On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem with royal acclamation, not astride a horse but meek and riding on an ass, as a symbol of peace, not war. The liturgy of this feast day, points to Good Friday whose account culminates in the resurrection of Jesus.
Unlike many liturgies that have become overly wordy and passive, Holy Week engages the whole community in bodily movement. People solemnly process on Palm Sunday, have their feet washed on Holy Thursday, move silently and reverently to kiss the cross on Good Friday, and walk with candles at the Easter Vigil.
A people on the move through history are caught up flesh and spirit in the unfolding drama of the cross and resurrection.
Matthew’s passion has distinctive vignettes of Jesus’ path to Calvary. Matthew introduces major sections with the title “Jesus”, which readers know from the angel’s command (1: 27) means “he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus in his first great discourse praises those who are persecuted for the sake of justice (5:10), and talking of the end of his life, Matthew’s Gospel and Passion narrative are permeated by the theology of Jesus as the suffering just person who will proclaim justice to the Gentiles at the cost of his own life. Matthew recounts well what happened after Jesus’ death: there was the earthquake so strong that tombs were opened up and many of the saints were raised!
This was a vivid symbol that death was conquered at the very moment of its apparent victory.
Today as we meditate on what took place then, we see the story of a man abandoned by his supporters, deserted by his handful of disciples (betrayed by one of them), condemned by the religious leaders of his people, executed by the Roman authorities.
All these things are very close to the stories we read in newspapers or watch on our televisions.
For the early Christians it was very different. It had another dimension characteristic of their epoch in history. It was God’s moment in man’s history: the Christ-event, the redemptive death and life-giving resurrection of the Son of God. This is the great culminating moment of God’s saving plan for mankind.
We see that Matthew is anxious to underline two factors among others: that the passion fulfils the prophecies of scripture (in other words, that it falls within God’s purpose) and that Jesus’ foreknowledge and free decision put him in control of the situation.
The Passover setting of Jesus’ passion spotlights its religious significance. The Passover was the celebration of the exodus, the passage of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the freedom for the Promised Land. By dying and rising in the context of this feast, Jesus showed that his was the true Passover, that he had made the passage from the death to life and the same message was now possible for all men and women in him.
Whether the last meal was a Passover meal proper or not, it certainly had paschal overtones, and it was the meal that served as the memorial of Jesus’ Passover. In addition, during this meal, Jesus gave a religious meaning to his suffering and death, seen as the culmination of his whole life.
He thanked his Father for his life and death as any other Jew would have done thanking God for bread and wine. They become the object of his thanksgiving to the father. He thus explained his understanding if his suffering and death. He did not offer them to his Father; rather he recognised them as gifts of the Father.
His sacrifice was essentially a thanksgiving sacrifice, and the Eucharist, being a re-enactment of the last supper, has remained our share in that unique sacrifice.
For us Christians, Palm Sunday does not only show us the paradox of the cross but it remains a great challenge to our everyday life as well a question mark to our faith, in brief it is a great challenge to the Christians of our time.
First and foremost, it is a call to a very special and exceptional solidarity with the suffering Christ as felt towards the end of the Lenten period. It triggers in us the attitude of spiritual conversion, which must be manifested especially in a strong sense of solidarity with all our suffering brothers and sisters, both far and near.
Throughout the Holy Week we must feel this deep and powerful impulse of love which calls for a special, and exceptional, solidarity with Christ, in his passion and death on the Cross. This is why the Church exhorts us to linger in a quite special and exceptional way beside Christ, to be alone and near him. At least during this week, she exhorts us to endeavour –like St. Paul- to “Know nothing…except Jesus and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
The Church addresses this exhortation to everyone: not just to the community of believers, to all followers of Christ, but to everyone else as well. All human beings feel a duty and an emotional need to stop before Christ in his suffering, and to feel solidarity with him. This shows man’s nobility.
Holy Week is therefore the time when the Church is most open to humanity and it is also the peak time of evangelization: through everything that the Church thinks and says of Christ during this week, through the way in which she lives his passion and death, through her solidarity with him, the Church returns, year after year, to the very roots of her mission and her proclamation of salvation. And if in this Holy week the Church is almost silent, this is so that Christ himself can speak all the more.