"The One Thing Necessary" Revisited.
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12:27 PM 3/24/2013 — I'm not sure how many of you had the chance to watch the Mass which marked the beginning of Pope Francis' ministry as Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ;—the live broadcast was very early in the morning—but, if you had you would have noticed some interesting things, some changes that have been added to the ceremony by Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict, before he retired.
First of all, we should recognize that this Mass does not make him Pope. He becomes Pope the instant he accepts his election; but, the symbolism of the service is important. After getting vested for the Mass, the Holy Father walks to the tomb of St. Peter, which is directly underneath the altar of St. Peter's Basilica, and retrieves from there the palium, a strip of lamb's wool worn over his shoulders which symbolizes his office. In reality, every metropolitan archbishop wears a palium taken from the tomb of St. Peter, presented to him by the Holy Father on the feast of Ss. Peter & Paul; but, the Pope's is shaped a little differently to recognize that he is the successor of Peter himself, the Prince of the Apostles. He's accompanied to the tomb of St. Peter by the heads of the Eastern Catholic Churches, who then lead the College of Cardinals and the Holy Father into St. Peter's Square where the Mass is to be celebrated. During the Mass itself, the Gospel is sung in Greek by a deacon of an Eastern Catholic Church—a custom again started by Pope Benedict for more important Papal services—to symbolize the unity of the whole Church under the leadership of Peter.
I mention all this to emphasize the unity of the Catholic Church because, as we begin the celebration of Great and Holy Week, we find that our observance of these holy days is quite different from the way the week proceeds in the Latin Church; and, perhaps the most important way our observance is different concerns the day on which it begins. The Latin Church begins Holy Week on Palm Sunday; we begin it the day before, on a day we call Lazarus Saturday. The Gospel for that day, as I'm sure you can guess, is the account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and for obvious reasons: the resurrection of Lazarus is a prefiguring of the resurrection of our Lord.
The spectacle of Lazarus sister, Mary, washing our Lord’s feet and anointing them with oil is central to setting the theme for the week. She, after all, is the one who has “chosen the one thing necessary," as we've mentioned so many times in the last few weeks. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus, seemingly out of love and devotion, we realize, as does our Lord, that she’s really anointing him in preparation for his burial, even though she doesn’t know this. And it becomes obvious that the triumphant procession we remember today is really a funeral procession, even though no one there at the time knew it except Jesus himself. The people of Jerusalem wanted to crown Jesus on this day and make him King; and, he would be a King, but the crown he would wear would be a crown of thorns, and his reign as a king would begin with his death.
Those people lining the streets of Jerusalem throwing their palms—and let’s not forget they were, in all likelihood, the same ones shouting “Crucify him!” just a few days later—couldn’t have understood this, but we must. We must begin Holy Week with this perspective: that just as Jesus’ kingship is defined by his suffering and death—just as His power and reign as a king become real in the darkest moments of his Passion—so Jesus is present for us even as we face the darkest moments of our lives. We can’t help, as we relive this week the sufferings of Christ, to think of our own sufferings. But it was through his sufferings that Jesus became a king and achieved the purpose for which he came to earth. Just so, no matter what we may be suffering through in our lives, if we unite that suffering to Christ’s, then it can raise us up just as it did him.
It’s not easy to believe that, sometimes, when we are suffering and feel abandoned. It’s not easy to think that it is precisely through our sufferings that we can receive the greatest graces and blessings; just as it wasn’t easy for St. John and the other disciples, watching Jesus die on the cross, to believe that their glory and the glory of the Church they would establish, was just beginning.
So, as we relive today this complex scene—the parade of cheers that ends in death—let us contemplate our hardships and sufferings and thank God for them, and resolve to unite them to the sufferings of Christ, and so realize, in spite of how sorry we like to feel for ourselves sometimes, how richly blessed we are by the God who suffered for us.