We are all able to focus, at least more or less, on what is most important. When something is fascinating to us, we can focus our attention and tune out distractions in order to concentrate on what we are really interested in at that moment.
St. Paul reminds us that we especially need to do that by giving our attention to what is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and praise worthy. Palm Sunday is a time that we all need this reminder. For we are turning from the penitential focus of Lent to following our Lord into the mystery of our salvation as we journey with Him to His cross, to His death, His descent into Hades, and ultimately to His glorious resurrection. We need to be honest, however, for nothing about this week comes naturally or easily to us. We may like to follow athletic teams, politicians, entertainers, authors, and others who achieve success and fame by the conventional standards of our culture. Perhaps we have a vision of the kind of comfortable life that we want for ourselves and our families and plan accordingly over years or decades in order to achieve that. This is a world we know quite well.
Very different, however, is the way of Jesus Christ into which we enter during the coming week. Though He is God, He suffers freely for our sake. He loves those who reject Him to the point of dying on their behalf. He achieves victory by giving up everything that looks like power and prestige in this world. In ways that no human mind can fathom, the eternal Son of God empties Himself to the point of hanging on a cross, being buried in a tomb, and descending to Hades. The Word Who spoke the universe into existence submits to rejection, torture, and public execution at the hands of those He came to save. No, this is not life in the world as we know it.
Jesus Christ revealed that He is the resurrection and the life by raising His friend Lazarus from the dead after four days, by which time the soul was believed to have left the body and decay had set in. In the midst of her grief about her brother’s death, Martha made the clearest confession of faith in John’s gospel by saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is to come into the world.” Our Savior wept for His friend Lazarus, and ultimately He wept for us all, decayed and corrupted by sin and death and so far from fulfilling our ancient calling to participate in the glory of the divine life.
It is the God-Man, the Second Adam, Who now enters Jerusalem as the long-awaited Messiah to the welcoming cheers of the crowd. But even before He gets to Jerusalem, the forces of darkness had decided to kill Christ because they could tell that someone who could raise the dead was a threat to their power. He was neither a conquering general nor a Pharisee-like interpreter of the Law, and those nationalistic religious leaders had no use for a Messiah who did not serve their schemes of domination.
On Palm Sunday, it becomes clear that the Savior Who enters Jerusalem today is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Passover Lamb whose death and resurrection will conquer death itself. Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, performed a prophetic act when she anointed Christ with the same kind of costly ointment that was used to anoint the bodies of the dead. This Messiah, this One who is truly anointed to save His people and the whole world, will be rejected by the leaders of the Jews and crucified under the authority of the Romans. And when He is lifted up upon the Cross, He will draw all who believe in Him– Jew, Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, all nations, classes, and races—to the life of a Kingdom that transcends this world and our petty divisions.
Jesus Christ will not reign as a soldier, a politician, a rich man, or a popular religious leader, but as a Suffering Servant, a slaughtered lamb, a despised victim of torture and capital punishment. The crowds are right on Palm Sunday to welcome Him as a conquering King in Whom God’s promises will be fulfilled. But they misunderstand what kind of King He is and how He will conquer. For He rules from a cross and an empty tomb; instead of killing Roman soldiers, He kills death by allowing Himself to be killed; in the place of a magnificent stallion fit for a king, He rides a humble donkey that would impress no one.
The crowd is right, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel.” They shout “Hosanna,” which is a plea for God’s salvation to come upon the earth. And it does through the Lord’s death and glorious resurrection. But that is not what the crowds expected; it is apparently not what the disciples or anyone else anticipated. For it goes against all our preconceived notions of what it means to be successful, to be powerful, to rule upon the earth, and to be respectable and religious.
And it is still a very hard lesson for us to accept, for there is too much of the world in all of us and the demons never work harder than when we are trying to grow closer to Christ. That is why we need to follow St. Paul’s advice to focus on what is truly holy this week, to rejoice always, and to “let your gentleness be known to all men.” As St. Paul wrote, “The Lord is at hand” which is never more true than on this feast as He enters Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds.
In Holy Week, we are confronted with a shocking truth that we probably do not want to hear. Jesus Christ is the Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. He is our Champion, our Savior, our King, yet in His humility and love, the incarnate Son of God suffers on the cross as the lowest of the low in order to bring us to the heights of heaven and the joy of life eternal through His empty tomb.
And this week we go with Him to that cross, becoming participants in His passion. Like Lazarus, we sit at table with Him. Like Mary, we anoint Him for burial. Like those gathered in Jerusalem, we welcome Him with palms and praises. Like the disciples, we eat the Passover with Him; like His mother Mary the Theotokos, the other faithful women, and the Apostle John, we kneel before His cross. Like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, we bury Him. And like the stunned myrrh-bearers and the doubting apostles, we will marvel at the unspeakable joy of His resurrection. For what looks like complete failure and despair is actually total triumph and victory, as we will see in the early hours of next Sunday.
Holy Week is the climax of Jesus Christ’s life and of ours, too. Do not forget that He goes to the cross for us; He dies and rises for our salvation, to bring us into the unending joy of eternal life, to defeat our ancient foe. So it is time to tune out our usual distractions and excuses, and enter into the passion of our Lord by worshiping Him in the services of the Church, as well as in every thought, word, and deed this week. If we cannot attend literally every service due to work, school, distance, or health, we can all pray at home, read the Bible passages for Holy Week, and give less attention to the world and more to the One Who comes to save it.
This week it becomes clear who Jesus Christ is: The Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. How will we respond to Him as He goes to the cross for us? Hopefully, with the fear of God and faith and love, we will draw near and not abandon or disregard Him. Hopefully, we will make following our Lord our top priority this week. In the events of Holy Week, He certainly made us His.
Of course, it will take intentional focus and the discipline to turn away from distractions and unholy thoughts and habits that become obstacles along our path. The more steps we take to grow closer to the Lord, probably the stronger our temptations will be not to do so. No, there is nothing easy or naturally pleasing about Holy Week. Nonetheless, we must follow St. Paul’s guidance to “Be anxious for nothing” and allow “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding…[to] guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel. Hosanna in the highest!”