This past Sunday was Palm Sunday, one of the most beautiful Masses of the year. I’ve mentioned before how amazing the music of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter is, and didn’t even mention in that earlier post some of the better hymns (like St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s devastating O Sacred Head Surrounded). But the Scriptural readings are as emotionally intense as the hymns. We begin the Mass with the Procession of the Palms. We’re each given palm branches to hold, and the priest proclaims the Gospel from Mt 21:1-11, in which the crowds cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” as Jesus enters Jerusalem (Mt. 21:9), laying palm branches before Him to pave the way for His arrival (Mt. 21:8). That occurs on a Sunday. By Friday, we see the crowds in Jerusalem assembled again, only this time, they’ve turned against Christ (Mt. 27:15-26):
Now on the occasion of the feast [of Passover] the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over. While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus.The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?”They answered, Barabbas!”Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?”They all said, “Let him be crucified!”But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?”They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!”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.”And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified.
The way that this particular Mass is set up, it’s hard to miss what’s going on. Here’s what I mean. First, we, the congregation, are holding palms. We’re symbolizing that (1) Jesus is the Messiah, (2) we recognize His Messiahship, and (3) that we’re like the crowds in Jerusalem. These meanings stand out during the reading of Matthew 21:1-11. Second, during the reading of the Passion, we call for the Crucifixion. 364 days a year, the Gospel is read only by the priest. But on Palm Sunday, the priest reads just the part of Jesus, while others read the parts of the other individuals involved. We, the congregation, proclaim the words of the crowd. It is we who yell out, “Let him be crucified!” and proclaim that we want Barabbas. As a kid, this struck me as bizarre and almost sacrilegious. We’re standing in church, declaring that we want Jesus dead? What’s going on here?
But the meaning is clear. It’s easy to pass judgment upon the crowds in Jerusalem. They were so fickle that they went from proclaiming Christ as Messiah on Sunday to choosing someone else (Barabbas) over Him by Friday. But we do the same thing. We proclaim Jesus on Sunday, but often times, throughout the week, we choose something or someone over Him. Maybe instead of Barabbas, we choose our pride over Jesus, or pornography, or our refusal to forgive someone who’s hurt us terribly. Maybe it’s premarital sex, or drugs, or something as banal as work. Holy Week is a time to consider: what are our Barabbas moments? What are those things which we choose over Christ throughout the week?
But more than that, it’s a time to remember that Jesus Christ died for us, so that we might be truly liberated (Galatians 5:1). Mark 15:7 and Luke 23:19 tell us that Barabbas was in prison for a bloody attempted insurrection. He’d been trying to establish the sort of political kingdom that Jesus refused to (John 18:36). So in Barabbas, we see both our desire for the material over the spiritual, and the peril of false freedom. We often imagine that freedom means nothing more than the ability to indulge our appetites: that God, with all His rules, makes us less free. But anyone who’s seen a true addict knows that unbridled indulgence of our appetites is slavery, not freedom, just as Galatians 5:1 warns us.
Lent is all about finding those things we’re enslaved to — those things, for example, which we fear we need too much to give up for forty days — and becoming liberated from them through Christ. As we enter this last week, let’s strive all the more to choose Christ over the many Barabbases in our lives.