Palm Sunday Reflections

Today is the start of Holy Week, which is probably my favorite week of the year. That seems strange even to me. Catholicism makes me feel by turns comforted, cared for, frightened, guilty, and frustrated. My “progress” is often hampered by my own opinions and the opinions of religious authorities. And sometimes I am nagged by the vaguely unsatisfied feeling that I am not getting as much out of my religious experience as I should be.

My attraction to Holy Week starts with the ceremonies. They are remarkably different from what we do every Sunday for the rest of the year. Only during this week do Catholics imitate the crowds of Jerusalem with palms, and only this Sunday and the following Friday do they read the Passion in church. The liturgical decorations are different, and often very grand (today we had large palm trees flanking the altar). And on Good Friday, there will be no mass. There will be only a service commemorating the Cross and crucifixion conducted in a bare church and in front of an empty Tabernacle. The theatric nature of these liturgies and the fact that they only happen once a year makes them exciting.

Holy Week is also very interesting, because it focuses on a great tragedy; a tragedy which in the literal sense ranks among the greatest mythological tragedies humanity has yet produced. Yet unlike mythological or literary tragedies, we believe this one is true—and we believe it has immediate and important consequences for us. This is the reason we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus so dramatically. In a sense we are meant to live this week as Jesus did: we were there today when Jesus enters Jerusalem to cheers; we will be there Thursday when He celebrates his last supper with friends; we will suffer with Him Friday when he agonizes in the Garden, is betrayed, and is crucified; and we will be there Sunday when He rises from the dead. Catholics enter this great story more than any other from Scripture.

None of these reasons, however, fully explain my enjoyment of Holy Week. I know that the Church intends the pomp and circumstance of Holy Week to induce awe and respect (and appropriately so) in its members; I know also that the end of a six-week period of fasting which coincides roughly with the end of winter and the beginning of spring magnifies the intended effect of the liturgical celebrations. But it isn’t the ceremonies themselves that attract me, nor is it excitement that spring is here and fasting is over. I find that participating in Holy Week gives me great spiritual satisfaction.

The Easter truth answers almost all the unspoken questions I carry with me about life and how to live it. I know that sounds like a huge generalization, but I mean it in a very specific sense. In the movie Stranger than Fiction, a literary professor neatly divides human stories into two categories: Comedies, which tell of the continuance of life; and Tragedies, which relate the inevitability of death. And this dichotomy lies at the root of our happiness and unhappiness here and now. If the comedic elements of our lives, such as the feeling of love, of laughter, or achievement, are to be meaningful at all, they must have an eternal component. There must be some kind of continuance for us, who have personally experienced this happiness. Otherwise, it and us are meaningless. If all that awaits us after life is death, then all our stories are tragedies, and whatever joy and light we experience now is temporal; a cheap entertainment to stave off ultimate loneliness and fruitlessness. I can’t believe that.

I think the presence of love (and companionship, and happiness) in this world means that humanity does not entirely belong here. There is a part of us right now that belongs to a supernatural world, with the world “supernatural” meaning simply an existence beyond the natural one, or namely the “eternal life” spoken of in Church. But for all the reasons that religion is sometimes a chore for me, I cannot feel ready for, comfortable about, or worthy of that “eternal life.” The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ illustrate all that and explain how I might restore myself from my discomfort and unworthiness, all of which throw up the obstacles to religion I feel to a greater degree during the rest of the year. I profoundly believe the Easter story and its implications for me.

The qualitative measure of a tragedy has always been the extent to which it produces catharsis. I don’t know exactly what that word means. The dictionary defines it as a “purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear)…; a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal.” That’s pretty close, but I think catharsis also implies an understanding that by suffering one achieves the purification and subsequent renewal. It is the suffering of Lent and the suffering of Jesus—which I believe we are called to embrace in the form of our own individual crosses—that bring about our renewal. Easter celebrates our renewal from sin and fear. This catharsis is a source of joy and satisfaction untouchable by my family, my friends, my work, or any other influence of this world. This catharsis is the reason why Holy Week is my favorite week of the year.