For Christians throughout most of the world, this Palm Sunday broke with the shock of vicious terrorist attack on Orthodox Coptic Christians at churches in Tanta and Alexandria, where ceremonies were taking place commemorating Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Forty nine deaths and hundreds of severe injuries were reported, many of them priests and choir members. The leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, who had finished his sermon moments before, escaped injury at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, one of the earliest Christian communities in the world.
Such attacks against Egypt’s Christians have increased since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. There seems to be little the new regime can do to prevent them. It’s nothing new to the Copts, Egypt’s largest religious minority, who have been under threat for over a thousand years, but every incident comes as a blow upon a wound. But martyrdom has been part of the Christian story from the beginning. Clearly, just as the date of this attack was carefully calculated, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem led directly to his death at Passover time. We have an indelibly new reminder of that this year.
Every year, Catholics reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on this day and, as it is sometimes called, Passion Sunday because we always read one of the synoptic gospel accounts of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ earthly life. This year, we are reading Matthew’s version, the longest of the three. Many reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by a sung procession, carrying palm leaves or other small branches and leafy twigs.
Recently, I was trying to explain to some of my students, some of whom are Protestant, Muslim, or have no religious affiliation, what it means for Catholics to act out episodes from Jesus’ passion and death. I described the very elaborate Good Friday “way of the Cross” done in the Pilsen neighborhood, and some of the even more graphic presentations enacted for hundreds of years in the old Spanish villages of northern New Mexico.
There is something sacramental about being in the story, something watching a film will never capture. In our little Passion Plays, these very minor forms of what for centuries has been done at Oberammergau in Germany, for instance, we personally enter into the great drama. We remind ourselves as we do that the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are not just past historical events, but present realities. We do not repeat the Passion, any more than we repeat the Last Supper when we attend the Eucharist. There is only one Passion, one Death, one Resurrection. We make ourselves present to them whenever we participate actively in these mysteries — whether in baptism, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments, or the solemn recital of the gospel account.
In these words, Jesus is speaking to us now. God is with us, and we through faith, are present to God.
So as we begin the final week of Lent, this Holy Week, as we pray for those who have died on this day celebrating their faith in Jesus and meditate and play our own part in the story of our salvation.