If Palm Sunday were only known as Passion Sunday, newcomers to Christianity might be confused as to whom that passion applies. The readings for this Sunday’s mass are filled with passion—mostly fear—on all sides. By this point in our Lenten journey, the people Jesus touched are passionate about his promise of salvation from earthly oppression. But his oppressors in Jerusalem are equally touched by fear—of the source of his followers’ freedom. As Jesus makes his humble yet triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, neither of those sides could hide their passion. (Mt 21:1-11).
The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
As Paul tells the Philippians in our second reading (Phil 2:6-11), not even God the Father could hide His own passion about what Jesus did:
He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him.
Matthew’s account of the Passion (Mt 26:14—27:66) is a detailed inventory of fear on all sides. First, at the scene of the Last Supper, we hear about the disciples’ fear of themselves:
And while they were eating, he said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, “Surely it is not I, Lord?”
Next, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus feels the first pains of fear from the betrayal of his disciples as they let sleep steal them from their Master when he needs them most:
Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?
Next, we see Judas, the betrayer in chief, leading the weapon-wielding representatives of the terrified chief priests and elders to his master. As Jesus bravely confronts their fear, his own disciples let their own fear run away with them:
“Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to seize me? Day after day I sat teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me. But all this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
Then comes Peter’s fearful triple denial that he knew Jesus, followed by Governor Pilate’s conflicting fears of who his people say Jesus is versus who Jesus refuses to say he is. Pilate’s fear leads him to do the impossible: to forgive himself.
When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.”
Next we see how the Governor’s soldiers overcame their own fears of losing status—the same way grade school bullies do: by bullying.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him. Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
Finally, with Jesus’ death, God the Father gives all of His rebellious children something to be afraid of:
And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. … The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
Fast forward to today, and fear still reigns among non-believers. They mask their fear that God might exist with an erudite term: atheist. They say it is believers who are the fearful ones, calling them immature cowards, fearful of humanity’s ultimate nothingness. As atheism continues dominating modern culture, it’s up to the faithful to demonstrate what true courage is—by showing those clinging to belief in their own agency the true source of sustainable power.