On Palm Sunday.
It would be a cold existence if it were nothing but God in his heavens, us below and an unfathomable void in-between. That’s why I like Palm Sunday. Of all the days on the religious calendar, Palm Sunday gives us Heaven and Earth on a human scale.
It’s not one of the big celebration days like Easter. There is no triumphant brass to supplement the organ and piano. Yet neither does it have the stark solemnity of, say, a Good Friday. Palm Sunday takes us through a roller coaster of emotions.
It starts out as jubilant as anything in the Christian story. The crowd of our congregation stands in the gathering space, waving the narrow palm fronds issued by the ushers, remembering the throngs of admirers that once shouted “Hosanna in the highest!” to cheer the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. To put it in the worldly parlance of today, that original moment outside the walls of the Holy City was peak messiah.
The image of adoring crowds lining the way, singing, covering the dusty road with cloaks and palm branches, has always been a vivid one for me. Jesus awash in humanity. This is the feeling that runs through the congregation on Palm Sunday some two thousand years later. The palms are blessed, the bowl of incense is flamed, the doors to the nave are thrown open like the gates of Jerusalem. The crowd strikes up the hymn for the procession in. “All glory, laud, and honor to you, Redeemer, King!”
But on Palm Sunday the mood shifts abruptly. The text for the Responsorial Psalm leaves not doubt about that. “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” And then it’s on to the Passion.
Palm Sunday in a Catholic church brings us the Passion read aloud in its entirety, beginning with the exchange of 30 pieces of silver in return for which Judas Iscariot agreed to betray Jesus. For a culture used to taking its information in sound bites, the Passion is strong medicine. Betrayal, angry mobs, first century politics, more betrayal, courtroom drama, unspeakable cruelty. It goes on for longer than most of us are used to sitting still anymore.
Then it ends abruptly. Unlike the joyful message of hope and salvation that we normally associate with Christianity, the reading of the Passion leaves us hanging. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” the crowd shouts. Then it’s done. The stone is rolled over the tomb. Lights out. End of story.
On this somber note on this particular Sunday, Father Michael delivered his homily. We all stand at the foot of the cross as Holy Week begins, and it’s not some decorative bauble covered in jewels. This is the cross as Jesus knew it. A tool of pain fashioned of rough wood and iron. This is what Father Michael asked us to think about as we entered Holy Week. He told us of the particular crosses some of our fellow parishioners face. A year spent looking in vain for a job. A marriage hung together by a thread. A young mother of three who was recently given a diagnosis of cancer and few good answers.
The homily had its intended effect. But the emotional journey was just getting started as we moved on to the Prayers of the Faithful. On the other side of the church, a parishioner named Dave sank frighteningly out of our fellowship.
There is an order to this sort of thing. Like the ripples that spread from a stone dropped into a pond, the realization that something is wrong moves through the room. Footsteps hurry down the aisles. A small knot of people gathers around the stricken parishioner. A pair of shoulders begins to lurch rhythmically as someone starts cardiac compression. Then a mechanical pre-recorded voice rises over the silenced room, directing the placement of paddles. A portable defibrillator has been activated.
An eternity passes. Shouldn’t something be happening by now? Some result? A jar of Chrism makes its way down the aisle for the anointing of the sick. Father Michael is a man of deep and compassionate humanity, and it’s written in his body language as he moves to the fallen man and then back to the alter to address his flock. No fewer than six doctors have come forward from the congregation, he tells us. Our brother Dave is in good hands. He leads us in prayer, giving voice to what had already formed silently on everyone’s lips. He tells us it’s one thing to talk about the cross as metaphor. It was quite another to witness it.
The humanist writer Loren Eiseley once described recovery from an episode of deep unconsciousness as “the strange climb up the crags of darkness to the lighted tower once more.” Dave’s eyes fluttered open. The paramedics finally arrived and bent over him. His head lifted. Those of us who had just spent an eternity in the lighted tower, waiting, praying, let out a cheer as our brother Dave was wheeled upright from the church. An injured player leaving the field.
The episode, we later learned, wasn’t life threatening. But that was only later. On this bright, beautiful Sunday in March we were reminded that life is short and can change in a heartbeat. The long season of Lent has been spent in the desert, denying things worldly. Palm Sunday brings us back to the gates of the city. We remember that brief moment outside of Jerusalem when the kingdom of Jesus was very much of this world. In a scene filled with singing and joy we’re reminded that our best spirituality is anchored in life, and the work we do to fill it with hope for others.
There are many people who don’t attend church often, but make a point of going on Easter. To keep open the connection to God. I’d recommend adding Palm Sunday to the list, if only for the purely human way it connects us with ourselves. God’s fragile yet fascinating creation.