March 19, 2024 // Perspective

Lent Has Led Us to the Joy and Agony of the Cross

“Through the Passion of Your Only Begotten Son, O Lord, may our reconciliation with You be near at hand, so that, though we do not merit it by our own deeds, yet by this sacrifice made once for all, we may feel already the effects of Your mercy.”

Thus we pray in the prayer over the offerings this Sunday. The beginning of Holy Week – in its official designation, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord – is a day that is torn in two. The liturgy itself immerses us into the inner turmoil of the defeat and triumph of God.

The first words blare out for eternity: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And the final words, in the prayer over the people, begs God to look upon those for whom Jesus submitted Himself to the agony of the cross. Joy and agony, the ups and downs of human experience, laid out in careful contrast all in one Mass.

Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday, begins the culmination of what our Lenten journey has been about – having engaged the process of Lenten observance, we now enter into the mysteries of redemption, celebrated in time. In some ways, the quality of our Lent now shines out as it comes to a head.

But before we hear that word “quality” and instantly begin judging ourselves for our lack of achievements in Lenten discipline, let us recall who has really been achieving things in Lent. As the greeting before the procession of palms reminds us, since the beginning of Lent, we have been preparing our hearts by penance and charitable works. Preparing for what? For God’s action within us.

And our Lenten discipline serves to prepare us for these celebrations that we begin this Sunday. Thus, no matter the “quality” of our Lenten journey thus far, today is the day in which the real work of the season begins as we receive and celebrate the mysteries for which we have been preparing throughout the last weeks. In that way, even the Lenten failure is a preparation – an opportunity to realize just how much we must rely on God’s grace in order to even do what we want in our relationship with Him. As St. Paul says: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:18-19).

In some ways, what keeps our growth in the spiritual life stunted is our refusal to acknowledge the ways in which we are still bound to sin. Or the ways in which what Paul says is true of us. Thus, the Lenten discipline, no matter how it has gone for us, serves as a reminder and an action that creates an opening for God to remake us. As Paul goes on to say: “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:10-11).

This is the source of the dichotomy of agony and joy in the soul: the desire to do as we ought – that is, to live in real freedom – and our failures or success in doing so. And that is what this Sunday reminds us of, that if we truly desire to be changed, we must let God into the openings in our hearts that we have fostered this Lent, in whatever way they’ve come about.

The time of our reconciliation has come. God is going to once again renew His covenant with us through the sacred celebrations of Holy Week in a particularly intense way. We will celebrate the reconciliation of the world back to God – the coming back together of the created order, and the One who made it, which was split in the sin of our first parents.

This reconciliation does not occur because of our accomplishments or merits, but by the cross of Jesus Christ. For our part, we do well to allow whatever our experience of Lent has been to be the opening through which we allow the Lord of Life in. Our hearts can cry out “Hosanna!” as well as feel the agony of the cross – all so that the work of redemption might be accomplished in us through the Lord’s action.

Father Mark Hellinger is a Parochial Vicar at St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Wayne.

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