The 6th Sunday in Lent, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, marks the beginning of Holy Week. Week 5 of Lent prepares us for Holy Week with readings about great saving acts of the God in the past: Susannah, the three young men in the furnace, the people of Israel in the desert, and also reminds us of the covenant God made with Abram in which he promised to give the people of Israel the Promised Land. Jeremiah restates his faith in the saving power of God in spite of his rejection by the people, and Ezekiel repeats God’s promise to David and his descendants. However, the Gospel readings are more sombre, showing us the unrelenting opposition of the Jewish leaders to Jesus. We’re told about two occasions when they picked up stones to kill him and he managed to escape. But the last sentence of the Gospel on Saturday prepares us for the final chapter in the story: “The chief priests and Pharisees had by now given their orders: anyone who knew where [Jesus] was must inform them so that they could arrest him”. By Sunday, we’re ready to hear about Jesus’ condemnation and death.
But Luke doesn’t start with a court scene. Instead, we’re presented with a group of people having a meal: a very special meal, the Passover, the most important festival in the Jewish calendar. It is a solemn commemoration of the Exodus, God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. What’s going on at this very solemn meal we hear about in Luke? Jesus knew that he is about to begin his final hours on earth and tried to share his distress with the disciples. They responded by arguing among themselves: who will betray him? Who should be the greatest? Did they hear him at all? Jesus tried again to get their minds back to his message by reminding them that the greatest is to be the servant of all. Then he told them about his impending death, and they produced two swords.
No wonder that when they reached the Mount of Olives he sank into deep distress; after all he has said and done, even at this late stage they still didn’t get the message. These are his own hand-picked followers, the ones he personally chose to carry on his work, but it seems that for all they’ve learned, his mission has failed.
The description of Jesus’ distress reminds us that this Gospel was written by a doctor; the emotional and psychological anguish that Jesus felt was so severe that his sweat “fell to the ground like great drops of blood”. Most of us have been in difficult situations when we thought we couldn’t cope or go on, and like Jesus, we’ve begged God to take it away. It might have been the illness or death of loved ones, betrayal by friends whom we loved and trusted, hard choices we’ve had to make, or perhaps having to face into our failure to achieve important goals. At times like that we can feel very alone. There’s no doubt that physical pain is hard to bear, but because it is visible we notice when someone is suffering and can try to find ways to help. Mental anguish can be just as severe as physical but because it is invisible we can easily miss it, and unwittingly can leave someone to deal with their pain on their own. This too Jesus experienced: when he finished praying and returned to the disciples, they were sleeping “for sheer grief”, Luke kindly says. Whatever they may have been feeling, Jesus was the one who was facing death, and he was facing it alone.
Let’s not move quickly over these verses in the story of the Passion and focus on the physical sufferings of Jesus. Let’s pause and spend some time reflecting on the hours beforehand, for they tell us that the Passion did not begin when the cross was laid on Jesus’ shoulders. They also tell us that when we experience darkness and distress and God seems far away, we can know that Jesus has been there before us and will walk with us on our via dolorosa.
Sr Catherine Gibson O.P