A victory march ends in a torture chamber; a palm parade turns into an execution march? That’s Palm Sunday. When Roman generals return from war, they’re accorded the greatest honor with a parade from the outskirts of the city to the amphitheater where they’re decorated with deserving laurels consistent with their outstanding exploits. The victory march with which we start the week the Church calls “holy” is not allowed to shimmer. It quickly turns into angry screams for blood—surprisingly by the same people who led the parade. But isn’t that what humanity is? So fickle that it doesn’t take much to make an about-face, a 180 degrees turn from praise-singing to mud-slinging. For example, months before the #MeToo movement broke, those hypocrites who began coming-out had filed in queues showcasing their slick bodies and plastic smiles eager to get snapshots with and gleefully recite their adoration to their abuser. Yet, humanity doesn’t fail to show that one thing in which we’re very consistent is being inconsistent.
The liturgy describes this Sunday very fittingly as the Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord to reflect this inconsistency, a combination of victory and defeat, and victory through defeat. Palm Sunday, apart from celebrating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, gives a sneak preview of the week—like an executive summary—encapsulating the events of the triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil) in one single celebration. This, in a way, is meant to benefit those who may not be able to attend the triduum and maybe explains why the passion narrative is read today. If every Catholic were to become an intentional disciple of Christ and attend the entire triduum liturgy, maybe we might have just read only one gospel—that of the triumphal entry, and left the proclamation of the passion narrative for the proper day, which is Good Friday. Nevertheless, the passion narrative sets the tone for the week and prepares us to enter into the mystery of the Lord’s passion. The suffering servant of Isaiah is the one who, according to Paul, doesn’t have to be grasping about His nature as a divine person but by taking the lowest seat becomes exalted through obedient suffering. He empties Himself to a point of despair exclaiming loudly, in the words of Psalm 22: “Deus meus, Deus meus, quare me dereliquisti?” (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?).
We can take a moment today to soak up the events that are about to unfold this week culminating in the resurrection. The Church purposely uses this very human term, passion, to draw out the extreme and barely controllable intertwining of love, pain, and suffering in the garden. It is significant that the event started in a garden, for it is in the garden that lovers meet. At the garden of Gethsemane, passionate love was roused to a degree in which mere bodily sensation was eclipsed. Love was to be given in its fullest form and rejected in the most appallingly dreadful manner. The weight of many love-pacts (covenants) trounced by humanity could be calculated in gazillion tons. The physical effect was blood-sweat (Lk 22:44). No other incident is described in this manner. The passion narrative has a way of making our personal hurts sound minuscule. When Mel Gibson directed the film Passion of the Christ, he lost the plot by making it all about beatings, floggings and excruciating pain. Many people suffer severe torture but none of those are referred to as passion. The passion of Christ is not so much about what He suffered as about the love prodigiously given and poured out. Until we understand the immensity of divine love, we’ll continue seeking love in feelings rather than in undying and unalloyed service.
Holy Week can end up as another seven days or we can immerse ourselves in the mystery. It’s up to us to choose this Holy Week whether to station our ego at the entrance of the garden of our hearts or open them as another Gethsemane where the Lord can enter to recreate His saving love.