It’s Palm Sunday and for much of the world, this feels different than other Palm Sundays. The world has been changed by coronavirus. Where I live, I cannot attend Mass —-though thankfully will have televised Holy Week services and so spiritual communion and community. I’ve now been working at home for nearly a month and I really miss not only Mass but also my friends, students, colleagues, and the freedom to travel, hike, or even go for a run at a park or shop at the grocery store without worrying about it being too crowded to feel safe. It’s not how I envisioned Holy Week at the beginning of Lent. It’s not how any of us planned it. And as is true for many people, I feel anxious about how the ones I love will be affected, how the wider community and world will be affected.
Yet in a way these overthrown expectations and resulting anxieties are exactly what Passion Sunday is about. Jesus enters Jerusalem and people around him are waving palms in jubilant expectation and celebration. Passover—remembrance of how God freed his people from slavery and oppression and led them into freedom—was celebratory. But first there was the desert. And as we get further into the Passion narrative on Passion Sunday the Palm leaves disappear and instead there is betrayal, fear, suffering and death. It’s a complete reversal of expectations.
A simple but powerful practice in Ignatian spirituality is to imagine a scene from Scripture in a time of prayer. So we can spend time with Jesus as he traverses his road this week, be with him, accompany him, love him, comfort him, and let him love and comfort us, too. We can close our eyes, set the scene, imagine who and what is present in our mind’s eye, and let the events of the Passion play out before us. Who are we in the narrative? A friend to Jesus? With his mother? With other friends of his?Are we afraid and fleeing? There to offer words of reassurance? There to receive them? Sharing a meal ? Who are we in this scene of so many?
Where we find God’s presence in prayer can also affect where we find God’s presence in our lived day to day experience—and vice versa. In this time of pandemic, we can reflect: have we comforted and where have we been comforted? Where have the generosity and hospitality been? Where is our community? How do we remain connected across distances or by different means than usual? How is God present in the breaking of bread with one another, or in words of comfort or the offering of prayers? How are we still serving one another, as we are able?
We also remember that the Passion and death of Jesus is not the end of the story. After the suffering and death there is resurrection. Our whole faith rests on this. This is why we go through with the entirety of Holy Week: because God doesn’t let the story end in nothing but suffering and death. There is hope.
So we celebrate Palm Sunday—-really celebrate it—because we do believe in a Creator who loves us, a God who befriends us, one who is not indifferent but rather who is with us in everything. Whatever we suffer, Jesus who suffered in the garden in fear and who suffocated on a Cross knew it firsthand. God knows it all and is present to it all. This doesn’t mean the suffering is any less real; but we stake our faith on knowing that we are not alone in it and that whatever happens, this is not the end, We have a God on our side who promises us new life. Meanwhile, how do we act with care for one another and build up live? How do we comfort and serve? If we cannot wave palm leaves this year, what else can we do with our hearts and hands to welcome Jesus into our midst?