Walking with Jesus on Palm Sunday and Throughout Holy Week
It is traditional that we give up something during the season of Lent. This year, in the Year of Faith, we did something unusual. We “gave up” a Pope for a while. And that time after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took effect on February 28 was like being in the desert in a certain sense. There was an emptiness, as palpably experienced when in the Mass when we usually pray for the Pope, we simply skipped over that part.
What a joy it was then when that plume of white smoke came out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel announcing the election of a Pope. Almost an hour passed between the emergence of the smoke and the arrival on the balcony of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran to announce “Habemus papam!” (“We have a Pope!”). Yet already in the Square during that wait there were roars of “Viva il Papa!” (“Long live the Pope!”). Without even knowing who was chosen to be the new Pope the crowd, estimated at about 100,000 people, were already rejoicing and wishing him well. This scene said something quite profound. We wish well the Pope whoever he is – because he is the Pope – the Successor to Peter.
Today, then, our hearts are filled with both faith and love. We renew our faith in the continuing presence of Jesus our Lord and teacher in the teaching office embodied in the Successor to Peter. We also have hearts filled with love for the person who now carries out that Petrine ministry – Pope Francis.
However, in cheering for Peter, for Pope Francis, we understand that we are really cheering for Christ, as our Holy Father himself explained a few days after his election.
“Christ is the Church’s Pastor, but his presence in history passes through the freedom of human beings; from their midst one is chosen to serve as his Vicar, the Successor of the Apostle Peter. Yet Christ remains the center, not the Successor of Peter: Christ, Christ is the center. Christ is the fundamental point of reference, the heart of the Church. Without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.”
The role of the Pope, then, is to be a “pontiff,” which is from the Latin meaning “a bridge builder.” Francis understands that he is called to be “a builder of bridges with God and between people,” as he stated in an address to diplomats from around the world last Friday. “My wish is that the dialogue between us should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister to be welcomed and embraced!”
Helping people to build a connection with God, an encounter with Christ, means journeying with Jesus. Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday, invites us to retrace the path of Jesus during the week in which he died for us and rose to new life. Today, we acclaim Jesus as Messiah, waving palms of jubilation. Jesus rides into Jerusalem humbly on a donkey, but it is a prophetic sign, a sign that Christ is king.
In reading the Passion narrative, we are encouraged to place ourselves in the scene, with the people speaking various parts. But while we cheer Jesus on this day, when we read the entire Passion story just a few short days later, on Good Friday, we will cry out “Crucify him!” In this way, we dramatically come to understand that it is for our sins that Jesus embraced the cross. We also come to understand that we cannot get to Easter, except by going through Good Friday. We cannot obtain the Resurrection without the Crucifixion. In this dramatic week, between the jubilation of Palm Sunday and the sorrow of Good Friday, the Lord gives us the Eucharist and the priesthood, assuring that he will abide with us always.
Today the narrative of redemption opens with the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Here we are reminded that Jesus proclaims a kingdom that will never end and of which he is Lord. But we also learn that his kingdom is of the Spirit. His realm is a spiritual one, not a temporal, political one. He has come to fashion a new creation that is formed in faith and resides, first, in the hearts of his followers.
As we continue on during this most holy of weeks, let us walk with Jesus, asking him to send us his spirit to open our hearts so that we all might be, in our own way, bridges between God and the people around us.