March 23, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

The Lord’s passion and death prepare the way for Easter

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Some of the bystanders who heard it said, ‘Look, he is calling Elijah.’ One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.’ Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ ”
(Mk 15:33-39).

We’re getting closer to Easter.

This Sunday, March 25, we celebrate Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, a joyous festival, but also an occasion filled with foreboding.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus is welcomed into the holy city of Jerusalem as if he were a conquering hero, the kind of messianic figure that many in Israel hoped for (and many others feared).

We know all too well that this triumphant entry will result in betrayal, abandonment, hideous torture and one of the cruelest forms of capital punishment used by the Romans to humiliate and discredit their enemies. The “conquering hero” is mocked, scourged and crucified. He appears totally defeated and, except for his mother and a handful of close friends, all who had shouted “Hosanna in the highest!” on Palm Sunday have abandoned him. The week that begins with rejoicing ends with bitter tears.

Jesus allows this to take place in spite of the fact that he is not destined to be the kind of savior they are expecting. They want an earthly king. He is something altogether different. He knows that he will soon be utterly rejected by this same crowd, but he presents himself to them in all meekness and humility to make a very important point.

What Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is meant to teach us is this: The cross is not an obstacle but a means to the empty tomb. Dying precedes rising. As missionary disciples of this man, Jesus Christ, who suffered death and was buried but then rose again on the third day, we are called to share in his suffering, to die to self and to allow God our Heavenly Father to raise us up again on the last day. The hosannas proclaimed on Palm Sunday are real, but they point far beyond our immediate experiences to the ultimate victory that Christ has achieved for our sakes.

Dying precedes rising just as surely as winter precedes spring and Lent prepares the way for Easter. When we shout “Hosanna!” and wave palm branches, we are not expecting an immediate end to this world’s troubles. We certainly don’t anticipate political or economic salvation any time soon (if ever). Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion reminds us that our joy is real, but that it can only come if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

Fortunately, when Jesus returned to his Father in heaven, he gave us his Holy Spirit through whose grace and mercy the Church was born as the living body of Christ. Through the Church, and the sacraments given to us by Christ as effective signs and instruments of his grace, we have everything we need to endure suffering and gain everlasting joy.

As my predecessor and friend Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein once wrote in his weekly column, “Seek the Face of the Lord”:

Easter peace is ours to receive from Christ. Let’s not miss the crucial fact that it is mediated through the Church, especially through the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick—sacraments made possible by holy orders. And so, yes, Easter peace is always available to us in and through the sacraments of the Church.

Our observance of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is one way that the Church “mediates” our daily experience of dying and rising. By recalling first the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then the passion and death of our Lord, this solemn feast day challenges us to accept that there are no easy paths to Easter joy.

May we all find Easter peace mediated through the Church. May we complete this season of Lent with renewed confidence and hope that dying precedes rising and joy comes through our participation in the way of the cross. †

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