And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40-41)
The Inner Struggle
One could make a good case that many of the purported reforms of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council were not a good idea. I admit, I did once compare the so-called Spirit of Vatican II to a rabid raccoon. On the other hand, I’m not a rad-trad, either. Some recent reforms are, in fact, improvements. The restoration of the Easter Vigil to Holy Saturday evening after dark, for instance (it had become customary to celebrate it Saturday morning). Granted, this reform dates from before Vatican II. Pope Pius XII instituted it a few years before the council, in 1955. It was a part, however, of the movement of liturgical reform that culminated in the Mass of Paul VI fifteen years later.
We can see another positive (or at least more positive than negative) change in today’s liturgy. Passion Sunday used to be the Sunday before Palm Sunday (as I discuss at further length here). Now the two liturgical observances share the Sunday before Easter.
The downside of the change is that we have lost the clear demarcation Passion Sunday used to give us between the earlier part of Lent and Passiontide. We gain something, however, from seeing the joyful palm-waving crowd welcoming Jesus and the angry crowd demanding his death in the same liturgy. We see a reflection in today’s mass of the struggle within each of us between the desire for salvation and the allure of sin.
Let’s start with those two crowds. I used to wonder as to what extent both crowds were composed of the same people. If they were the same, what had changed their minds in so short a time? After my last post on the subject, a reader convinced me that the two crowds did largely consist of different members. At the very least, the disciples of Jesus dominate the Palm Sunday crowd; the Sanhedrin and their supporters the mob demanding that Pilate crucify Him.
That’s the literal import of the two events. Scripture works on multiple levels, however. What is the liturgy showing us by putting the two crowds together?
One key to the bigger picture is St. Peter, humble fisherman become fisher of men. As chief Apostle he plays a prominent part in all the Gospel accounts of the events of Holy Week. In this year’s reading, from the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus telling him:
“Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded
to sift all of you like wheat,
but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail;
and once you have turned back,
you must strengthen your brothers.”
The Turning Back
The Lord is entrusting Peter with a critical mission, but there’s a warning here, too. What does he mean by “once you have turned back”? Turned back from what? Peter doesn’t seem to notice, because be immediately blurts out: “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you.” If only it were that simple. Peter must have been stunned by Jesus’ response:
“I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows this day,
you will deny three times that you know me.”
And, of course, Peter does just as Jesus says. He does turn back to strengthen his brethren in the end, but he has his ups and downs along the way. He genuinely wants to stand boldly in defense of his Lord, but fails at critical moments. He disavows any knowledge of Christ in response to the questions of a mere servant of the high priest. He and his fellow Apostles can’t stay awake when Jesus most needs their company. And of course, he is nowhere to be found when Christ is dying on the Cross. Matthew and Mark preserve Jesus’ summation of the situation when he finds his biggest supporters asleep on the job: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
We can also see a reflection of ourselves in the two starkly different crowds in today’s separate Gospel readings. There’s a part of us that wants to welcome our Messiah with loud hosannas. There’s a part that, like the religious leaders of the time, fears that embracing Christ will get us into trouble with the human powers-that-be out in the world. There’s also a side of us that we see in both crowds. Both contain a large number of people who are not there from a sense of commitment to one side or the other. They are simply following the mob, they are Jesus’ proverbial man who builds his house on sand (see Matthew 7:26).
The liturgy shows us at the beginning of Holy Week what our challenge is going to be. We all start out with the cheering crowds waving palms. Will we stay with Jesus the whole time? Will we fail for a time, like St. Peter, but turn back to Christ? Will the crowd shouting “Crucify Him!” sway us to their side? Where will we stand in the end?