I remember well the first time I went on a roller coaster ride. As I stood in line, I watched closely as the cars zipped around the track, rushing up and plunging down. Once I was seated, I knew what to expect — or so I thought. But watching closely didn’t prepare me fully for the intensity of the actual ride, which was both frightening and thrilling.
Today’s readings — and the readings for Holy Week and Easter Sunday — are like that roller coaster ride. There is a sense in which we can simply watch the story from the outside, detached from the heart and emotion and reality of what we are hearing. But we must challenge ourselves to really listen, to “incline the ear of your heart” to the thrill of the Gospel.
The ride, to continue the analogy, begins with excitement as “Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem” and then rides the colt up to the slope of the Mount of Olives. The humility of the King is shown in a humble entrance prophesied by Zechariah: “Behold: your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt … ” (Zec 9:9). The prophet also spoke of this king as asserting his dominion from “sea to sea,” but the way this dominion will be established comes through some surprising twists.
The reading from another prophet, Isaiah, points to those unexpected turns: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. … ” The humility of God is so deep and real it will be revealed through suffering, sacrifice and death. St. Paul’s great “Christ-Hymn” in Philippians 2 contemplates the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the eternal Son willingly became man — and victim: “Christ Jesus … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
This drama of divine humility is on full display in the second reading from the Gospel of Luke. It begins with Jesus instituting the Eucharist and is followed by a dizzying sequence of betrayal, arrest, rejection, mockery, abuse, condemnation, crucifixion, suffering and sacrificial death. There are endless mysteries to consider, but three stand out to me.
First, in celebrating the Passover meal, Jesus offers bread and wine in a new, unique way. The ancient Hebrews, at the first Passover, ate an unblemished lamb, then smeared its blood on the doorposts (Ex 12:1-28). “We eat of the Word of the Father, the Son, our Savior,” wrote St. Athanasius. “We have the lintels of our hearts sealed with the blood of the new covenant.” This complete gift of the Savior is the heart of the Catholic faith.
Second, the blindness of those who reject and attack the Innocent One. Evil is most obviously revealed in attempts to destroy all that is innocent, pure, holy, beautiful and worthy of true praise. Sin is not just the rejection of what is right, but the disregard of love.
Finally, the solitude of the Savior in suffering and death. He goes to the Cross alone. And yet the Cross, that most horrible vehicle of capital punishment, is transformed into the tree of life which nourishes the Church, the mystical body of Christ.
Frightening. Thrilling. Amazing. Overwhelming.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of the Catholic World Report.