See What the End Shall Be – A Palm Sunday Reflection

032815The Passion, which we read in today’s liturgy, is too long to comment on in detail. I’ll examine just a portion of it in today’s blog.

The usual villains, such as the temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting “Crucify him!” are fairly obvious. They openly display their sinfulness and are unambiguously wicked. But there are other participants in the Passion accounts whose sinfulness, struggles, and neglect are more subtle yet still contribute significantly to the Lord’s sufferings on Good Friday. It is perhaps in these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves. For while we may not directly shout “Crucify!” we are often not as holy and heroic as the persecutors were wicked and bold.

In pointing out these behaviors, we must understand that we do these things. The Passion accounts do not merely describe people long since gone; they are portraits of you and me. We do these things.

Let’s look at the sins and weaknesses of Jesus’ followers (us) in three stages.

I. The Perception that is Partial – In today’s gospel, in the middle of the Last Supper Jesus’ disciples are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,

All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be dispersed. But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Note that the apostles are being reminded of these facts, since Jesus has said them before on a few occasions. For example,

  1. From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).
  2. When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).
  3. We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt 20:19)

Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death but in rising to new life. But though he has told them over and over they still do not understand. Thus He predicts that their faith will be shaken.

Their perception is partial and they will see only the negative, forgetting that He has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment, they will retreat into fear and will not accompany Him boldly and confidently to His passion and glorification (for His passion is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown “what the end shall be,” but they cannot see or accept it. Thus fear overwhelms them and they draw back into sinful fear and dissociate themselves from Jesus. Only a few, His Mother Mary, John, Mary Magdalene, and a few other women would see Him through to the end.

But as for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glorious and awesome. Yes, their perception is partial and their blindness comes, paradoxically, from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.

We, too, can easily suffer from such blindness caused by poor hearing. For the Lord has often told us that if we trust Him, our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give way to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s Passion. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we now recognize in the people of His day.

Let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from this partial perception and forgetful fear.

II. The Problems Presented – Several problems arise. They are unhealthy, sinful patterns stemming from the fear generated from not trusting Jesus’ vision and/or refusing to see it. Please understand that my use of the word “we” here is generic; I am not intending to imply that it applies to every single person. Rather, it means that collectively people have these tendencies. There is no need to take everything here personally.

A. DEFLECTING – When Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with oil, some (led by Judas according to the other Gospels) claim that her extravagant care is offensive to the poor. This of course is a false dichotomy and Jesus calls them on it. It is good to care for the poor but it is also good to worship God. Judas is deflecting. Claiming to love the poor is likely a way to avoid looking at the fact that he does not really love Christ and that his heart is far from Him, so far in fact that he is preparing to betray Him. Care of the poor is good but it cannot be a substitute for a vigorous love of Christ and obedience to all He commands. Sadly, some reduce the gospel to what they call “social justice.” Too easily this can be a self-congratulatory deflection that hides the lack of wholehearted love and obedience that Christ seeks. In calling Judas on this He warns us as well. 

B. DISPOSED – When Jesus says to the disciples, “One of you will betray me,” each of them responds in turn, “Surely it is not I, Lord.” This is a moment of remarkable honesty. Though their replies express some incredulity, each knows deep down that he has the capacity to betray Christ … and so do we. We are predisposed in many ways to evil, betrayal, and sin. Our natures are fallen and we are easily selfish, even at the cost of grave injustice to others and betrayal of friends. We all have in us both great goodness and great inclination to evil. We must be sober and be willing to consider, “Surely it is not I, Lord.”

C. DOZING – One of the common human techniques for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to just go numb, becoming drowsy. We can just doze off into a sort of moral sleep. Being vigilant against the threats posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or others) is too stressful, so we just tune out. We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like creature comforts, meaningless distractions, alcohol, or drugs. In our moral slumber, we begin to lack a prayerful vigilance. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions, so we just tune out and think about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how our favorite sports team is faring.

