March 25, 2010
Via Sacra was the main street of ancient Rome. It passed through some of the most important pagan temples in the Forum. Located at the highest point of this road stands the Arch of Titus. This monument commemorates the triumphal procession of Titus into Rome after his conquest of Judaea in 70 A.D.
Ancient Rome lavishly celebrated her great victories. After great military campaigns, the conquering hero would enter the city of Rome in triumph. A great procession escorted him from the outskirts of the city along the Via Sacra to the Forum. Seasoned soldiers with carts loaded with spoils of war proudly marched amid the cheers of the crowd. Captives and slaves walked humiliated before the returning general in his chariot drawn by white horses. Such a sight thrilled the Romans with its parade of prowess and pride. Roman arches, reliefs and coins kept the memory of such displays of power alive in the minds of the people.
How different the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of his last week on earth! Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem amid the joyful shouts of the crowd. He is riding not on a horse used for war, but on a donkey. He comes not as the military warrior whom many were expecting, but as the Messiah who comes in peace. Those accompanying him raise their voices in grateful Hosannas. They praise God for all the miracles that Jesus has done. But their loud acclaim cannot silence the sorrow in the heart of Jesus. He knows what lies ahead. The road is set in the direction of Calvary.
As the Palm Sunday procession makes its way to the crest of the Mount of Olives, Jesus sees the city of Jerusalem spread out before him. What a view! The Temple rising high above the horizon; its white marble and gold dazzling in the light of the setting sun! The words of the Psalmist make Jesus pause and think: “The holy mountain, fairest of heights, the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, the heights of Zaphon, the city of the great king” (Ps 48:3-4). This is the season of Passover. It is a time of joy and celebration. This is freedom’s feast. But Jesus stretches his eyes beyond the city crowded with Passover pilgrims and sees the fate that awaits those who do not turn from sin.
“As Jesus drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If this day you only knew what makes for peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides.
They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation’” (Lk 19:42-44).
On the way to the Cross, Jesus again speaks of the destruction of the Holy City. He tells the women of Jerusalem to mourn not for him, but for themselves and the coming destruction of their city. Jesus has already wept over the horrors that await his people. He is one with them in their pain.
Right before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C., the prophet Jeremiah had pleaded with the people to return to God and stay the impending doom. But, when they did not, he lamented their hard-heartedness, saying, “My eyes will run with tears for the Lord’s flock” (Jer 13:17). Like Jeremiah, Jesus weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem and the fate of his people in his own day. But Jesus is more than a prophet. He is the very Son of God. He sees more than just one city.
For Jesus, Jerusalem symbolizes the world. God gives so much to all his people. He calls out again and again, longing for us to accept his will. He wants us to give him our hearts and to find peace in his love. Yet, age after age, so many of us turn a deaf ear to his appeal. For Jesus, Jerusalem is all of us, unbelieving and indifferent to God’s providence.
Jesus sees us hastening toward our own self-destruction. He is going to the Cross for our salvation, but not without the sorrow of knowing how difficult it is to reach our sinful hearts. From deep within his soul, there rises a sorrow that cannot contain itself and he weeps. What a sight! The Son of God weeping not for the suffering that he would soon endure in his passion and death, but weeping for us! Should we not be moved? Should we not take to heart his words to the women of Jerusalem? Should we not weep tears of repentance for the sins we commit?
Jesus’ final words before he mounts the Cross inject a dose of reality into our thinking about God. Jesus had warned the crowds and his followers again and again that if they did not repent, there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Mt 8:11-12; Mt 22:12-13; Mt 24:50-51; Mt 25:29-30; Lk 13:27-28). God is all holy and he is all just. There can be no evil in his sight. We are created in freedom. God leaves us free to respond to his love. When life is going well, when we spend our time earning a good living, caring for our family, enjoying the pleasures of this world, we can become lulled into thinking that our sins do not matter. But evil choices have consequences and we cannot escape them.
Our sins of selfishness, anger, envy, lust, pride and avarice cause suffering to others and to ourselves. God takes no pleasure in this suffering. He does not inflict punishment on us with the vengeance of an unrequited lover. Rather, he himself sorrows over the harm that we do to ourselves and others. He feels our pain so much that he sends his only-begotten Son to be our Savior. “God did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Rm 8:31).
Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem takes him to the Cross, but does not end there. Through his suffering and death, the Crucified Christ enters the glory of heaven where he prepares a place for us. Christ Crucified makes it possible for us to avoid the justice that our sins deserve in the life to come. He turns our tears of repentance into the triumph of grace over sin. For, through the mystery of his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Christ takes away our sins and imparts to us a share in God’s own life in this world and, in the next, a share in his glory.