FR. JOHN MITCHELL
“You are already aware, no doubt, that the civil authorities have ordered all places of public gatherings, among them churches and schools, to be closed so as to check the spread of Spanish influenza. Although this details a great religious sacrifice upon the Catholic people, we must obey the order … there will be no public services in our churches Sundays or weekdays. The main doors of our churches will be locked. Bells may not be rung except for the Angelus. … A notice with this information may be posted on the front door of the church. … Confirmations set for the month of October are hereby postponed.”
So wrote Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer to the priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in October 1918. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As we have all swallowed the pill of the “Safer at Home” order that is in effect in the State of Wisconsin to slow the spread of COVID-19, the effects have ranged from simple adjustments in our grocery shopping routines, to people losing their jobs or even their livelihoods. Hopefully, fewer lives will be lost because of the measures, and I suspect our influenza numbers will be down this year, too, but we might all be finding ourselves reflecting a little more on our mortality and wondering where on earth God is in all of this.
The closure of our churches only accentuates this feeling that God seems to have evaporated in our time of trial. It is indeed a “great religious sacrifice upon the Catholic people” to have our churches closed. And although it is somehow consoling to know that we’ve been here before, even in our own state’s ecclesial history, it is nonetheless a very trying time. This week, of all weeks in the entire year, will be perhaps the most challenging of them all.
Holy Week – the most sacred week of the year – the week when liturgy pulls out all the stops to help us enter deeply into the mysteries of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection. Mass on YouTube is going to have trouble holding a candle this week.
And yet, although probably not a soul on the face of the earth planned to give up Mass for Lent this year, already our hunger for the Mass has increased through this unexpected fast. And perhaps our survival depends on diving deeper into the Word, which is made flesh and consumed so readily by us week after week, and day after day. So let’s start with what we can do, and chew a little more slowly on the Word of God.
“The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road.” (Matthew 21:8) Just this one verse holds enough to sustain us for weeks.
Why were they gathering? And why were they strewing cloaks and branches on the road? Why is it, exactly, that we pass out palms every Palm Sunday?
Because he was a king, right? Well yes, Jesus approaches Jerusalem on a donkey, which we surely all have heard indicates his simultaneously royal humility. (See Genesis 49:10-11, Zechariah 9:9, and even 2 Samuel 16:1-2 for a reverse image of a humbled king). This is no normal pilgrim arriving at the Holy City on foot. And it is no normal king riding a mighty steed.
Spreading cloaks upon the road was the normal homage given to kings (2 Kings 9:13), but the branches evoked something more. The waving of palm branches was done specifically on the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:39-40), in remembrance of the Exodus and the way God provided for his people in the wilderness he had led them through.
Its meaning deepened in the time of the Maccabees, when the Temple was defiled on the Feast of Tabernacles, and no palm branches could be waved that year. (2 Maccabees 6) When Judas Maccabeus later led the Jews to recover the city and cleanse the Temple, the people celebrated with the uncharacteristic waving of palms months after the Feast of Tabernacles, in a feast that came to be known as Hanukkah. (2 Maccabees 10:1-8)
In short, the people saw Jesus as one sent providentially by God to lead them to freedom and liberate them from foreign rule, as both Moses and Judas Maccabeus had before. But when he arrives, Jesus doesn’t cleanse them of the Romans as they’d expected. Instead, he marches into the Temple to cleanse it of the corrupt Jewish leaders who had made his Father’s house into a den of robbers.
In short order, the city turns on him, and after hailing him as their king and liberator, they very soon condemn him to death when he fails to fulfill their expectations. Christ knows that purification through testing, suffering, and the Cross are the only path to true liberation, by which our hearts are united unreservedly to the heart of our Father, but very few stick with him on that journey.
He ends up, stripped, and alone on a tree, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Far from despairing, Jesus is invoking Psalm 22, which our liturgy presents to us this week. It is a fearless proclamation of trust in God when all seems to have been stripped away.
And so, history repeats itself, again and again. God leads us through the wilderness. He cleanses us in every age. He invites us to persevere in palm-less times. And to hope when hope evokes only mockery. Where is our God? Robed in humility. With us on the cross. Inviting us to cleanse the temple of our hearts. Offering it all to the Father, as a sacrifice of praise to the one in whom our salvation lies.