“Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (Lk 19:28). This sentence from the Gospel that opens the account of Jesus’ entrance in Jerusalem contains both our Lenten journey and the journey of our entire life. The coming week is called ‘holy’ because it is a time when we remember the days in which the greatest love ever shown to men and women was witnessed. Even though we may be immersed in our own problems, it is wise to let ourselves get caught up in the dramatic feelings that characterize Jesus’ last days. We cannot find these feelings in ourselves; we can only receive them. Accordingly, we need to make sure that we do not overlook the grace that we receive during these days, when our eyes will be able to see how much the Lord loves us.
Palm Sunday, which opens this great and holy week, is marked at the same time by two events: Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the narration of his passion and death. By bringing these two distinct events together into one celebration, the liturgy is meant to take away any equivocation we might feel about Jesus’ triumph. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king, but was quite different from the kings of this world. Jesus reigns from a throne unlike the thrones found in royal palaces; he does not conquer with armies or alliances, nor does he promote himself with a well-trained, high-pressured lobbying group. Jesus himself clears up this misunderstanding when it arises among the disciples on the evening of Holy Thursday. Turned in on themselves and therefore insensitive to the drama that Jesus is living, the disciples start talking about who among them is the greatest. But with boundless patience Jesus tells them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”
These were not just easy words. In a few hours Jesus would carry this statement to its most extreme consequence in his very flesh. From a certain point of view, the story of the passion is very simple. There was a good man who talked about the Gospel, both in the poor and ill-famed region of Galilee and in the capital of Jerusalem, and many people came to listen to him. At a certain point the powerful decided that he had said too much and that too many people were listening to him, and they decided to silence him. They found one of his friends, who told them exactly where the man usually went to be alone: a garden at the gates of Jerusalem. That very evening he was there with his friends, and they took him and lead him before the highest authorities: Pilate, the representative of the greatest empire in the world, and Herod, the sly king. But neither of the two wanted to take any responsibility in front of that man. The crowd, which only five days earlier had been shouting, “Hosanna,” now started yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and Pilate would not stand up to them. The man, after having been mocked and dressed in royal robes, was tortured, slapped, and crowned with thorns. He was then driven outside of the city (paralleling when he was born and had to find a stable outside of Bethlehem) and led up a hill called Golgotha where he was nailed to a cross with two thieves, one on his right and one on his left. And on that cross the good man died. He was named Jesus and he came from Nazareth.
Obviously this death was unjust. Death is never just, even after the most brutal crimes, but it is quite easy to say that this man’s death was truly unjust. He had not done anything wrong; indeed the people had once said, “He has done everything well” (Mk 7:37). Whoever listens to the story of this death with a little bit of heart is moved and upset; that good man had to suffer so greatly and die on the cross just because he had spoken about the Gospel and said that he was the Son of God. After reading the Passion each one of us feels a little bit of affliction and regret and is tempted to say, “I would not have done it,” or to justify oneself by saying, “I am not Pilate or Herod or even Judas.” We might even try to say that we are powerless in front of the cowardice of Pilate and the cruelty of the high priests. But Peter is there too. He is not the worst of the disciples and even though he is not the best, he is certainly the most important, the one to whom Jesus had entrusted the greatest responsibility. Peter has a strong sense of himself; he is proud and even irritable. He took offence when Jesus told him that he was going to betray him, and he said, “Lord, I am ready to go to prison and death with you.” But all it took was one woman and everything came crashing down. Later, it was the encounter with Jesus’ gaze that shook Peter, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord” (Lk 22:61). We Christians are not heroes; we are like everyone else; but if our eyes meet the eyes of that man who is going to die, we too will remember the Lord’s words and we will be freed from our fears. This is the grace given during this week: the ability to stay near that man who is suffering and dying, so that by being near him we might meet his gaze.
Prayer in the Day of the Lord