All those days are preparation for growing in understanding that celebration of Easter, the day of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, is preceded by redemptive suffering.
Many people find Lenten observance itself a form of impatient suffering, which is contrary to the whole point of learning that patience comes from a Latin word that means suffering.
The avoidance of suffering or even mere unpleasantness builds an almost impenetrable wall between the older observance of the Sunday preceding Easter – Passion Sunday – and the ever-pleasant life of the 21st century.
Passion Sunday, as suggested, is about the Passion of Christ, which is about suffering, death and its necessity.
The Passion story is told in the four Gospels of the New Testament – Mark 14-15, Matthew 26-27, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19. The first three (often called the Synoptic Gospels) have a lot in common, while John’s version tells the story rather differently.
Much in those passages will be glossed over on Palm Sunday as often celebrated – more about waving branches, children’s choirs and maybe a celebratory lunch afterward.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis, wrote of the “Cost of Discipleship” (it was the title of his well-known book) and warned of “cheap grace”– grace embraced that does not take seriously either the gravity of sin or the radical call to servanthood.
“When Jesus bids a man come, he bids him come and die,” Bonhoeffer, himself a martyr in Nazi hands, wrote.
The late Peter Gomes, a great preacher and minister at Harvard Memorial Church, never backed away from taking the less popular view of Christian meaning, observance and faithfulness.
He wrote in a sermon for Palm Sunday titled “Beyond Tragedy” that many people are reared to think of Palm Sunday as a “festive dress rehearsal for Easter triumph,” and noting soberly that there is a “second mood as well, and that it is reflected in the traditional reading of the Passion Narrative with its account of the betrayal and death of Jesus. This is the solemn side of the day and it is almost unbearable in its anguish and pathos.”
Speaking the words of the narrative, he writes, and saying “crucify, crucify” with the biblical mob brings individual present-day realities painfully, frighteningly close.
He describes the Victorian practice of changing the endings of Shakespeare’s tragedies so that everything is pleasant and nice like Romeo an Juliet awaking and living happily everafter in blissful romance.
Moving toward the cross rouses the same impulse, Gomes cautions.
“We will want to interfere, you and I, we will want to make all come out right, and sooner rather than later,” he wrote.
Our version of coming out right, Gomes says, usually means “doing nothing: no suffering, no Passion, no ambiguity, no pain, and as the jocks say, ‘no gain.’”
Gomes is impelled to honesty – Christian honesty, which demands facing the truth.
Gomes, as with every other orthodox preacher and follower concludes there is no short cut, “for we must suffer with him that we may be glorified with him.”
Gomes is talking about putting on the identity of Christ as a human, as Jesus did, and as 21st disciples are called also.
The goal, as Gomes writes, is to “weep at injustice and crime, and violence, and deprivation and depravity, to enter the sorrows of another as if they were our own, because they are our own.”
Shared suffering is redemptive.
Gomes’ final observation is succinct and required of all who follow and seek to serve: “Look at the cross and the suffering, bleeding Savior. Beyond tragedy is truth redeemed. Look and live!”