A Journey of Passion: Spirit and Horror during the Christian Holy Season
We were gathered in front of our church for the Palm Sunday celebration, full of Sunday morning cheer, waiting for the priest to arrive and begin the service. It would begin outdoors, as it does at Roman Catholic churches, and many other Christian churches, around the world. I went to one of the tables where I could pick up a palm frond to wave aloft during the procession into the church. It was the beginning of the most sacred portion of the year, the climax of the Christian story.
This story has become such a commonplace of the culture that it hardly seems real any more. Like many of us, I expected to hear the familiar readings, to sing and clap at the traditional hymns, hug some friends, and then leave to resume my normal life. I expected to carry home in my pocket a fresh green palm frond woven into a cross, my salvation safely tucked away for another year. After all, aren’t we commemorating the promise that Christian believers have been rescued from their sins and are destined for heaven? In spite of all the ups and downs of life, it’s the story with the classic happy ending.
Or is it? Perhaps we are so familiar with it that we no longer understand it. We can hear it, sing it, talk about it — but do we live it? If we really paid attention, we might notice that this journey is shattering — but do we allow a holy shattering in our own lives? We hear that this journey begins with the illusion of triumph, travels through disaster and trauma, grief and confusion, and culminates at Pentecost with the in-flooding of a new spirit. We’ve been told how this spirit poured like tongues of fire into the first apostles, ordinary people who were so transformed that their human flaws became pores radiating light.
None of them had any idea this would happen. They could not, like us, turn aside from the rough, painful truth that they were forced to face. They had to recognize how cowardly, fearful, and self-centered they really were. In the long journey from Palm Sunday through Easter and then, fifty days later, Pentecost, they had to endure the collapse of their self-image and public exposure of their worst traits. They had no way of knowing that this destruction of self-pride was the only way to empty their souls enough to permit the entrance of infinite love. If they had known in advance what this sacred wounding entailed, would they have agreed to endure it? Would we? Do we really want to live through this journey of passion? Or do we prefer the social symbols we celebrate in words and songs, the scenes immortalized in stained glass windows?
I must admit that such questions were far from my mind last Palm Sunday when I got my palm frond and joined friends for the party atmosphere outside the church. People were laughing and hugging, showing off their best clothing, including some in a fiery red for the liturgical color of the day, making plans for special brunches after Mass. At one end of the sidewalk, some prosperous businessmen were milling about, wearing blue pinstriped suits, white shirts, and red or blue silk ties. They argued in fun about local baseball teams or groused about the high price of gasoline and glitches with their Internet connections. Their wives had bought new red jackets, sweaters, or in one case, a red lace shawl, for the occasion. A few young mothers rocked their infants in baby carriages and compared travel plans for the summer.
Throughout the crowd, there were conversations in Tagalog, Thai, and Swahili; the Spanish of Mexico and Central and South America; and the French of former colonies in Africa. Like the Catholic Church itself, our parish is a world parish; members speak more than forty languages and come from even more countries. One group of African women, decked out with brilliant headscarves and boubou dresses, stood like matrons in the midst of a swirl of children, hugging and nodding and laughing. The youngest children ran with excitement between their fathers’ legs, chasing each other with the sacred fronds like flyswatters until an adult caught them by the arm and made them look down the road for the sign that the priest was arriving and the Mass would begin.
It was a festive time, a time of triumph. The church had undergone a renovation for the special Holy Week services. Our congregation was proud that the stained glass windows had been restored, the mosaics in the ceiling cleaned and polished, a new organ installed, and the Italian marble floors refurbished. The altar was made of handcrafted mahogany, and for the sacred text, a new silver and gold case. All we needed now was the priest to arrive and begin the ceremonies that would save us from sin and assure us of our redemption in God.
The tallest young men pushed their way to the front left end of the crowd, so that they would be among the first to greet the priest. They began to crane their necks and peer up the road off to the left. They scanned the horizon with the flats of their hands.
“What’s happening?” one asked.
“Can you see anything?” asked another.
The spot where the road disappeared into the hills was only a blur on the horizon.
The sun was rising, the day growing hotter, and necks and foreheads became wet with perspiration. The youngest children sat down on the sidewalk, whimpering with impatience until their fathers picked them up and rocked them to sleep on their shoulders.
One young boy tugged on his father’s sleeve.
“Daddy,” he asked, “is it time for Mass yet?”
His father looked down and smiled. “Not yet,” he said.
Sylvester, David A. 2011. A Journey of Passion: Spirit and Horror during the Christian Holy Season. Tikkun 26(3).