When Jesus Entered the City: Facing Down Fear, Eyes Open

Palm SundayApril 5: Jerome Adams, Surgeon General, issued a warning, that we will face a “Pearl Harbor moment” in the next week, with "an unprecedented numbers of coronavirus deaths expected coast to coast."

On the same day, President Trump warned, “This will be probably the toughest week, between this week and next week,” he said, “And there will be a lot of death unfortunately.”

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April 5 is also Palm Sunday, when Christians enter the holiest week of the Christian year, even as we remember our Jewish sisters and brothers who begin Passover on April 8. Even in the best of times, Palm Sunday is an odd moment of seeming triumph, as Jesus enters his city, just a few days before he is condemned and dies horribly on the cross. Some of the people who cheer him on Sunday cry out for his blood on Friday; if we have any sense, we realize that it is not just those people then, but us people now who are the fickle friends of Jesus who forget him, exclude him from our lives, in small ways betray all we have learned from him — and perhaps, like Peter, deny even knowing him when it is convenient to cover over our discipleship.

A lot of death is to come, but on this Sunday the scene is grand:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowdspread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (c. 21)

But what strikes me most this year is how Jesus knowingly entered the city, very aware of his own peril. He knew that he was walking right into his own death, as Matthew has reminded us three time already:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (c. 16)

As they were gatheringin Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed. (c. 17)

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death. (c. 20)

Even after entering the city, he is quite clear on his own doom and that of the holy city:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (c. 23)

first responders in FranceBut he does not run away. He stays and stares into the face of death. How easy it would have been to head in the other direction, to some remote area for ministry at a distance, avoiding the holy city at all costs! But Jesus entered directly into the very heart of his coming darkness. He is neither fooled by the adulation nor chased off by the impending doom he already senses.

Most of us are rightly sheltering at home during this emergency. But we witness the brave women and men who day after day face death as they head into hospitals and clinics that are the most dangerous sites of all in order to aid and comfort the sick and dying; and we see the endless small braveries of women and men who show up for work in grocery stores and pharmacies, at transit systems, and a host of other duties that cannot be abandoned: from a Christian perspective, we would say they are sharing in the mission of Jesus, who knowingly ascended to the city where he would die.

It is notable too that Matthew's Jesus does not enter the city for just a dramatic few hours, as if immediately to share the Last Supper, and then die and then rise. Matthew devotes four full chapters to what happens between Palm Sunday and the Last Supper, that “Monday to Wednesday” period we hardly think about: Jesus argues with the leaders and learned scholars; he curses the fig tree and cleanses the temple; he weeps over Jerusalem; he foretells the cataclysmic end of the world; he tells parables of banquets and weddings, insiders and outsider; he urges us to be vigilant and watch, since he will return soon, in fear and trembling, but comfort for those who are awake. Perhaps most poignantly, he tells the great parable of the last judgment, which speaks of the end of all things, but more immediately tells us how Jesus is with us in every trouble, in the suffering of the most vulnerable:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[ you did it to me.’ (c. 25)

Suffering in IndiaWe Jesuits are used to saying that we are called find God is in all things. So true, and the point now is to remember Jesus has come to Jerusalem, knowing he will die there; he continues his honest and true, stark and comforting ministry; and he reminds us that his compassion — his presence-in suffering — was not just for then, that holy week, but for now too, in every positive Covid-19 test, in every premature death, in every moment of isolation and fear, and especially in the poorest and imprisoned and homeless on every continent who have nowhere to hide during our pandemic.

And so Holy Week opens up and is all around us. Many of us  regret that churches are closed this week, services canceled or only online. But Holy Week is happening. It is not as if the last days of Jesus, and the last supper, the washing of the feet, the agony in the garden, the dying on Friday and burial in a hastily prepared tomb do not happen: they do, but not in church — these holy events happen everywhere else this week, because Jesus did not turn away, but entered among his people, entering into the holiness of our world in its suffering, making it his own. This week he is everywhere among us, by the bed of every dying person and in the last breaths of that person; he is present in every news report, in every photo and video, on every chart and in every prediction of things getting worse before they get better; he acts in every brave act of facing up to things and loving our neighbor in thought, word, and deed. Let us make our week holy, walking with him as he has walked with us.

There is more, of course: at Mass on Palm Sunday, we hear also Matthew’s great and solemn account of the passion and death of Jesus (cc. 26-27). I cannot go into that great account now – and what could I add? - but we do well to return to it this week, reading it as if for the first time, finding ourselves in the account, letting it shed true light on our current moment of darkness. Or let Johann Sebastian Bach teach you, listen to his great St. Matthew Passion. You can find many performances on Youtube, even with subtitles.

(The first three homilies in this series - written instead of preached in simpler form at Our Lady of Sorrows, Sharon MA — can be found at this same website.)