The world’s Christian communities begin Holy Week by joyously waving majestic palm branches in solemn procession around their altars and down their aisles in commemoration of Christ’s final entry into his beloved Jerusalem.
The world’s Christian churches will conclude Holy Week with their sanctuaries bedecked with lilies and their buildings adorned with tulips in celebration of the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead. But in between these two triumphant observances, the days of Holy Week portray a quite different picture of Jesus, the suffering servant. As these verses sung during the Stations of the Cross emphasize, Holy Week is indeed Passion Week: “Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender child, all with bloody scourges rent.” Jesus indeed suffered physically. He amply fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah shared in this coming Sunday’s first reading: “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.”
Christ’s unspeakable sufferings are likewise read in the psalm response, “Indeed, many dogs surround me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me; They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones.” St. Paul in the second reading leaves no doubt that Jesus’ afflictions were intense: “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” St. Mark in his Gospel passages about the Passion of Christ will similarly underscore the penetrating pains of the Redeemer: “The soldiers led him away inside the palace, that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort. They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. They began to salute him with, ‘All Hail, King of the Jews!’ and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him. They knelt before him in homage. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him out to crucify him.” On Golgatha, the physical suffering that had begun with his scourging would be completed with his demise.
The bodily anguish of Jesus Christ once he had been hauled before Pontius Pilate until he expired on Calvary is the stuff of the four Passion accounts and the substance of centuries of Christian art. And rightly so. “By his bruises, we were healed.” Believers must not forget that. But as Jesus was aching in body, he was perhaps even more tested in soul. Rejection by people in every age that he came to save was certainly an added and insufferable burden for this man of sorrows. But rejection by his own kind was particularly painful. Unrelenting antagonism toward Jesus came from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Increasing resentment was likewise found among the Herodians and the Pharisees. Certainly the growing antipathy from the Sadducees is evident throughout the Scriptures. These civic and religious leaders delivered Jesus up “out of envy,” as St. Mark notes. These scholars of the law rejected the very messenger that their beloved Scriptures anticipated. They did not realize that the very cornerstone of their longed for kingdom of God was there in their midst. Their arrogance merited God’s wrath, but their smugness broke Jesus’ heart.
The rejection of Jesus Christ by any soul that he came to save is unquestionably dreadful. But the rebuff that the Scribes and Pharisees leveled against Jesus Christ was doubly pernicious. These religious leaders, of all people, should have known better. These were the professional religious of their day. They searched the Scriptures regularly and thoroughly and should have perceived in Jesus Christ the presence of the long awaited and long predicted Messiah. That they did not know the time of their visitation gave great pain to Jesus and drew tears to his eyes as he sat on the Jerusalem hillside lamenting their hardness of heart. Now again, on another hillside, Jesus is pained to realize that these guardians of the ancient faith, these teachers of Moses’ law, these priests of Jerusalem’s temple, had closed their minds and, even more so, their hearts to his good news of salvation. What an agony it must have been for Jesus to realize that the Gospel message had been wasted on them.
The world today must recognize that, like the religious leaders of old Israel, modern believers are also chosen, selected, favored. Insult would be added to injury if today’s world also missed the time of visitation.