On Palm Sunday, a fellow singer in my parish choir pours herself into the narrative of the Lord’s Passion, reciting the congregation’s parts with gusto. Hearing this kind-hearted senior lady cry out “Crucify him!” makes me squirm a bit — as does having to say the same myself.
In fact, throughout the Gospel proclamation, I find myself wishing that we in the pews had nobler lines in the script, rather than the villainous dialogue we’re assigned. After all, we’re at Mass, right? Surely we wouldn’t have turned on Jesus if we’d been there with him in Jerusalem.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize the casting director.
One of the most intriguing characters in the Gospels is actually the crowds themselves. We hear of those who followed Jesus, even into deserted places for three days at a time, “amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the deformed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind able to see” (Mt 15:31). Jesus regarded them with compassion, “because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Refusing to “send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way” (Mt 15:31), he miraculously multiplied a few loaves and fish to feed “four thousand men, not counting women and children” (Mt 15:38).
Despite such wonders, and contrary to Christ’ message of love, the crowds could be downright rude. They were willing to advise blind Bartimaeus, begging on the roadside, that Jesus was passing by, but when the poor man cried out for healing, “many rebuked him, telling him to be silent” (Mk 10:48).
Proving that persistence is a virtue, Bartimaeus “kept calling out all the more” (Mk 10:48), and as soon as Jesus stopped and summoned him, the fickle crowd reversed course: “Take courage; get up, he is calling you” (Mk 10:49).
As Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, the “very large crowd” honored him, “(spreading) their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road” (Mt 21:8). Surrounding Jesus, they cried out, “‘Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest” (Mt 21:9).
Yet even that worthy acclamation missed the mark, as biblical scholars point out. At Jesus’ baptism, “a voice came from heaven” over the waters of the Jordan saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). Years of teaching, healing, and sharing the gift of his presence only confirmed that One greater than a descendant of David was at hand — except for those unwilling to renounce their pride and skepticism.
Although Jesus always invited the crowds to enter into the mystery of his saving love, only those who accepted his offer came to be called his disciples. As the Gospels progress, that distinction becomes devastatingly clear.
In fairness, many scholars believe the crowds who called for Christ’s crucifixion were not necessarily the same as those who had previously supported him: the former may have been residents of Jerusalem, while the latter possibly consisted of Galilean pilgrims. Nonetheless, each Palm Sunday we are challenged to assess whether we’re content to remain in the crowd, or to stand apart as a disciple.
We can start by asking ourselves a simple question, one posed to us by Jesus himself: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15)
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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