The Juxtapositions of Easter

stabat materI have had a busy Holy Week. It’s overwhelming how so many very different things happen at once. That’s true of our spiritual life in general: work, and friends, and medical issues, and liturgy, and all the rest, all at the same messy time. It’s true, too, of the liturgies of Holy Week.

Holy Week begins with a strange juxtaposition. More than one person asked me about it this week: what’s going on with Palm Sunday? Even the name is confusing: “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” Which one is it?

On the one hand, the Mass begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We sing Hosanna. (Hosanna, it turns out, is a Greek twist on a couple Hebrew words: it appears in the Bible only here, as the acclamation when Jesus enters Jerusalem.) We wave our palms. We acclaim the king.

And then, by the time the ordinary Mass begins, our Hosannas are forgotten. In the first reading, his beard is being plucked. In the second, he is emptying himself, taking the form a slave. The Psalm cries “why have you abandoned me.” And in the Gospel, we read the Passion in its entirety – already, right at the beginning of Holy Week.

Our palms remain awkwardly in our hands, while we are given the voice of a different crowd, crying not Hosanna but Crucify.

But that awkwardness, that strange juxtaposition, is just the point. We who wave the palms are the ones who betray him. And he who is crucified is also the king. This is the triumphal entry that he has eagerly expected. It’s all about that juxtaposition – the palms hanging limply in our hands.


This year we have another, but paradigmatic, juxtaposition. March 25 is ordinarily the Annunciation, the moment of great joy, when Christ comes into the world. This year it also happened to be Good Friday, dated according to the changing moon. Our celebration of the Annunciation is deferred till after Easter Week – but the juxtapostion is normal.

For March 25 is not just nine months before Christmas. We know Christmas is at the solstice, in the bleak midwinter. And it seems just an accident that the Annunciation awkwardly falls so close to Holy Week. But it is not awkward. It is the plan.

In fact, the Church settled on March 25 before it settled on December 25. Though we celebrate Easter following the old, lunar calculations for Passover, the traditional date of the Crucifixion was March 25. It is also the traditional date for the creation of Adam, the fall of Lucifer, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the crossing of the Red Sea.

These things go together. They are all one. Just as Christ is both king and crucified, and we are the crowd that both acclaims him and betrays him, so this is the time of when Adam is re-created, Satan is defeated, the first-born is sacrified, and the seas of death are conquered.

These are not just awkward, accidental juxtapositions. It all goes together. That’s the point.


Many years ago, some half-Christian family bought us a strange cross. Though it is the shape of the instrument of torture, on it are happy scenes from the life of Christ. Another awkward juxtaposition. Is he the Lord of happiness or the Lord of the Cross?

Here, the liturgical calendar has to de-juxtapose. On one level, the liturgical year simply comes down to the problem of reading the long Bible. It would be nice to read the whole Bible everyday. It all goes together. And it’s all important – we are not a religion of the 3×5 notecard, where everything can be said in a few words. The Bible is long, because there is a lot to say.

On some level, Holy Week is simply the time when we read this central passage. In fact, we read it a few ways. On Palm Sunday we read from the Synoptic Gospels, whichever Gospel we are reading that year. On Good Friday, we read from St. John. And we need those two accounts; they are different; they are richer in juxtaposition. John is like a commentary on the other Gospels – they tell us of the Eucharist, he tells us of the feet washing, etc.

Liturgically, we can’t read it all every day, so we break it up. But that crucifix we were given has sort of the right idea: the one who dies on Good Friday – yes and the one who rises again early on the morning of the third day – is the one, too, who healed the lepers, taught with parables, came to Cana in Galilee; the one who oversaw Noah and Abraham, David and Solomon, Ezra, the Maccabees, and the prophets of the exile.

In the thickness of the Bible, and the complexities of the liturgical year, we see the rich juxtaposition that makes up the whole of the Christian faith.

What parts of the faith do you find most hard to reconcile with one another? Can you learn anything by thinking about that juxtaposition?

Verbal Prayer

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. At the end of our long series of commentaries on the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and at the beginning of Holy Week, I would like to argue that words take us places inaccessible to pictures. Words are the heart of Christian spirituality.

The modern Church has come to like a sort of hierarchy of prayer, with “vocal prayer” at the bottom, “mental prayer” higher than that, and “contemplation” at the top. The Catechism takes up this threefold division at 2700-2724.

Many Catholics, whether familiar or unfamiliar with these names, have a vague idea that mumbling your prayers is for beginners, but people who “really” pray replace words with pictures, and then ultimately there’s nothing but silence. This division might have some basis in the Ignatian Exercises, I’m not sure. But it isn’t traditional, and I don’t think it’s right.


Instead, we can read our threefold division in light of the famous chapter 19 of St. Benedict’s Rule, on the Discipline of Praying the Psalms:

“We believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the bad in every place (cf Prov 15:3). Let us firmly believe this, especially when we take part in the Work of God [that is, singing the Psalms in the Liturgy]. Let us, therefore, always be mindful of what the Prophet saith, ‘Serve ye the Lord with fear’ (Ps 2:11). And again, ‘Sing ye wisely”’(Ps 46[47]:8). And, ‘I will sing praise to Thee in the sight of the angels’ (Ps 137[138]:1). Therefore, let us consider how it becometh us to behave in the sight of God and His angels, and let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”

That our mind may be in harmony with our voice: ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.

