We about to enter once again the most sacred week in the Christian calendar - Holy Week - when we commemorate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Allow me to share a few thoughts about this most important time in our Church year.
The sky is bright on this warm day - the first day of the week. At the entrance to the holy city of Jerusalem near Bethpage on the Mount of Olives a crowd begins to gather. Soon someone shouts: "He is coming!" With a flurry of activity the people begin to tear branches off the nearby trees and spread their cloaks on the road as a man in the company of some friends enters the city astride a donkey. Cheers erupt: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they shout. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" The crowd is going wild with adulation for this man and when asked by some bystanders who it is they tell them it is the prophet from Nazareth - Jesus by name. The frenzy of the crowd continues prompting some of the Pharisees to call out to this Jesus that he should rebuke his disciples and tell them to be silent. His response: "I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!"
Obviously the crowd is expecting much from this man - the one that some feel is the long awaited Messiah expected by Israel. This day is a day of triumph; their leader, the one upon whom they pin their hopes for Israel is among them. Then what does he do? He enters the precinct of the temple - the most sacred place in Judaism. He sees moneychangers and others selling goods within the temple precinct and his righteous anger comes forth. He takes a whip made of cords and begins to overturn the tables of the moneychangers and reminds them of the Scripture passage that says "My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves." He then leaves the city to return the next day to begin to teach the people within the temple precincts. His authority is challenged by the temple leaders but he proceeds by way of parables to bring God's message to the people. He issues fiery condemnations to the leaders - the Scribes and Pharisees - whom he calls hypocrites for a number of reasons. The stage is being set for the climax of the drama by which Jesus will be condemned and finally meet his death.
Dear Jesus, your entry into Jerusalem was a triumphant one. You were hailed as the Messiah, the Son of David. The people were placing their hopes in you to bring them out of bondage as Moses had done of old. But the bondage they wanted freedom from was not the one you came to deliver from - it was rather the bondage of sin, the sin of people down through the ages - those past and those to come. How many of those who cried out "Hosanna" to you on this Palm Sunday would be among those crying for your blood just a few days hence? Help us to realize that your gift to us was not one of power but one of love and forgiveness for all the things we had done or failed to do for you and for others. Help us to be reminded of the gratitude we owe to you for your sacrifice on our behalf.
Dusk has come and the shades of night are falling when a group moves toward a building and climbs to its upper floor where they will share - as their ancestors of old - the Passover meal. The man Jesus who was acclaimed a few days ago by the people as he entered the city now seems to be in a reflective mood as he reclines at table with his disciples to begin the sacred traditional meal. In the Jewish tradition the youngest at table asks the question about why this night is different from other nights. Perhaps this task fell to the young disciple, John. The meal proceeds and Jesus takes the opportunity to speak of many things with his disciples - to help prepare them for what lies ahead.
Then, in a move considered very uncharacteristic of the rabbi or leader, Jesus removes his outer garment and fills a basin with water and begins to wash the feet of his disciples - a task always carried out by a servant or slave. The disciples are no doubt stunned by this turn of events - why is the Master acting like a servant? When he comes to Peter, Peter in his characteristic way tells Jesus - as Master he should never wash Peter's feet! When Jesus tells him he will have no part with him unless he allows this, a typical Petrine response is forthcoming: "Then not only my feet but my head and hands as well!" Jesus is the servant and presents to his disciples what kind of role they should play as leaders of the Christian community to come - servant leaders not authoritative leaders.
As the meal draws to its close, Jesus takes some of the unleavened bread into his hands and offers it to the disciples telling them "This is my body." He then offers them a cup of wine telling them "This is my blood of the covenant." He tells them to continue to do this action in memory of him. They then go forth into the night and the drama of the Passion begins.
Jesus, what great gifts you have given us as we recall this sacred night. First the example of the type of disciples we should be - servants and not those out to show how important we are. You - the God-man - got down on your knees to wash the disciples' feet. We are to wash the feet of others - by our works of charity and by bringing the message of your love to others. Second the very gift of yourself in the Eucharist to provide us with the nourishment we need to lead good Christian lives. May we never take your gifts for granted.
After leaving the meal the disciples and Jesus proceed to the Garden of Gethsemane. Here he begins to fully realize what is in store for him because of the message he has been bringing. Like the prophets of old who were condemned by the leaders of Israel when the prophets dared to speak God's word - a word the leaders did not want to hear - Jesus would suffer the punishment of daring to speak God's word in his time to those whose hearts were hardened. Three times he enters into private prayer with his Father begging that the cup of suffering be removed but reconciling himself to the fact that it will come to pass. Then the drama escalates.
