Palm Sunday is to me the most disorienting liturgy of the year. We begin with a festal procession, waving palm fronds and shouting our Hosannas to the Messiah. Then suddenly it is as though the brakes are applied and there is a screeching turn. The colors change. The mood darkens by several shades. The Passion is sung. Yet more bitterness is portended: betrayal, torture, death. Holy Week is here.
We know what lies ahead, on the other side of the middle distance. Easter is but one week from today. It’s a funny feeling when one makes an effort to engage these mysteries with a more deliberate attention, like looking at contour lines on a familiar map. It’s a pilgrimage we make every year. Unlike the apostle Thomas, perhaps, by now we ought to “know the way” (John 14:5) — every turn, every landmark. And yet. Today, as ever, it only manages to be portended. The destination is somehow a long way off.
I have been in a melancholic mood lately. The death of my mother last month — the death of a beloved parishioner last week. Two voids hollowed out of my consciousness, two presences obtaining now only in my memory, and in an obstinate trans-cosmic distance, strangely located in the eucharistic Host. I am reminded of how the Gospel says that when Jesus was crucified
behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matt. 27:51-52)
How bizarre. But that’s not for today. That’s Good Friday. It all lies in front of us.
Palm Sunday’s weirdness is of a different stripe, even though it’s all connected by inexorable steps. My death too is somewhere on the map, or on an adjacent plat somewhere over the edge. But it is most certainly out there. Would I want to locate it, given the chance? I don’t know.
The immediate task is Holy Week. God gives us just enough light to take the next right step, to make the next good decision. I feel like the Christian life is a twilight life, a seemingly endless pre-dawn gray. Seemingly endless. But it stands in stark contrast to the pitch-black midnight of the world’s incredulity.
The other day I watched a Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner, reggae music, and a nose-ringed, hijab-wearing photographer. They joined a protest against (or in support of) everything (or nothing). It was an almost perfect expression of our world’s ubiquitous pointlessness.
Yet “the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Maranatha. It is just enough. I am reminded of an interview in which Rene Girard was asked to explain the text “Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened” (Matt. 24:22). He said:
It means that the end times will be very long and monotonous — so mediocre and uneventful from a religious and spiritual standpoint that the danger of dying spiritually, even for the best of us, will be very great. This is a harsh lesson but one ultimately of hope rather than despair.
There are yet many miles to go. Much to endure. With respect to Palm Sunday, this precipice on the edge of Holy Week, resolute words from Luke’s gospel stand out: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).