Normally we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation today, but this year March 25 falls on Palm Sunday. The Annunciation has been moved to April 9, but it was one year ago today that Archbishop Cordileone blessed our Perpetual Adoration Chapel. In the past 12 months we have tripled the hours of Eucharistic adoration, with hundreds of people from all over the city praying before the exposed Heart of Jesus day and night. God has chosen our parish to provide the Sacred Eucharist of His Divine Son, our only hope and unfailing consolation. Every week I see saints being formed before the Presence of the Eucharistic Heart of the World. Thanks be to God.
This Year: Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord
Palm Sunday, the only Mass of the year with two gospels, two colors, two themes, and two names: Palm and Passion Sunday. The Mass begins in green (life) and ends in red (death). It begins with joyous song and ends in empty silence as we move toward Good Friday.
It begins with an altar decorated with bright palms and ends with a barren and stripped altar after the Holy Thursday Mass later this week.
The altar is clothed in red today, red for the blood of Christ as we hear the entire Passion read in three parts. In horror movies blood means death, but in the Bible blood means life. The Jews revered blood as the principle of all life. A man was forbidden to approach his wife during her menses, out of reverence for the sacred blood which transmits human life. To this day, orthodox Jews do not consume an animal until its sacred blood has been drained from it. One does not consume blood, but Jesus would give his blood for us, and command us to drink it. Blood taken is death, but blood given gives life. A man's blood given for his family day by day provides for the life his wife brings into the world through her blood. Christ’s blood is life for us.
This week ends in silence on Good Friday, the only day of the year that has no Mass, a liturgy that begins and ends in silence. As God’s blood is life rather than death, so God’s silence is joy rather than sorrow. “In the silence of the heart God speaks.” We must silence our own clamoring self-will, we must die to ourselves, in order to hear the still soft voice of God. He does not shout, like we do. Only in silencing ourselves can we hear a baby's breath, an old woman's sigh, a gentle breeze.
This week ends in the emptiness of an altar stripped after the Holy Thursday Mass. The barren altar speaks to us, inspiring us to strip our wills so that God may fill us. Even God cannot fill a soul that is full of expectations and demands, of angers and resentments. God will not force himself upon us, as we do upon ourselves and others. The altars of first Christian centuries were built to resemble empty tombs. Mass was held upon this empty tomb of Christ, an emptiness that would be filled with God’s glory because He emptied himself on the Cross.
an ancient Christian burial box built to resemble the empty tomb of Christ.
Every human story is an echo of this empty tomb, the story of one who sacrifices himself for another. I flew to Washington last week to visit my mother. On the plane I watched one movie going east and two movies going west. All three of them told the same story: sacrifice. It’s the only story that really holds our attention. In Bridge of Spies a lawyer risks life and career to defend a Russian spy; in Born in China (a wonderful nature film), a snow leopard dies trying to feed her cubs; in … ahem … Wonder Woman [I fast forwarded through the bad scenes to get to the story’s conclusion], the heroine offers her life to protect others from violence (after showing the viewer dozens of scenes of intense violence, of course). Every story worth telling is the story of one person’s sacrifice for another, and that’s why we listen to the entire story of the Passion every year. It’s the only story worth listening to.
Last week I spent a few days with my mother. She needs 24-hour nursing care because she is dying. Death is gaining the upper hand with my mother’s tortured body and failing mind, although God may permit her to wrestle with death some months more. I sat for hours in her room, which became my chapel. I prayed my breviary out loud at her request, and quietly when she slept. We her children must prepare ourselves for the silence and emptiness, the absurdity of death. My sister in law, who lost her mother last year, recently told us to prepare to lose her bit by bit. She hardly eats and her big boned body is down to 88lbs. Her twisted and bent frame is hardly recognizable. Who can make sense of this, and what can prepare us? Only Jesus. The Son of Man let his body become twisted and bent, and let death and silence and emptiness swallow him. But he entered into that emptiness with brave faith, and in so doing made a way for my mother. He made a way for each of us. And so:
Crown him with many crowns
The Lord upon his throne …
Awake my soul and sing
of him who died for thee
and hail him as thy matchless king
for all eternity.