Holy Waiting

Christ’s arrival on Palm Sunday upends our expectations.
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Worshippers wave palm fronds during a Palm Sunday procession in San Lorenzo, Paraguay, April 14, 2019 (CNS photo/Jorge Adorno, Reuters).

My husband and I recently stood in line at a vaccine-distribution center, waiting for its regular hours of operation to end and hoping there might be a surplus of doses that, if not used, would otherwise expire. A man behind us asked if this was indeed the standby line for shots. We said it was, and we started talking about our hopes that there would be enough left over to reach our place in line. Twenty minutes after the facility ended its official appointments, people ahead of us began to disperse. But holding on to hope, we kept our spot in line even as others were abandoning theirs. Finally a young man looked back at us and gestured with his hands that there were no vaccines left. There was a sense of relief that we wouldn’t need to wait any longer in the cold, but we were also disappointed, resigned to our loss. I took solace in knowing that we had experienced this with other members of our community. Shared disappointment, in this case, made it easier to bear. We would simply continue to search and continue to wait.

Although waiting is a spiritually significant part of Holy Week, waiting has also been such a part of our pandemic experience that I’m finding it difficult to intentionally embrace it as something specific to this week. I have waiting fatigue, and need to reflect on what makes for “holy waiting.” 

Palm Sunday, the last Sunday of the Lenten season, is a microcosm of the extended Triduum celebration during Holy Week.

Palm Sunday, the last Sunday of the Lenten season, is a microcosm of the extended Triduum celebration during Holy Week. The drama of the passion is crammed into one liturgical celebration. We begin with Jesus’s triumphant procession, palms waving in the air, accompanied by a Gospel reading that unites the gathered community in praise: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9–10) Jesus’s arrival communicates that the hope of a new kingdom is now a reality. Liberation, the salvation that the people of God have been waiting for, is found in Jesus. After the liturgical procession, the liturgy of the word continues. The Gospel reading picks up with Mark’s narration of the preparations for the Passover feast, the feast itself, Judas’s betrayal, and Jesus’s prayer and apprehension in the garden, before concluding with the Crucifixion. The whiplash caused by the range of emotions is intended to leave the faithful bewildered. First, we are waving palms and singing praise for answered prayers for liberation; then, we’re kneeling in silence before the crucified Jesus, questioning everything.

Palm Sunday and the Holy Triduum set us up to discover that what we hope for, what we wait for, isn’t always what we expect it to be. We are so preoccupied with the joyfulness of the palms and praise that we might miss that our hope rides on a colt that has never been sat on before (Mark 11:2). Jesus arrives on a set of imperatives that no other king has ridden on. As we journey through Holy Week, the liturgy invites us to embody the experience of the Apostles whose faith filled them with hope, but whose experiences in Jerusalem made them fearful for what would become of them. Good Friday will take us back to where we left off on Palm Sunday. We are silent before the cross, before death, an experience so definitive that one can understand the Apostles’ and disciples’ disappointment and sorrow. The waiting reaches its climax at the Easter Vigil, where our waiting is ritualized in the darkness.  

Jesus, our new beginning, arrives in Jerusalem upending our expectations. Waiting for liberation from the old way of being requires an openness to the unexpected, to being surprised, and to accepting disappointment without mistaking it for loss. Holy waiting is not a passive experience. I’m reminded of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s prayer “Patient Trust”: 

We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.... Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. 

It is in the intermediate stage, in the time after the Crucifixion, before the resurrection—in the holy waiting—that we learn who we are becoming. 

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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