In the Passion accounts, Peter, James, and John are asked by the Lord to pray with Him. But they doze off; perhaps it is the wine; surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). But whether unwilling or unable to deal with the stress that the Lord is clearly under, they just tune out, go numb, and doze off.

Evil is at the very door, but they sleep on. The Lord warns them to stay awake lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep.

Someone they know and love is in grave danger but it is too much for them to handle, so they just tune out, much as we tune out at the overwhelming suffering of Christ in the poor and needy. We stop noticing; it’s too painful so we just tune out.

The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other scriptures would later pick up this theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). For drowsiness is a significant and serious spiritual problem.

Sadly, God described us well when he remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).

Despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still wide awake and the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. We need to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear, for the Lord has told us we have already won if we trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days, and so, often, have we. So they, and we, give in to the stress and just tune out.

D. DISSOCIATING – Peter, confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned with Jesus, denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him. He dissociates himself from Christ. We, too, when confronted with the prospect of far lesser things (like ridicule), will often deny a connection with the Lord or with the Church.

Someone might say about one of the more controversial passages of Scripture (such as prohibitions on divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity, or commands to tithe), “Oh, you don’t really believe that, do you?” And it’s too easy to give way to fear and either say no or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or experience the unpleasantry of debate?

So instead we just dissociate ourselves, compromising or qualifying our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being “tolerant” when we do it.

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mat 16:21). But too easily we are ashamed.

And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter was afraid because he forgot to “see what the end shall be.” He forgot that Jesus will rise after three days. So, too, do we often forget that. So we lack confidence and give way to fear. We deny so as to avoid suffering with Jesus.

E. DODGING – Simply put, when Jesus is arrested all the disciples except John disappear. They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. One of them (could it be Mark himself?) even ran off naked.

After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) had followed the Lord “at a distance” (Mk 14:54). But as soon as trouble arose, Peter scrammed as well.

And we, too, can run. Sometimes it’s persecutions from the world that cause us to flee. Other times it’s just our own self-generated fear that following the Lord is too hard; it involves too many sacrifices we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money since the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor. Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle since the Lord insists on chastity and respect. Maybe we are doing something we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, sinful. But rather than face our fears, whether from within or without, we just hightail it out of town.

The disciples forgot that Jesus had shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days he would win the victory. But they forgot this, their fears emerged, and they ran. We, too, must see “what the end shall be” so that we can confront and resist our many fears.

F. DECEPTION – Pilate trots out a fake Jesus. His full name is “Jesus Barabbas.” Incredibly the name and title are the same, for “Barabbas” means “son of the father.” Pilate brings him out “Jesus, son of the father.” But Barabbas is a fake Jesus, a mere revolutionary who is popular with the crowd and they choose this deceiver, this revolutionary, this false messiah over their true savior. And this is case today. Many trot out a fake Jesus today who is reduced to a kind of harmless hippie. He makes no real demands except that we care for the poor and a few other bland ethical things like being nice. Gone is the summons to moral perfection in the Sermon on the Mount which includes less popular things like chastity, no divorce, commitment to the truth and taking up our cross. Yet many choose him and promote him out of concern that the real Jesus, the one described in Scripture, might not be palatable enough for the world today. And thus even historical Christian denominations have set many essential components of Jesus’ teaching and reduce everything to a kind saccharine “love” ethic and being “nice” and “inclusive.” Words like sin, judgment, hell and so forth used by the actual Jesus are go from the fake Jesus invented by those who fear that the real Jesus just won’t appeal today. But the fake Jesus cannot save, only the real one can.

G. DISAVOWAL – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate rather than one of the disciples. But the fact is that Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” Pilate asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial, saying, “You say so.” In other words, you are the one saying these words; do you think they’re true?”

Pilate has a choice to make: accept what Jesus is saying as true or give way to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The texts all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But because he feared the reaction of the crowd, he handed Jesus over.

Note that it was  Pilate who did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but Pilate did the condemning. Yet note that he tries to deflect his choice. Mark says that Pilate handed Jesus over to please the crowd, adding, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 16:21). Actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice. And though you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic to Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.

