Jerusalem is built as a city strongly compact; it is there that the tribes GO UP, the tribes of the Lord.” From whichever direction you’re taking to Jerusalem, you’re going up. Jesus enters as a triumphant king into His city, Jerusalem, the city of destiny. October last year, I had the privilege of taking a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. And one of the unforgettable experiences was GOING UP to Jerusalem. Located 2400 feet above sea level, Jerusalem, the ancient city remains the epicenter of religious activities in the world. But for the coronavirus, citizens and pilgrims in Jerusalem today would be taking part in the memorable event recalled today. They would be standing with palm branches and waving as the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, rode a donkey into the city. The teaming number of pilgrims who participate in this time-honored annual ritual recall with great emotion the event that took place at that same road nearly 2000 years ago. Some of the amazing sites you’ll view from any position are: the Mount of Olives towering even higher by almost 300 feet – named after the olive groves that once covered its slopes. The Kidron Valley, also mentioned today, is found between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. It is deep and dangerous, with peaks and valleys that, without question, would create the aura of the slips and tumbles, the highs and lows of the drama of salvation that we reenact today. Also, right at the base of the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemani, where Jesus sweat blood, the apostles slept, and the critical betrayal by Judas took place. A large surface rock at this garden has been used to form the sanctuary of the Church of All Nations to remind us that the love we celebrate today is firm as a rock and reaches to the ends of the earth.
Yet, there’s much less to indicate triumph. He chose to ride not a horse but a beast of burden. Roman military generals rode on horses when returning from successful missions. The donkey reflected the animal of the poor. The singing of Hosanna (in Hebrew: “Save us, we pray”), the spreading of cloaks and branches did not take His focus away from what awaited Him.
The drama of His conviction, sentencing, inhuman treatment by the Jews and Roman soldiers cannot fail to move the heart. Regardless how many times we hear it, each time it is read, we feel our spirit moved, as whenever we watch The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson. The death of the Lord was followed by earthquakes, tombs splitting open, and the raising of the dead, as we heard in Matthew’s account. These events caused those hired to keep watch -- lest His frightened disciples come and steal His dead body -- to cry, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” But the most important lesson is to realize that Jesus needn’t suffer so grievously if not for our sins.
Hearing these words today and looking at Jesus hung on the cross, we should see and sense the full gravity of sin. According to Sheen, a personal equation must be established between the crucifix and us, where each of us should read his or her autobiography. We see our pride in the crown of thorns, our lusts and carnality in the nails and the torn flesh, sins of avarice in the poverty and nakedness, our wandering from the path of goodness and forgetfulness of God in the pierced feet, our thievery in the riven hands, and our sins of alcoholism in the thirst.
More than our sins, God’s love and infinite mercy is also written there as part of our autobiography. The cross is the parchment on which it is written and Christ’s Blood is the ink with which it is written. It is by His wounds that we’re healed (Isaiah 53:5; I Pet 2:24), by His blood He ransomed us for God. There, right there on the cross, He forgave all our sins and nailed them finally. Our hearts are filled with wonder and gratitude at so great a gift.
Allow me to conclude this reflection by suggesting that, maybe, God meant that the coronavirus lockdown should afford the entire world time and opportunity to stop and reflect on our relationship to the Cross. If that happens, then, coronavirus would be remembered as another evil tree – like the Cross of Christ – from which we rose to new sensibilities of Divine grace and life completely renewed. It would have become, again like the cross, the tree that bathes with perfume the axe that cuts it.