Brief synopsis of the readings: On Palm Sunday we don’t have ordinary readings. We begin outside the church and read the account from Matthew where Jesus and his disciples approach Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus instructs his disciples to go ahead of him and purchase an ass and a colt. Jesus entered Jerusalem seated on an ass and he was welcomed into Jerusalem. The crowd proclaimed Jesus was “the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.” During mass we read from Isaiah that God gave Isaiah “a well trained tongue.” Isaiah spoke of not responding to evil or violence. Finally, Matthew’s Gospel describes the Last Supper. Judas began by negotiating his betrayal of Jesus for 30 silver pieces. He then returned and joined the others at Passover, what we’ve called the “Last Supper.” (The Last Supper was the Passover meal in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John’s Gospel the Last Supper is the day before Passover) During this supper Jesus announced he would be betrayed by someone at the table. Judas denied his role, but then fled. Jesus then blessed the bread and the wine. After the meal they went to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went off by himself to pray. On his return Judas arrived with a large and armed crowd. Jesus was arrested and taken to Caiaphas the high priest; he, along with the Jewish ruling body, conducted a mock trial and accused Jesus of blasphemy. In the courtyard someone noticed Peter and identified him as being with Jesus. Three times, in increasing volume and profanity, denied Jesus. Judas, regretting his decision to betray Jesus, returned the money and committed suicide. Caiaphas then turned Jesus over to the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate. Pilate, wanting nothing to do with this, succumbed to the demands of the crowd and ordered Jesus’ crucifixion.
Welcome to Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. From our earliest memories we’ve read the passion narratives through the eyes of what we imagined as children. And Hollywood has helped us. Films like The Greatest Story Ever Told and others have colored our image of these events.
But nothing we have read or seen tells us the answer to a fundamental question: When Jesus entered Jerusalem in the days before Passover, how much did he know about what awaited him? Did he know about the Last Supper? Or his arrest, trial, interrogation, and scourging?
Or his crucifixion and resurrection?
Neither Scripture or reason gives us these answers. As children we were told that Jesus knew everything and his divinity safeguarded him from all fear. He knew his story would end in resurrection for himself and all of us.
I believed that as a child but I don’t believe it as an adult. When Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem in the days before Passover they did what all Jews did. Not all Jews lived in Jerusalem: many scattered into areas around there and made lives for themselves. But they returned to Jerusalem for Passover to make sacrifices and fulfill their obligation, and Jesus and his disciples did exactly that.
Regardless of what Jesus knew or felt, we can all agree that this upcoming week called him to tremendous courage. In the 1970s (and since) many of us have viewed the play or movie Jesus Christ Superstar. In that telling Judas Iscariot attempted to justify his betrayal by claiming that Jesus let things get out of hand and would be grateful for Judas reining things in. Obviously his self serving defense doesn’t survive history and it’s one more example of cowardice attempting to appear courageous.
Truthfully there’s no way to look at these readings, to look at the call to courage outside of the pandemic we’re all experiencing. We have seen images of both cowardice (using this pandemic to amplify prejudices by calling this the Chinese virus) and astounding courage.
As Catholics most of us have been dispensed from attending Sunday mass because this protects us from spreading the virus. But conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke insists that Catholics continue to attend mass despite the dangers. He argues that if grocery stores and drug stores are essential, so are churches. Fortunately most of us see his words as a self serving attempt to ensure his job security.
We also find hucksters who peddle cures, hoping to profit off the fears of those who have good reason to be afraid. These hucksters are cowards, not because they are less at risk, but because they hope to profit off of fear.
Let us instead celebrate those who choose courage. It’s become fashionable to talk about heroes these days: doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, etc. And that’s all true. People who suddenly find that their jobs on the front line of a crisis deserve adulation.
But let’s look also at those whose courage comes not by events but by choice. Last week I called a former coworker. She and I share a tremendous respect for each others’ talents and I miss working with her. In her current position she saw the beginning of the current virus with alarm. Her job requires her to spend some time at the office and much time in the community. Given the virus, she suggested that time at the office could easily be done from home but her managers demanded that she come to the office, increasing her exposure to the virus. Sure enough, one of her coworkers tested positive for the virus and my friend and others were forced into quarantine. She told me about conversations that otherwise would have been “career enders” but now are seen as visionaries. I suggested that she continue to speak truth to power and recognize that they will continue to speak power to truth.
I’m proud to be friends with her. She knew that speaking truth to power put her job in danger and she did it anyway.
When we read about Jesus’ actions on Palm Sunday and Holy Week we recognize that none of us will likely need the courage to do what he did. We will not weep in the Garden of Gethsemane, we will not be scourged on orders from Pilate. We will not be crucified.
But we will be resurrected. And at the end of our life we will celebrate the times we chose courage In fairness we will recognize times that we didn’t choose courage and hoped nobody noticed but let us pray that from this day forward those days dwarf our courage.