Palm Sunday 2020: Praying Just as if I were There


With Palm Sunday, we enter into the mysteries of Holy Week. The Greeting before the blessing of the palms lays out the basics of this day and the purpose of Holy Week. Since the beginning of Lent until now we have prepared our hearts by penance and charitable works. Today we gather together to herald with the whole Church the beginning of the celebration of our Lord’s Paschal Mystery. … For it was to accomplish this mystery that he entered his own city of Jerusalem.

This year’s celebration of Palm Sunday will be different. Unless we participate by sharing through television, video conferencing or social media tools, we won’t take part in a celebration. Even with those tools, as valuable as they are, we will miss the intimacy and communion that comes with physically being together.

I came across a helpful distinction a few days ago. Writing in The Globe and Mail, the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, made a crucial point about social distancing. Margaret Eaton’s comments, in a nutshell, suggest that social distancing is a misnomer.

We should be physically distancing, but remain as social as ever. She is coming from the perspective of mental health. My perspective is spiritual health. This Holy Week, we will not be together, but we will definitely be social if we join in any of the various electronic options.

With what attitude does Jesus enter into Jerusalem? We hear something about his attitude in the excerpt from the Book of the prophet Isaiah and the Songs of the Suffering Servant today. I did not turn backward. … The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

Flint is a type of very hard sedimentary rock. When struck against steel, flint produces sparks to begin a fire. To set your face like flint is to stand strong and firm in the looming adversity. Jesus knows that the opposition and adversities he faces are formidable, given what will be realized through his suffering and death.

Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Philippians about the humility and obedience of Jesus. That obedience is what gave him the courage to be so resolute and firm in his resolve.

We are invited into the mysteries of this week. There are many ways to pray with Holy Week. The method that many people find helpful is to use the basics of Ignatian contemplation. Fr. John Veltri, S.J. described that type of prayer in a few words: praying just as if I were there.

That means that I am using my imagination, such that I am actively engaged with the Gospel reading. The scriptures of Holy Week lend themselves quite powerfully to that method. The events are vivid and there is a myriad of personalities.

There is plenty of action and suspense. I’m sure that is one reason why the Passion of Jesus is portrayed in film so much. As you listen to the Gospel being proclaimed, try to imagine yourself as one of the characters.

Try to take part in the scene rather than stay outside, looking in. What do you pay attention to? Are you temped to intervene or to say something? What do you say to the players? What do they say to you?

Which words or actions strike you in a new or deeper way this Holy Week? Do you find parallels between the Passion of Jesus and the events of our world? Who do you feel most comfortable standing with?

Regardless of the way you actually do it, it’s helpful to immerse yourself in the mysteries of this week. There is a timeless character to the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. As we pray with it, we can’t help but see parallels in our own life and in the life of the world.

There are plenty of moments and experiences of suffering, death and transformation in our lives. Allow yourself to bring all of this to prayer this week – whether your method is reading, joining online  options, or watching the TV Mass.

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • John Montague
    Posted at 08:30h, 05 April Reply

    When I pray over the story of Holy Week I always see myself most in Mary Magdalene. I always wonder where she was during the last Supper, and when Peter denied Him.

  • Suzanne Renaud
    Posted at 08:51h, 05 April Reply

    Thank you!

  • Vicky Chen
    Posted at 10:40h, 05 April Reply

    Thank you, Fr. Phil., for your teaching, as always. Yes, the Passion narrative is particularly conducive to Gospel Contemplation. This year, I changed character from time to time. At one point I purposely took on Judas’ position.

  • Lorraine Majcen
    Posted at 12:53h, 05 April Reply

    Thank you Fr Philip! This approach is something I wish to try, and is ideal as I meditate on the gospel of today in the confines of my home. I do not need to feel isolated, but can participate fully in the Passion of Christ. So thank for that life giving message, that fills my soul with hope and love.

  • Joel P. Olney
    Posted at 17:50h, 05 April Reply

    Nice post Philip. With today being Palm Sunday, Easter week has begun, and it really does seems to have a very surreal aire about it this year. COVID-19 has changed this Easter, not forever, but definitely for this Easter season, as we lacked our usual ways of experiencing, and sharing our faith together. An electronic shared Palm Sunday is not the same as a good old fashion, in person church service. We must find our own way to arrive, in faith, and celebrate Easter, from within our individual faith, our reflections, and / or perhaps, an internet celebration or two, Yes, we will arrive at Easter, and celebrate in our own way(s), but, one thing is for sure, it certainly has empathizes just how much strength, power, and support we get from gathering together at a church service to celebrate, to enrich, and to nurture our faith. Happy Easter week Philip.

    p.s. I have stopped using the term ‘Social Distancing’ because it most definitely a misnomer. I believe it should be ‘Physical Distancing, with Friendly Socializing ( from a distance ).’

  • Meg McMillan
    Posted at 21:04h, 05 April Reply

    Today’s gospel spoke of the intimate last supper before our Lord’s intense suffering. It was as though he was saying if we stand together, united with him we can get through this period of suffering that is ahead, but we must stand together. Any parallel to today?

  • Lorella D'Cruz
    Posted at 10:11h, 07 April Reply

    Thank you for pointing out the important distinction between physical distancing and social distancing. We use the latter term so glibly! I heard the Reading of the Passion during a televised Mass on Sunday, but I will read it afresh to engage more deeply, as you suggest. I often wonder whether I would have gone with the crowd baying for His blood. I would like to think not, but a mob can be persuasive. He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” We can do likewise.

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