Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Procession to Calvary, detail (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

In a normal year, we would have palm fronds in our hands at the beginning of Mass this Sunday. We’d hear a gospel account of Jesus’ “triumphant” entrance into Jerusalem, with a cheering crowd waving palms and spreading them on the road in front of him.

But one of the ironies of Palm Sunday is that just a half hour later in that same liturgy, the palms have become something else. It turns out this wasn’t a triumphant procession at all—in fact, in the end it was a rather hollow moment. At the end of today’s passion reading from Matthew, we don’t see Jesus victorious, but deserted by everyone, even, it seems, by God. If we look honestly at those palms, we see that they are a sad reminder of a victory party that was not to be, a sign of how quickly our human ideas of greatness can come to nothing.

It’s ironic that these symbolically complicated palms have become such a beloved Catholic giveaway. Maybe the parishioners who are so skilled at weaving palms into crosses are the ones with the right idea of what they mean: the palms led Jesus not to kingship but to the death he knew was his.

This year, we’ll have to read that passion story on our own, or try to experience it online. I think no matter how we encounter it, there will be an emotional connection—because almost more than any other gospel reading, it shows us a world we recognize. This year we are surrounded by illness and death and separation, and this story of innocent suffering and human frailty is even more powerfully not just Jesus’ story, but our story.

The crosses we experience in this world bring us closer to Christ, and him closer to us.

Every year in the passion, we see our world at its worst. We see earthly powers concerned only with what is expedient for the moment; religious leaders more attached to their systems of belief than the meaning they carry; a villain beloved by the crowd who somehow goes free. And at the quiet center of it all, we see a man caught up in a process of death that can’t be stopped. Almost everyone in this gospel loses their integrity except Jesus, who does what he was meant to do, embraces these days of suffering, and ultimately by God’s power is transformed by it.

This year we are all coping with weeks of quarantine and frightening news in different ways. It might seem like the last thing we need is this story with so much disappointment and death. And yet Holy Week exists to show us our God at work—not supervising all this suffering from a safe distance, but totally immersed in it, because the cross was the only way to bring God into human life as completely as God desires to be.

We might like God to work differently, for love always to be joyous and painless. But our human condition means there is no transformation without suffering, no redemption without a price to be paid somehow, no rebirth without death. Why do we suffer? There is no answer except the one God reveals to us this week: the crosses we experience in this world bring us closer to Christ, and him closer to us.

If we see this week through to the end next Sunday, we also find out that death does not have the last word. Even today, seeing Christ in the tomb, we are not pretending that he is not risen, we know that beyond death, this life of ours continues on glorified. The quiet heroism and deep love we see in his life were not in vain. They survived, and live on in him, and in us.

It will be hard this week to be without our parishes, our friends, the Holy Week liturgies, baptisms and confirmations, the eucharist, all the happiness that many parishes experience at Easter as a glorious release from the intensity of what the church wants us to experience this coming week. But maybe even in solitude, separated from so much that we are used to, we can be given new life. We can ask God to help us experience the constant promise that love works, and to remind us that even in our pain, we have already been redeemed, and nothing can destroy us.

Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal.

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