Palm Sunday this year was different for me. And I don’t think it will ever be the same again. This Palm Sunday was my first since traveling on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Once you have been to the Holy Land, you never read or hear Scripture the same again – and I imagine there might be no time when this is more apparent than during Holy Week, and especially in the proclamation of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
As the Passion according to Mark was proclaimed at St. Agnes Church in Nashville, Indiana, this past weekend, I found myself visualizing the account in a way that had never been possible before. As Jesus was greeting by the cheering crowds shouting “Hosanna!” as he entered Jerusalem, I found myself walking down that same steep road on the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem – a path that I walked this past November while on pilgrimage. As Jesus and the disciples moved from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane – and then as Jesus was arrested and taken to the house of Caiaphas – I could visualize the movements and relationships between those locations, because I have been to each of them. As Jesus carried his cross and was crucified, I recalled my own prayerful walk early in the morning along the Via Crucis in the Old City of Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over both the hill of Calvary and the empty tomb. I could almost feel again the Rock of Agony in Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and the stone hole on Calvary where the cross of Christ was raised. And although we didn’t conclude the story in our proclamation on Palm Sunday, my mind was already fixed on the empty tomb where death was conquered.
You don’t have to go to the Holy Land to have faith. You don’t have to pray in the empty tomb in order to believe. The Good News of the Resurrection is that God is present with us wherever we are, especially through the Sacraments. But there is undeniably something different about our faith when we have the opportunity to see the place where he was laid. It is deeper – it is richer – it is real. No longer are the places mentioned in Scripture about some land “over there” – like Middle Earth or Narnia – but they are here, on this earth, in a very specific time and place. And for those of us who have been privileged to be there, we have been able to “see and testify that the Father sent his son as the Savior of the world” (1 John 4.14).
But, for me, the most remarkable gift and memory of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land was that this experience is not limited to that specific time and place. But for that – we’ll have to wait for Holy Thursday.