What an extraordinary scene was etched on the wall of a second-century Roman building, like some graffito at a big-city underpass! A line-drawn figure gazes at a crucified donkey, with the rough inscription, “Alexamenos adores his God.” Before crosses adorned our churches and glimmered on jewelry counters, the cross was a symbol of disgrace and mockery; yet it drew people to silent adoration. The paradox of the cross is captured on Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem with royal acclamation, not astride a horse but “meek and riding on an ass,” a symbol of peace, not war. At the end of this week, a placard on the gibbet of the cross proclaims him king in the truest sense, one who rules by self-giving, one who wins by losing.
The passion accounts, which bracket Palm Sunday and Good Friday and culminate in the resurrection proclamation, are invitations to engagement and contemplation. Holy Week engages the whole community in bodily movement. People solemnly process on Palm Sunday, have their feet washed on Holy Thursday, move silently and reverently to venerate the cross on Good Friday and walk behind lighted candles at the Easter Vigil. A people on the move through history is caught up, flesh and spirit, in the unfolding drama of the cross and resurrection.
I witnessed a striking image of the power of these symbols at St. Claire’s parish in Santa Clara, Calif. Every Good Friday the parish celebrates the way of the cross by moving to different stations throughout the neighborhood. The immense crucifix is lifted from the front wall of the church and the Portuguese marching band, beating a somber rhythm, leads the procession. The parish is ethnically diverse, and each group carries the cross for a number of stations: Portuguese, Chinese, Latino, Anglo and Vietnamese. Young and old are united. A grandmother in traditional dress holds the hand of a granddaughter in jeans and an Oakland Raiders jacket; little children run back and forth, often evoking frowns from prayerful parents. The event is a powerful symbol that whatever our differences and heritage, we carry together Christ’s cross.
Matthew’s passion narrative has distinctive vignettes of Jesus’ path to Calvary. Matthew introduces major sections with the title “Jesus,” which readers know from the angel’s command (1:27) means “He will save his people from their sins.” Jesus, in his first great discourse, praises those who are persecuted for the sake of justice (5:10), and he is condemned after Pilate’s wife warns her husband not to have anything to do with this “just man” (27:19). Matthew’s Gospel and passion narrative are permeated by the theology of Jesus as the suffering just person who will proclaim justice to the Gentiles (12:18) at the cost of his own life. Matthew alone recounts the earthquake at Jesus’ death, when tombs were opened and many of the saints were raised—a vivid symbol that death is conquered at the very moment of its apparent victory (27:52-53).
Special pathos accompanies us this Holy Week, as we recall the indiscriminately inclusive horror inflicted on people six months ago and the lasting grief of so many. With Christ on the cross this year are those who gave their lives trying to save others, as well as those whose lives were simply snatched away. Matthew’s passion also reminds us of those people who seek justice by speaking out on behalf of the poor and the marginal or who unmask the hidden structures of evil— often at the cost of their lives.
Eight years ago Jon Sobrino, S.J., wrote an essay, “The Rose Garden,” about a garden carefully tended by Obdulio, husband of Elba, who was killed along with her daughter Celina and six Jesuits in El Salvador in November 1989. He spoke of the need to keep alive the joyful and subversive memory of the cross, and that Christians must unite “against that part of the cross which is sin, and in support of that part of the cross which is joy.” This memory is subversive because it summons us to view the world with the clear eyes of victims, not through the prism of the powerful, which can be rotated to show things in an ever changing and more agreeable light. From Alexamenos to the pilgrim people of Santa Clara, and with those who come to the Rose Garden with tears and love, the journey of Holy Week remains our greatest mystery—and our greatest hope.