Contemplating Holy Week
Reflection by Joseph P. Chinnici, OFM
A great turn occurred in the history of spirituality when, reversing course, we began to contemplate Holy Week in the light of human sin. Measuring the goodness of God by the extent of human depravity, this turn reduced the Lord of Glory to our own small understandings. Our own forsakenness served to demonstrate the depth of Christ’s sufferings: “See how much he suffered for you,” we learned in catechism. In this process, we lost both the “greatest work of God,” the taking on of human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and our own human dignity. Today, in the midst of body bags unearthed in Ukraine, violent language degrading another human being in the halls of Congress, and the sad disparity between the rich and the poor peoples and nations, Holy Week holds out for the believer a message that dissolves our hopelessly sin-trapped understanding of ourselves and the world. Holy Week instead reveals to us the glory of God, now shared with us, and the path of a recovered human dignity now held out for us. Palm Sunday, the beginning of the week, sets the stage.
We take the palm branches in our hands and proclaim, “Blessed is he who comes as king in the name of the Lord.” (Lk. 19.35) The ceremony of carrying the cross with a procession of palms was added onto the Roman rite of the mass from the Gallic liturgy sometime around the 11th century. The unveiled cross was decorated with flowers—budding, beautiful flowers, a pallet of colors startling to see. Beauty revealed. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, enters Jerusalem not going to his death but fulfilling the Father’s will and proclaiming the depth of God’s humility and the infinite reaches of God’s love. Revealed in that love is every man and every woman’s innate dignity bestowed on them by the mere fact of their existence. The procession of the disciples who follow (Lk. 19.37) is a victory lap, shorn of all elements of ego-centricity and nationalism. Love for others is the motivation for the journey; human sin is not the center of the passion. As Hebrews puts it: “For the sake of the joy which lay before he endured the cross, heedless of its shame.” (Heb. 12.2) The “joy held out before him” is the bestowal of friendship on all of us. (Jn. 15.15) The flowering cross celebrates a new exodus (Lk. 9.31). The psalm verse that accompanies this cross filled with beauty and sweetness comes from Psalm 118, the last of the Hallel psalms (113-118), sung at Passover and celebrating God’s glorious deeds for the people. The psalm begins: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.” Verse 24 reads: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.” To understand Holy Week, we must see the cross in the light of the risen life of Christ who embraces death only so that eternity life may be bestowed on all of us. We must interpret the building from the viewpoint of the architect; we must see our Lord as the Ars Patris (“the art of the Father,” as Bonaventure argues). This is our Franciscan contemplation. This is why we follow Christ in our own bestowal on all creatures the gift of human dignity and invite all men and women into friendship with God and each other. This is why we say, “The Lord give you peace.”
Palm Sunday, 2022