In a too common reading, the “mind” (of mental prayer) is opposed to the “voice” (of vocal prayer). What Benedict reminds us of is that the mind expresses itself in words, and words are meant to express the voice. Mental prayer, then, is not prayer without words. Mental prayer is prayer where we pay attention to the words we are saying. Our mind should be in harmony with our voice.


This traditional view is less elitist than the ideas we sometimes have about contemplation. Old ladies mumble their rosaries, read holy cards, and go to Mass: all verbal prayers. Children, too, learn to pray with words. But that doesn’t make their prayer immature, just because they don’t know the techniques of “meditation” or absolute silence.

Words are not for the elite. The Our Father and the Hail Mary – the prayers of the Rosary, and of children – are words that are available to everyone. And their depths are unfathomable. We all have them at our fingertips. We just need to practice paying attention to the words we pray.

So too is the Bible available. Now, the Bible is hard reading. But we needn’t understand everything. Indeed, we don’t understand everything precisely because there’s so much good stuff there. The problem with leaving behind words is that we reduce prayer to only what we already understand.

The traditional discipline of lectio divina is not a technique, not some trick you have to learn. It just means prayerfully reading the Bible. We bathe in its richness, we aren’t surprised that it is deeper than we are, and we get glimpses of riches we never would have imagined.

That’s really the point of verbal prayer: it is a recognition that we have much to learn, and that God has given us his word, in Scripture and in the Word Incarnate, to teach us.


Holy Week gives us the opportunity for many words, and to discover the richness of those words. When we read the story of the Passion, we realize that pictures can see a man with bread, but only words can tell us this is his Body; pictures can show a man on a Cross, but only words can say, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

If we pray the stations, we will see images of Christ crucified – but use our words to express love, and to know how much he loves us. And we will pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary, many times, and discover that this is not just a mourning mother, but the Mother of God, full of grace.

Let us enjoy the words of Holy Week, and let our minds be in harmony with our voice.


What words can you use to pray? Is your mind in harmony with your voice when you pray them?

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: Your King Comes

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

Giotto, The Entrance Into Jerusalem

MT 21:1-11; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MT 26:14-27:66

The readings for this Sunday are long. We’ll just pick out some key themes.

This Sunday is called “Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion.” Mass opens, of course, with the procession of the palms, and the Gospel that describes it (this year, from Matthew 21). The Liturgy of the Word culminates with the reading of the Passion (this year, Matthew 26-27). We thus get the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, tied together with the culmination, the Passion, though in the story, as in the week, there are several chapters in between.

At the heart of Jesus’s triumphal entrance are the words from the prophet Zechariah. “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Oddly, there are distinctly two animals. Sometimes the Fathers of the Church like to notice the strangeness, the mystery of these readings.)

The story revolves around this welcoming of the king. Jesus sends his disciples into the village to find the animals, telling them to say, “the Lord has need of them.” (The translation this Sunday will say “master,” but the Greek word is Kyrios, Lord.) Just as in the reading of the Passion, they are told to say, “The teacher says, ‘My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.’” Jesus is Lord and King over his disciples, and Lord and king over the unknown people who are providing for him.

And the people spread out their garments, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They too welcome him as king.

But in both situations, what kind of a king? Meek, and riding on a beast of burden. A different kind of king.


The reading from the prophet Isaiah underlines the difference of this kingship. The prophet asks for “a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word of comfort,” and “ears that I may hear.”

The reading culminates in him saying, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” It is here, in fact, that we get our deepest scriptural warrant for imagining that Jesus wore a beard: he is the one whose beard is plucked.

To be a follower of this king will not bring power and prestige. He demands a new kind of obedience. An obedience that leads us to speak comfort to the weary. The King of Love demands tribute not of gold, but of mercy, of being poor among the poor, of loving those who have nothing to give in return (including the nasty people we might have to work with). To follow the king who rides on a beast of burden means that we, like him, must be willing to suffer.

But it is not suffering that we seek, but those who suffer. Jesus comes to be with those who are wounded, and calls us to do the same. Our beards will be plucked because the world can’t stand what it cannot own; the world is troubled by a different way of being, a different scale of values. In this world, to love is to suffer.


But it is also to be cared for. “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” If the suffering Lord calls us to suffer, it is because he also joins us in our suffering. “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” If he is for us, who can be against us?

The very dramatic Psalm 22 begins “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But God himself takes up this cry; Jesus joins us in our weakness. And so even the Psalmist continues to praise God. He experiences the apparent abandonment of suffering, but he knows he is never abandoned. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.


And then in the great Christ hymn of Philippians, we hear that Jesus himself emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The hymn emphasizes his obedience, “obedience to the point of death.”

“Every knee should bend . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father,” because he is the kind of king who joins us in our weakness. The kind of king who deserves true obedience and love.

This is the attitude we are to take to the long reading of the Passion, and the events of this holy week.


How could you know Jesus better as the meek king, the shepherd who suffers for his flock?