Only a very inattentive observer could fail to observe the contrast in today’s liturgy. We began in triumph, processing with the palms of victory and the olive branches of peace and soothing mercy, singing the glory of Christ Our King with joy and jubilation. Like the Hebrews of that first Palm Sunday, we could easily be carried away into thinking that now, at last, the reign of Our Lord has come.
But then we were swiftly swept off into the darkest mystery of human history, the moment when the Incarnate Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God, takes the plunge into the inexplicable mystery of human suffering. He drinks to the dregs that most bitter chalice of His Passion, accepting to be mistreated, misjudged, wrongfully condemned to crucifixion, that “most horrible and most cruel form of punishment”, as Cicero styled it.
From a triumphal celebration to the bitter darkness of the most intense pain. Such is the path we have walked together in this morning’s liturgy. What does it mean? We know of course historically that the ancient Roman Mass of the Passion was later supplemented by the Gallican practice of the procession of Palms, both coming together to form what might seem at first sight a rather heteroclite and ill-fitting mixture of texts. In reality, it was by divine inspiration that the Roman Church decided to place these two contrasting celebrations side by side in the very same ceremony, for it holds a very great mystery for us, one upon which we would do well to meditate every day of our lives.
The mystery is that we are indeed called to glory, to joy, to celebration, to unending bliss in the radiant ecstasy of the Blessed Trinity. Only, there is a path that we must take to get there, and that path, that Way, is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He not only showed us the way, He is the way, and the closer we get to replicating that divine model, the more assured we are of taking part in His resurrection. For that is what it is about. The procession of the palms, as the texts themselves make clear, is an anticipation of the glory of the resurrection. We must all go down deep into the mystery of suffering, for suffering alone purifies. We must all descend into the valley of humiliation. Humiliation alone makes humble. Humility alone makes great. Humility alone saves. Just as pride is the source of all the problems in our lives, in our families, in our communities, in the church, in society, so humility is the remedy to all those woes.
Today’s oration makes it clear that God gave His Son to us as a model of humility. By admiring Him, by contemplating Him, we learn how to deal with our own passion, our own cross. We find in His meek acceptance of pain the means to make our cross lighter. We find in His silent acquiescence to injustice the way to transform injustice into atonement for ourselves and even for those who make us suffer. How is that possible? Only by learning from the Lord’s patience, those “patientiae documenta” the oration refers to. What are these “documents of patience” if not teachings (docere in Latin means to teach) of how to be patient. And what is patience if not the art of accepting suffering (patience comes from the Latin word “pati” which means to suffer). And so we see that the Lord, in His passion, teaches us to be patient, He teaches us to suffer.
So, my dear friends, let us, on this Palm Sunday, ask Our Lord for something that is extremely counter-cultural, but something that is capable of renewing our world, of salvaging it from disaster as it has done many times before in other historical circumstances that were no less tragic. Let us ask the Lord to increase our capacity for suffering. I do not mean that we are to go looking for extra sufferings, but that we may be able to accept all those that come without running away. The Lord did not run away from His Cross. He embraced it, He carried it. It then carried Him, through Calvary to the Resurrection. The better we know how to suffer, the closer we are getting to the Crucified One, and the closer we are to Him, the more certain we are of the blessed resurrection.