Years ago, on Passion Sunday (now combined with Palm Sunday) the statues in Catholic churches were draped with violet. Sometimes even the figure of Jesus on the cross was draped, but in white. Flowers were banished. Bells were silenced, their joyful sound replaced by the sharp crack of a wooden clapper. Musical instruments were stored away. It was a solemn, quiet time. In more recent times Catholics learned to appreciate the lesson found in the first Preface of Lent, that this is a joyful season, not one of forced gravity and sadness. We are an Easter people, and that great feast casts not a shadow, but a golden light over our remembrance of the Passion of the Christ.
We remember. We do not repeat. And we look ahead.
But perhaps being a Christian today in the affluent areas of the world became too easy as the more demanding observances of the past were progressively relaxed. It may be a coincidence that over the last fifty years there has been a significant decline in Church membership particularly in wealthier nations. I read recently that among teenagers in England and France, church membership is at an all-time low. In the U.S., fewer and fewer young people seem attracted to Christianity, even though some churches, mainly more fundamentalist and evangelical groups, continue to draw adherents. In much of the world, however, this is not a comfortable time to be a Christian for entirely different reasons. Attacks on churches and persons in Egypt, Nigeria, India, Iraq, and elsewhere in the less-affluent world are especially worrisome, although in troubled lands Christians have largely remained faithful to their beliefs. Many others have migrated to safer areas.
Challenges tend to strengthen faith, or should. Confronted by an increasingly disbelieving world, Christians can ignore insults,
persecution, and disparagement, deny them, or try to resist them. The greatest danger is that they might passively allow them to weaken or destroy their faith, already under constant assault by the false values and cynicism of the age. That is the dilemma Christians have in some sense always faced. Keeping faith in the face of uncertainly and derision is also a choice and often a hard one, as both Judas and Peter discovered in today’s long reading of St. Mark’s Passion.
The redeeming death of Jesus has never been easy to fathom — to understand how he accepted suffering and death but thus reconciled the human race to God, overcoming the terrible division caused by the whole history of sin, estrangement, and despair.
Our first two readings, carefully chosen from the Book of Isaiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Caesarea Philippi, highlight the profound meaning of what happened beginning on this day nearly 2,000 years ago. They prepare us to grasp, not with our minds so much as with our hearts, what we will remember during Holy Week, coming to a great climax on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In particular, the account of the Passion according to Mark recounts the mystery of God’s love, a love made real, visible, and effective in the trial and death of Jesus. All God asks of us here and now is to listen — carefully and with love.
So as we commemorate this day on which Jesus entered Jerusalem towards the end of his life to encounter his destiny, we are invited to prepare for the coming week, the one we call Holy, in which we are called to accompany Jesus on his way to the cross. But to do that, as he warned us, we have to shoulder our own cross. We must never forget, however, that Resurrection lies ahead. So let’s get on with it.