Spiritual Highs and Lows

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year B)

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Mark 11:9

Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday) begins Holy Week, one of the most intense times of the Church year, which includes not only Palm Sunday, but the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and of course, Easter itself.  This is the week we celebrate the central events of Jesus’ life culminating in the salvation of man, the renewal of creation, and the tearing of the veil between heaven and earth.  As it says in Revelation 21:5, “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”  

There is much that could be said about the deep mystical meaning of the events recounted in the celebrations of this coming week, which incorporate the Last Supper, the arrest, suffering, death and burial of Jesus Christ, and ultimately His glorious Resurrection.  A lifetime spent studying theology could not exhaust the depths of that spiritual well.  One of the things that makes Holy Week so intense is the range of emotions encapsulated in these celebrations; from the sorrow on the Cross to the joy of the Resurrection.

Palm Sunday itself incorporates some rather intense spiritual highs and lows.  One of the unique things about the Palm Sunday celebration is that it has two gospel readings.  Mass begins with a reading from Mark 11:1-10, recounting the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with people spreading branches on the road before him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!… Hosanna in the highest!”  Yet moments later we endure a lengthy reading of chapters 14 and 15 of Mark’s gospel, which recount the passion and death of Jesus and all the suffering that entails. We now shout, “Crucify Him!”  The gospel ends grimly with a cold, heavy stone being rolled over the entrance of Jesus’ tomb.  

From celebration to desolation, from life to death, from joy to sorrow, all in one Sunday liturgy.  Is that not a reflection of our own spiritual lives?  Do we not all experience highs and lows on our journey toward God?  

St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote of this phenomena.  He described times of spiritual consolation as those times when we are on fire with the love of God.  We feel that we can freely give ourselves to God with no hindrances, and see everything in our lives in the context of a loving God.  Spiritual consolation is often marked by joy, but it can also include sadness over our own sins, or when we contemplate the suffering Jesus endured for us (as we do this week especially).  But whether in joy or sadness we are thankful to God and filled with the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

St. Ignatius also wrote of spiritual desolation.  These are times when our spirit feels heavy.  We feel a lack of faith, hope and love.  We feel the seeming loss of God’s presence.  We don’t feel like praying.  We become dry and tepid in our faith.  Spiritual desolation can be caused by our own laziness or negligence of the spiritual life.  But it can also be from God.  It can be a trial allowed by Him to help us learn whether we truly love God for His sake or simply love the gifts that God gives us.  Spiritual desolation can be God allowing us to see just how much we need Him in our lives.  

When we are in times of desolation, St. Ignatius advises us to be humble and patient.  In particular he advises us to meditate on how God seems to have abandoned us, and how it feels to be apart from God.  It may sound like an odd thing for a saint to advise, but this is precisely what Jesus did as He hung upon the Cross, in His time of desolation.  “My God, my God,” He cries, “Why have you abandoned me?” Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22, which is a prayer for deliverance from suffering.  The psalm begins with this desolate plea and speaks of God’s abandonment, but it ends with a declaration of praise for God.  Even in the midst of suffering, the soul can give praise and glory to God.  Even in the midst of desolation, we can choose to live for the Lord.  

We can accept the desolation God asks us to endure.  Like Jesus, we can pray, “If it is possible, take this cup from me.  Yet not my will, but Your will be done.”  We can accept desolation because of the promise of consolation, the promise of life, joy and peace that is ours if we accept them.  Those who suffer with Christ shall rise with Christ. Those who share in His passion in His Kingdom on earth, will share in His glory for all eternity in the Kingdom that is to come.