Today’s celebration is known as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Most of us simply know it as Palm Sunday, but it’s important that we see the connection between the palm frond we just received and the passion (passio, meaning ‘suffering’) of Jesus.
Many of you remember the movie Saving Private Ryan. The opening scene was jarringly realistic. Many of the men who survived the invasion on the beaches of Normandy remarked about its authentic depiction of the events. For the rest of us who never experienced anything like that, it gave us some sense of their experience.
The film was powerful because it didn’t merely show us violence and death but made us viewers feel fear as we experienced it. This is in contrast to so many movies and video games in which death and violence are gratuitous or trivialized, where violence and death are a form of entertainment. Saving Private Ryan drew us into the drama and forced us to consider the realities of death and invited us to deepen in our consideration of life.
Today’s liturgy serves as sort an overture to what will happen in the coming days. Like the aforementioned movie, we are to enter into and re-live the events we commemorate: Jesus’ journey to the cross: his passion, death and yes, his Resurrection.
The fact is, the vast majority of Christians who come to celebrate Easter Sunday have not partaken of any of the events that preceded it. They show up to a church filled with white lilies and they hear about the empty tomb and are supposed to be joyous about it. That dumfounding event that we call the Resurrection is only a cause for joy if we properly bear in mind what preceded it and why it was necessary: suffering for our sake, abandonment, and a cruel death that seemed to be the end of it all. Without that, what’s Easter?
At the beginning of this mass you received a palm: a simple slender thing that might serve as a decorative keepsake in your home. But today we consciously hold it as a way of bringing the past and the present together. And as we hold it, it reminds us of the fact that it’s not just Jesus’ story, but also our story. It’s not only an event of the past; it’s happening now, because the Passion of the ‘whole Body of Christ’ is still happening and the resurrection of the whole body of Christ is still a future event. But perhaps also think of your palm branch as a theater ticket, admission to the drama that awaits us.
The story which we are beginning today, like every truly great drama, only has its deepest meaning if it reaches into our lives and challenges us. This week, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, our Lord whom we greeted today will be present to suffer for us, to love us. He’ll be present, but will you? With admission already in hand, we are at the entrance of the venue where the drama awaits us. Don’t let it go to waste.