A group of temple guards and others approach the disciples' group in the garden. One of the chosen twelve - Judas Iscariot - will point out Jesus to them by offering him a kiss - a kiss of betrayal. Jesus is bound and taken to the high priest and ultimately before the ruling Jewish body - the Sanhedrin. The high priest will challenge him as to whether he is the Messiah and upon hearing Jesus' response rends his garments signaling what he terms a "blasphemy."
The Jews were not allowed to put anyone to death under Roman rule so the final arbiter in the case had to be the Roman governor - Pontius Pilate. Pilate tries to find a way to free Jesus but gives away to the rabble who cry for Jesus' crucifixion - the ultimate form of death pronounced on those who were not citizens of Rome. The walk to Calvary begins but not before Jesus is scourged and a crown of thorns placed upon his head as a form of mockery by the Roman soldiers.
The procession arrives at Calvary - the "Place of the Skull." Jesus is thrown down upon the cross beam that he has been forced to carry from the Praetorium to this place. Large nails are hammered into his wrists tearing the flesh and bringing about what must have been excruciating pain. He is then lifted onto the pole of the cross and his feet are likewise rent with a large nail. There he must hang - trying to gasp for breath, trying to rise up on his painful feel to catch such a breath and then fall back down pulling the flesh in his wrists and hands.
Standing at the foot of the cross are some of the faithful women disciples (the men all having fled out of fear) including the most perfect disciple - Jesus' own mother, Mary. What suffering she must have undergone to not only see her Son die but die in this most horrible way. When Jesus finally "gives up the spirit" he is taken down and placed in the arms of his mother. How she must have wept as she cleared the blood and sweat from his now dead face and remembering when she held him as an infant and rocked him to sleep.
Once Jesus told those around him that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. Even at this moment of death he would have to rely on another to give him a final resting place. An unused tomb, owned by one of the members of the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea), is provided and because the Sabbath was beginning the body was laid there to rest and the burial party departs.
Mary, Mother of Sorrows, how painful it must have been for you to witness the death of your Son. You would weep for his suffering but somehow you would know that God would not forsake him or you. You were always the model disciple - the one who would carry out God's will as you stated at your Annunciation: "Be it done unto me accoding to your word." Help us to realize how our sins have contributed to Jesus' suffering but also help us to know that we are never abandoned by God no matter what we have done or have failed to do. God, through Jesus' death, has reconciled the world to himself and we are therefore reconciled. Let us never forget it.
This is a quiet day. The disciples are reeling with shock over what has happened to their Master. Mary remains in quiet reflection. The world, as it were, comes to a standstill as it awaits the next part of the drama - a part foretold by Jesus but still one which the world would not have expected.
Something strange is happening - there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear....
For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden....
...(T)he eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
(Office of Readings- Holy Saturday Roman Rite)
The faithful women trudge toward the site of the borrowed tomb. Because the Sabbath had begun when Jesus was taken down from the cross they were unable to properly prepare the body for burial according to their custom. A guard had been posted by the tomb at the request of the Jewish leaders who were afraid the body might be stolen and a fabrication started that he had risen from the dead. The guards allow the women to proceed to the tomb to carry out their ritual. They wonder, however, who would roll back the heavy stone at the entrance of the tomb since the soliders made no offer to do so. Then they see that the stone had already been rolled back. Upon entering the tomb they are met by a young man who asks them why they seek the living among the dead - he tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead.
One of the women - Mary of Magdala - sits weeping near the tomb wondering what really happened. Then she spies a man she believes is a gardener to ask him where the body might have been taken. It is then that her eyes are opened and she beholds her Master - "Rabboni" she cries. He tells her to return to his disciples and tell them that Jesus has been raised and will go before them into Galilee. The early definition of an "apostle" was "one who had witnessed the Resurrection." Mary Magdalene then becomes "the apostle to the apostles" and goes forth to tell them the good news.
Alleluia! He is risen! Beloved Jesus, the Father rewarded you for your great offering of yourself to save us from our sins. You now sit at the right hand of the Father and continue to bless your Church and all of us as we struggle to live out our Christian lives. We will know crosses just as you did; we will know rejection and pain but we also know that we will one day glory in the same way as you now do in erternity with the Father and Holy Spirit. Lord Jesus, how much we owe you! In our human weakness we can never truly express the gratitude we should have but we know that you are with us always loving and sustaining us until the day we shall see your face in all its glory. Amen.