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A Sunday of Victory and Suffering

After discerning the Passion as His heavenly Father’s Will, Jesus did not flee this eventuality; He did not grudgingly tolerate it; He actively and lovingly embraced it.

Detail from "Flevit super illam" (He wept over it, 1892), by Enrique Simonet. [Wikipedia]

The Church calls this day by two names: Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday: The first, for victory – the name most people recognize, not surprisingly; the second, for suffering – the one most folks would sooner forget.  But in the logic of the Church, which is likewise the divine wisdom on the subject, these two names are complementary, not mutually exclusive or even paradoxical.  The symbols of victory achieve their significance only in and through the Lord’s enduring of His Passion. 

What are the lessons we can glean from this truth?

A marvelous tale is told about Marco Polo, the medieval traveler, of how he shared the story of Christ with the mighty men of Cathay.  The Oriental noblemen were mesmerized by his account of the words and deeds of the Nazarene.  They sat on the edges of their cushions as Polo spoke of the growing tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day.  They drew on their daggers when he came to the betrayal.  Breathless, they hung on his words as he described the details of the trial and the scene before Pilate.  Finally, the Emperor himself could no longer stand the suspense, making him inquire: “And did this Jesus of yours then call down fire from Heaven – and slay them?”

Understandably, it was a tense moment, with the atmosphere highly charged.  Polo felt as though he held the salvation of all of China in his hands.  “No,” he replied quietly.  “He was nailed to a cross and died between two thieves.”  In went the daggers and back went the listeners to their routine chores.  To their minds, that was surely no way to prove that anyone was a son of the gods.  Of course, it was the very same reception to that same message a millennium earlier that caused St. Paul to observe that the cross was “a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.”

How did you react to the Passion Narrative today?  How will you react to it the rest of this Holy Week?  How will you react to it the rest of your life?

Some people – good Christians among them – will simply shake their heads and echo the title of Rabbi Kushner’s book, Why Do Bad things Happen to Good People?  But that reaction would be a mistake because the Passion did not “happen” to Jesus.  After discerning this as His heavenly Father’s Will, He did not flee this eventuality; He did not grudgingly tolerate it; He actively and lovingly embraced it.

Others will be moved to question what kind of God, let alone a Father, could demand this from His Son.  But that, too, would be an erroneous response.  God did not force His Son onto the Cross; God did not require a pound of His dear Son’s Flesh or a quart of His Precious Blood.  Nor can we even blame ancient Jews or Romans for this tortuous experience.  The mystery of the Cross is best explained by a line I found recently on a poster in a Catholic grammar school library; scrawled in big, bold letters beneath the Calvary spectacle I found the wise words: “It was not the nails that held Him – but love!”

Yet others will be stirred to compassion.  And that would be good, were it of the right brand.  Compassion for the Lord in His sufferings can never be pity; one pities a poor, helpless puppy – not the Son of God.  “Compassion” comes from the Latin words for “suffering with” Christ; in fact, this is the only appropriate response because it will demonstrate our understanding of the Cross in His life, as well as in our own.

The dramatic re-enactment of the Passion is intended by Mother Church to engage her children in their Lord’s sufferings at the deepest possible level and to bring us to appreciate the insight of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communione e Liberazione, who declared that “God saves man through man.”  In the Man Christ Jesus, the entire human race was redeemed – in potentia; the application of those merits, however, is a process that will continue until He comes in glory.  How does it go on?

First of all, as you and I freely accept the benefits of His saving Death and Resurrection, responding to these unimaginable graces by living like saved and holy people.  Secondly, the work of redemption is carried on each and every time that we accept our share of the Cross – without grumbling, without doubting.  St.  Paul was fully conscious of this when he reminded his readers that we brothers and sisters of Jesus – members of His Body the Church – must fill up in our own bodies what is still lacking to the sufferings of Christ (cf. Col 1:24).  That was not Pauline blasphemy; it is Christian theology at its best, for it acknowledges that the Passion of Christ is not complete until each of us identifies with it personally in just the same manner as our Captain in the struggle.  Thirdly, the Passion perdures and exercises its power whenever we believers attempt to lead others to know, love and serve the Lord of Calvary.  You and I have the privilege and duty of inviting others to come to the Savior’s wounded side, there to be enlivened by the water and the blood which issue forth from His Sacred Heart.

Today’s Epistle teaches us that Jesus became a slave – for our sake.  And if He became a slave for us, can we do any less for Him and for every other person for whom He had become a slave?  I think not.  The great French poet and philosopher of the last century, Charles Péguy, rhapsodized on this profound reality in his work, “The Portal of the Mystery of Hope”:

He who loves becomes the slave of the one he loves.
God did not care to evade this universal law.
And by this love He becomes the slave of the sinner.
The overturning of creation, it’s creation upside-down.
The Creator now depends upon His creature.
. . .  As the victim surrenders his hands to the executioner,

So Jesus has abandoned Himself to us.
As the prisoner abandons himself to the prison guard,
So God has abandoned Himself to us.
As the least of the sinners was able to slap Jesus,
And it had to be so,
So the least of the sinners, a miserable, weak creature,
The tiniest of sinners is able to bring to failure,
is able to bring to fulfillment
A hope of God;
The tiniest of sinners is able to uncrown, is able to crown
A hope of God;
The tiniest of sinners is able to uncrown, is able to crown
A hope of God.
And it’s from us that God awaits

The crowning or the uncrowning of one of His hopes.

This holiest of weeks is given to us to determine our level of compassion; to allow us to show – by our lives – if we truly grasp how the palms and the Passion go together; to remind us of the one overriding “hope” which God had for each of us from all eternity – the hope that we would share in His unbounded, faithful love forever.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 98 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

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