So, too, for us. We also often favor our career or hide over what is right. And in so doing we often try to blame others for what we freely chose: “I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two” or other  such blame-shifting excuses.

We are often willing to say, in effect, “Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays and my tithe and generally I obey you, but you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what is right I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? … I know the company is doing some things that are unjust; I know the world needs a clearer witness from me and I’ll do all that … after I retire. But for now, well, you know. It’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me.” And we try to wash our hands in an attempt to excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

And all this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and instead focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision Jesus is trying to give us: in three days we will rise with Him. But we remain blind to that and only see the threat of now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: See what the end shall be! In three days we rise, so why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the Cross, but never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the gospel of Friday but wait till Sunday morning; I’ll rise!

We end where we began with this gospel: All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be dispersed. But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Yes, after He has been raised, He goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days we will rise with Him and be reunited in Galilee.

So take courage; see what the end shall be! For those who are faithful the end is total victory. We don’t need to doze, deflect, deny, dodge, or deflect. We’ve already won; all we need to do is hold out.

An old Gospel songs says, “I promised the Lord that I would hold out! He said he’s meet me in Galilee! So hold out, Galilee is not far, in three days we rise with him.”

Image credit above: The Ikon Studio

8 Replies to “See What the End Shall Be – A Palm Sunday Reflection”

  1. Thank you Monsignor for this thoughtful reflection. Thank you for helping me to see myself as one of the participants in this Gospel reading rather than just an observer in a far distant century. I am so glad that I was able to read your comments before I go to Mass this morning. I will now be able to reflect more thoughtfully on the Passion readings and spot myself in the crowd. Hopefully, now I can turn more toward Jesus in my daily life and remember to be faithful and hold out to the end.

  2. Monsignor,

    Thank you so much for this reflection!!!! It has always makes me a little uncomfortable every year as we read the Passion at Mass and when I have to say “crucify Him!” Your reflection has really helped me see where I am in the crowd. I will keep this reflection throughout the year and refer to it. It will help me greatly as we are entering into Holy Week, and during the sacrament of reconciliation.

  3. Thank you Msgr Pope, I’m not sure if thought provoking is the correct term because it’s not a deep enough expression to explain the appreciation that your Homily has given to me.

  4. Monsignor, can you explain to this convert why the Passion Narrative is read on Palm Sunday, and not on Good Friday? The timing of the readings in the Liturgy interest me. I’m aware of the significance of the Triduum, and the way the Holy Thursday service doesn’t really “end”, but eases into the “beginning” of the Good Friday service, into the Holy Saturday / Easter Vigil. I am just a bit confused about why the Passion is read the week before the events.

    Thank you.

    1. Well, don’t get me started. I’m with you on this. I think It should not be read on “Palm” Sunday. But the practice is ancient and probably has to do with the fact that the Triduum (three days) we celebrate today has had a long and complex history of on-again, off-again status. I would like to see a reform wherein Good Friday was more encouraged and the Passion read or enacted then, not on Palm Sunday. But, we belong to Church that thinks in centuries and takes centuries to alter practices like this.

    2. It is a good practice of the Church to read the Passion on Palm Sunday to jumpstart the Holy Week. For the Palm Sunday is the start of giving glory of The FATHER to The SON and this giving glory to The SON culminates on the cross. That is why the Church has a wider view to call it Holy Week rather than just Holy Triduum. How many times in the past when the Passion is read, I feel a lump in my throat when I cry out during the gospel reading ‘Crucify HIM’. Indeed, it causes me to tremble because I am transported to that time, ‘represent’ if you will. Oh, how I long to go with HIM and carry the cross with HIM and love HIM and comfort HIM. Indeed, my personal observance is started by the Passion Gospel and why not. Thank you, Monsignor, for the profound reflection.

  5. In Scotland we have Solemn Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord 3.00 p.m on Good Friday. Part of this service involves a reading of the Passion story from one of the Gospels.

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