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Sunday, April 17, 2011

We are the crowds

I love Holy Week.  The Church's most solemn time of the year, Holy Week brings with it rich liturgies, rituals and devotionals that recall the most important moments in salvation history.

We begin this most important of weeks with Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion.  Palm Sunday stands as a paradox of sorts.  The liturgy begins with Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  As we hear in the Gospel proclaimed at the beginning (this year, the account is taken from St. Matthew's Gospel), Jesus enters the Holy City riding atop a donkey as the crowds cheer him and acclaim him as the Son of David.  The hymn "All Glory, Laud and Honor", the text written by  St. Theophilus, echos this notion of triumph and majesty.

But, then, gradually, the scene and the mood shifts from one of triumph to one of intense and immense suffering as the Mass progresses.  We listen to one of the Oracles of the Suffering Servant, from the book of the prophet Isaiah and we chant Psalm 22, the mournful, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"  The oracle of the Suffering Servant, Psalm 22 and St. Paul's Christological canticle from his letter to the Phillipians, prepare us for the proclamation of the Passion (again, this year, taken from St. Matthew's account).

The way that the proclamation of the Passion is structured for both Palm Sunday and Good Friday is unique to these two days.  For once, rather than the deacon and/or the celebrant proclaiming the Gospel, the reading is broken into parts, with the celebrant reads the words of Christ while others share in the parts of the narrator (often the deacon, if he is there), the speakers other than Christ and the crowd (read by the faithful).  Palm Sunday, in particular, gives the faithful a dual chance at taking on roles in both Gospel passages.  In the beginning, if there is a procession, the faithful carry palm branches and chant "All Glory, Laud and Honor" as they process into the Church, proclaiming their praises to the Son of David.  In the Passion, the same faithful take on the role of the crowds who, instead of acclaiming Christ as King, demand his crucifixion.  I do not believe that we are play-acting in both of these situations.  We are the crowds, the same ones who acclaim Jesus and the same ones who condemn him.  We scream and yell because everyone else is screaming and yelling.  We let ourselves get caught up in the wave of the moment.

In the Stations of the Cross he composed for Good Friday 2005, then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made that same point:

But at that moment they are caught up in the crowd. They are shouting because everyone else is shouting, and they are shouting the same thing that everyone else is shouting. And in this way, justice is trampled underfoot by weakness, cowardice and fear of the diktat of the ruling mindset. The quiet voice of conscience is drowned out by the cries of the crowd. Evil draws its power from indecision and concern for what other people think.

By reading the part of the crowd in the Passion, we rightly assume our roles in all of this.  While some may say that, in hindsight, they would not have clamored for the blood of the innocent Christ, that is, in fact, what we do every time we sin.  When the crowds shout, "Let his blood be on us and on our children", they are speaking not only for their generation, but, for the peoples of all times.  Their words are our words.  But, there is some sort of prophetic, poetic irony in these words.  When Moses sealed the covenant between God and Ancient Israel, he first poured blood over the altar and then sprinkled the blood on the people.  Thus, the blood of the covenant was on the people themselves and, by proxy, on their children, since the covenant was passed on from one generation to the next.

And so it is with Jesus and the new and everlasting covenant.  Little did the people realize that when they cried "Let his blood be on us and on our children", they were, in fact, calling to mind what happened on Mt. Sinai with Moses, the Hebrews and the blood.  The crowds were being prophetic inspite of themselves.

We begin Holy Week with the majestic entry of Christ, the Son of David, into his own city, Jerusalem.  As we progress, we will read most of the oracles of the suffering servant and walk with Jesus along the path of suffering that leads us to the Paschal Triduum.

Wherever you are during Holy Week, I urge you to make time to attend the Triduum in your parishes.  Some of you, perhaps, are in areas where such attendance is difficult and the circumstances are such that they may prove to be a hardship.  Nonetheless, you can spiritually join your brothers and sisters throughout the world in prayer.

To those of you who are able to attend, the Church does not obligate us by ecclesial law to attend; however, there is a greater obligation, the obligation of love that compels us to want to be with Jesus.  Love compels us, like St. Mary Magdalene, to accompany Jesus from the Last Supper onward.  Lent is all about preparing us for these great days.  Let us go out to meet the Lord.

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