The story of the trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth, which is recited, sung and often acted out in churches on Palm Sunday, speaks for itself. This is one reason why preachers are encouraged keep their homilies short that day. Or, as the pastor of the local Jesuit church told me, “short but not super-short.” The one thing I might add to Jesus’s story is another story, which may seem oddly lighthearted at first, but which also has a serious point.
My six-year-old nephew Matthew called me a few weeks ago. This was an event in itself, since six-year-olds generally don’t initiate phone calls. At least my nephew doesn’t. “Uncle Jim,” he said, “Guess what?” (This is his normal way of starting a conversation.)
“What?” I said.
“I’m in the Lenten pageant at church!” Despite 24 years of Jesuit training, I had no idea what that was. So I asked.
“It’s kind of like a Christmas pageant,” he said, “but it’s about the crucifixion.” Okay. “And guess who I play?”
“Jesus?” I ventured.
“No! Better than that!”
What’s better than Jesus?
“Pontius Pilate!” he said.
My nephew had been cast as the Procurator of Judea in his church’s Lenten Pageant, which my sister described a kind of tableau vivant. Or a “Living Stations of the Cross,” as the church was calling it. While I had some concerns over whether the Passion narrative was appropriate storytelling for someone so young, I figured I would give the church the benefit of the doubt. Besides, what do I know about teaching six-year-olds?
“Are you excited?” I asked.
“Well,” said Matthew, “I’m a little sad because we have to crucify my best friend. And we use a real hammer and a nail.” This gave me pause. “We paint little red tears like blood on his hand, but it’s not for real.” Who was directing this pageant–Mel Gibson? (Later conversations with my sister revealed that the hammer and nail were props, and, obviously, not used.)
Over the next few days, I kept up to date about the Lenten pageant and my nephew’s passion about the play, which seemed to wax and wane. On the one hand, Matthew was disappointed when he discovered that Pontius Pilate was not, in fact, a pilot. On the other hand, last Sunday, during the recitation of the Creed, when the congregation reached the description of Jesus’s death and said, “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate…” Matthew yelled out, “Pontius Pilate! Yay!” (Pilate normally doesn’t get shout-outs in church.)
The night after the big day, I spoke with Matthew. “So how was the pageant?”
“Well,” he said, considering things carefully, “there were three Jesuses.” (Several of his friends were enlisted to appear in several Stations of the Cross.) “But only one Pontius Pilate.” That pleased him. On the other hand, his flip-flops made his feet cold.
“And, Uncle Jim, I forgot to wash my hands!” (This was Pilate’s most famous physical act in the New Testament, betokening his attempt to disavow responsibility for the death of Jesus.) “First I was afraid I would do it early,” he said, clearly miffed. “Then I was afraid I’d do it too late. So I didn’t do it at all.”
Finally I asked, “Did the story make you sad?”
“Well,” he said, “it was a little sad. But everyone roses from the dead, and everyone lived happily ever after.”
So is such a lighthearted story inappropriate to recount on Palm Sunday? Yes and no.
A man works a palm branch for sale outside a church in Tegucigalpa March 30, 2012. Catholics around the world get ready for Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week observances.
Yes, it may be considered inappropriate because Palm Sunday invites us to meditate on the death of Jesus, perhaps the most serious topic in all Christian theology. Equally as serious are Jesus’s physical suffering on the day of his crucifixion, our own suffering, and the way in which we “participate” in Jesus’s suffering during our lives. For some people, the sufferings of Jesus allow them to identify more easily with the Son of God, who might otherwise seem far removed from such mundane concerns as physical pain. To paraphrase St. Paul, we do not have a God who does not understand us.
Thus, the model of Jesus as the man of sorrows is an important image for Christians. Not only does it reveal to us a model of suffering – that is, with forgiveness and without retribution — it also shows that God understands our struggles in the most intimate way imaginable.
But no, a lighthearted story is not inappropriate on Palm Sunday. For one thing, the day also commemorates the joyful entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, when crowds welcomed the presence of the great preacher and astonishing wonderworker by literally singing his praises. “Hosanna,” which Christians often say in muted terms during church services, is an exuberant shout of praise. During a Sunday Mass a few years ago, Matthew showed he understood this theological insight perhaps better than many in the congregation. “Hosanna in the highest,” sang the choir. “Hosanna, hosanna,” said Matthew, “Hooray!” Jesus is also the man of joys.
But there’s another, more important, reason that lightheartedness is possible on Palm Sunday. And it is this: Christ is risen! That may seem an anachronistic thing to say this time of year, but for Christians, it’s true: Christ is risen.
Some Christians tend to forget this essential truth during Lent. Sometimes we act as if Jesus were suffering and dying all over again. But for Christians, he lives every day of the year. That’s true on Easter. It’s true on Palm Sunday. It’s even true on Good Friday.
Our meditations on the suffering of Jesus, and our meditation on our own suffering, need always to be understood in light of the Resurrection. As Christians, we are never simply contemplating suffering, we are contemplating suffering with the hope of change, and with the promise new life. To look at one reality without the other makes no sense. Looking at Easter without the Passion makes no sense. That is the more common mistake. “No sacrifice, no victory,” to quote, of all things, “The Transformers.”
But looking at the Passion without Easter is equally nonsensical. In the Christian worldview, suffering is never the last word.
Because, as even a six-year-old knows, everyone roses from the dead.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” “My Life with the Saints,” and his newest book, “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Christian Life.”