Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021
It’s fair to say that Holy Week and Easter vanished for most people a year ago, didn’t they? During those days, we were just beginning to try to assess how we would attack an invisible enemy that was enveloping our world with fear, suffering and death. While treasured rituals of our faith were still celebrated, in disbelief, we stayed away from our churches. Isolated from one another, we commemorated these most sacred days of our faith tradition alone, watching services on television or computer screens or simply praying as best we could, as we tried to make sense of what was happening.
Today, a year later, much has changed. People are receiving vaccines. We are content, even if still a bit uncomfortable, to engage the drills that will keep us and our neighbors safe, from masking to social distancing to sanitizing just about everything that could come in touch with the dreaded virus. And we are back in our churches – at least those of us who feel comfortable doing so – as we once again prepare to celebrate the great mysteries of our faith that enabled us to see a way forward a year ago to this day.
Yet, we’re still hesitant – still a bit uncertain about our gatherings – still unsure of what this virus may do next and how we will be forced to respond. Some of us come to this moment of prayer breathing a sigh of relief. Others of us bring profound suffering, pain and grief to our experience of these most holy days.
And not a few of us come with a deeper awareness of the need for God in our lives. We come with the recognition that for as much as we have believed otherwise for far too long, we ultimately are not in control of our lives as we have mistakenly believed for far too long. We come having faced – perhaps for the first time in our lives – burning questions about life, death, faith and God.
In today’s proclamation of the Passion, such questions come to fore, don’t they? Jesus said one thing as he hung from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Abandoned by his closest followers, in the midst of his agony on the cross, Jesus questioned whether his Father had abandoned him as well.
In his Palm Sunday homily a year ago, as we had just begun to engage our battle with the coronavirus, Pope Francis reflected upon Jesus’ words of abandonment: “Why did all this take place? Once again, it was done for our sake, to serve us. So that when we have our back to the wall, when we find ourselves at a dead end, with no light and no way of escape, when it seems that God himself is not responding, we should remember that we are not alone. Jesus experienced total abandonment … in order to be one with us in everything. He did it for me, for you, for all of us; he did it to say to us: ‘Do not be afraid, you are not alone.’ … Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: ‘Courage, open your heart to my love. You will feel the consolation of God who sustains you’”.
Brothers and sisters, as we stand on the threshold of Holy Week and as we begin to experience glimmers of hope in the midst of the darkness of this past year, we may be drawn to look right through the events of this week to the light and promise of Easter, which we so desperately seek. However, let us not be too quick to move beyond the example of Jesus, who teaches us by the embrace of his cross, where to discover the means to life and peace.
Pope Francis points the way to those ultimate gifts by calling us to a deepened appreciation of the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “The tragedy we are experiencing at this time summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. … So, in these holy days … let us stand before the Crucified One – the fullest measure of God’s love for us – who serves us to the point of giving his life, and let us ask for the grace to live in order to serve. May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.”
Make no mistake, our experience of Holy Week will not take away the harsh realities of life that we face each day. Nor will it cause life’s disappointments to disappear. But our authentic embrace of the example of Jesus and our selfless love and care for the world and lives that God has given to us – particularly in the midst of the challenging times that we continue to face – do have the power to open our lives the mystery of God’s saving grace and his promise of life and peace.
Therein, my friends, is the true and lasting gift of Holy Week.