Saturday, March 24, 2018

Ave crux, spes unica

One of the abiding mysteries of the diminishing religious practice of Catholics in our day is the persistent popularity of Palm Sunday.  Not being quite so cynical as those who insist that this enthusiasm is simply because of the “giveaway,” that is, the palms handed out and carried home; and only in briefest flashes of uncharity thinking some come just so the priest won’t greet them on Easter Sunday with, “How have you been since Christmas?”;  I peer more closely into the motivation of the increased throng at this Mass, the longest and arguably grimmest Sunday Mass of the entire liturgical year.
No, I think that the discomfort of attending Mass that is augmented on this day — the increased length, the increased standing, the increased emphasis on the sufferings of Jesus, the deep discomfort and more deeply resonant shouting of “Crucify him!”— that is precisely what makes it so right, so important to attend Mass this day.
Any other day of the year, that very discomfort, the inconvenience of mobilizing our families or just ourselves for Mass, of enduring what fails to entertain, of abandoning our leisure and our work for the purposeful purposelessness of ritual worship; all this chafes on any normal day, on “any given Sunday.”  The talk of sin, the talk of death, all seems such an intrusion on our day and what we want to get out of it. 
But this day, precisely that discomfort seems somehow to fit our needs, to answer some craving.  Holding limply our new-blessed palms, our half-hearted singing of All Glory Laud and Honor is just like our half-hearted singing on any other day; but this day, our half-heartedness is precisely what we have in common with the crowd: they greeted the Lord with enthusiasm, then condemned him.  Standing for the entire reading of the Passion wearies our feet and our patience, just as our weight shifts and our minds wander during the reading of every Gospel; but this day, that weary, weighty shifting, that desire to be somewhere else, puts us however momentarily in Christ’s own shoes. 
In fact, this might be the only day that Mass makes sense; for once we do not show up expecting to be encouraged or enthused over, to be coddled and congratulated.  We want no compliments; that would strike us as foolish on Palm Sunday, and make us look away with embarrassment for whoever tried it.  No, we expect to encounter own our guilt this day; to stare at the wounds of Christ without turning our eyes away, to recognize the crown He wears is of our weaving, to admit the nails are of our forging, the pains of our hammering.
We know each Sunday is a “little Easter,” which might lead us to expect unmixed joy on the other fifty-one of each year.  Smiles and delight should mark the members of the winning team, as the cheering resounds – right?  Instead, we find again, disappointingly, this cross, this blood, this death we thought we had already treated sufficiently.  We find our weight shifting in our shoes, and our attention wandering to where we would rather be.  We want more encouragement, more entertainment, more efficiency, and if we cannot find it here, we will seek it in other endeavors.  Mass becomes a burden.

Today we confront the reality of the burden that is our salvation, and Him who bore it.  We acknowledge what a grace and privilege it is to be able to do “not our will, but yours” in such a small way, with such great fruit.  The little difficulties of giving glory to God combine into a dying to ourselves that opens us to life purchased for us with blood.  Each “little Easter” is achieved only by the littler Calvaries we take up willingly: missing out on some fun, getting everybody into the car, or getting nothing out of the homily.  The pains we endure in approaching the saving meal are what we have in common with what the Saving Victim endured to put food on the table.  Today, when we expect the Cross, it all makes sense; but the rest of the year, when we would be inclined to avoid it, only this selfsame Cross of Christ will bring sense to our lives, and bring us authentic joy.

Hail the cross, our only hope.

Monsignor Smith