By Bishop James Conley
Before he was betrayed, arrested, beaten and crucified, Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly. He was hailed as a hero. He was welcomed as a great prophet and healer. But he knew what he would face in Jerusalem. And still he went.
The Gospel of Luke says that on Palm Sunday, Jesus went ahead of his disciples and apostles on the road to Jerusalem, and they followed him into the Holy City.
That, taught Pope Benedict, is the lesson of Palm Sunday. “It is,” he taught, “about following.”
“Being Christian means seeing the way of Jesus Christ as the right way of being human — as that way that leads to the goal, to a humanity that is fully realized and authentic,” Benedict taught.
“Being Christian is a journey, or better: It is a pilgrimage, it is a going with Jesus Christ. A going in that direction that he has pointed out to us and is pointing out to us.”
The pilgrimage of the Christian life, the pope taught, is a journey upward – “a matter of an ascent.” On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled upward, literally, from Jericho, hundreds of feet below sea level, to Jerusalem, almost 2,500 feet above sea level. His disciples followed behind him up to the city of Jerusalem.
But as we follow Jesus, the real journey upward is, Pope Benedict said, “an ascent to the true height of being human.”
“Jesus goes ahead of us, and he goes up to what is above. He leads us to what is great, pure, he leads us to the healthy air of the heights: to life according to truth; to the courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip of dominant opinions; to the patience that stands up for and supports the other. He leads us to availability to the suffering, to the abandoned; to the loyalty that stands with the other even when the situation makes it difficult.”
Palm Sunday is about following Jesus. And following Jesus takes us into a state of grace, onto a path of holiness. Following Jesus transforms us, so that we are free to love as he does.
But following Jesus has a cost. The apostles who followed Jesus into Jerusalem were with him as he faced his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he was tried, and as he was hung on a cross. We who follow Jesus also face crosses.
“The cross,” Pope Benedict wrote, “is part of the ascent toward the height of Jesus Christ, the ascent to the height of God.”
But we needn’t fear the crosses we face. In fact, we should rejoice in them. Pope Benedict taught that “in the final analysis, the cross is the expression of that which is meant by love: Only he who loses himself will find himself.”
As we enter Holy Week, we are each invited to follow Jesus into Jerusalem, into holiness, and to the cross. We follow him in the communion of the Church. We follow him in the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. We follow him in our marriages, our religious communities, and our parishes.
We follow him wherever we encounter the cross, and wherever we are called to love courageously and generously —to lose ourselves in love, and thus to discover the “heights of our humanity.”