Bystanders at the Passion - a homily for Palm Sunday

Published on 02 Apr 2020
A priest in red carrying palms

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow [1].

Who are those who pass by the passion of Christ?  Matthew tells us about people who are involved, not about passers-by.  Our attention is drawn to the central figures and to those who have their moment of significance: Jesus, Peter, the faithful women, Judas, the high priest, Pilate, the thieves, the centurion and his soldiers, Joseph of Arimathaea and others.  His friends left Jesus on his own.  Then all the disciples deserted him and ran away [2]. Some of these observed what took place from a distance.  They may have pretended not to be involved. I do not know the man [3], but such watchers from afar were hardly passers-by. They were deeply interested in what was going on.  Peter followed him at a distance…to see what the end would be [4]. There were, however, some casual onlookers.  A little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter: You are one of them (those who were with the Galilean) for sure [5].  These onlookers get into the spirit of things quite quickly.  We are told that the passers-by jeered at him: they shook their heads and said ‘So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days!  The save yourself! If you are God’s son, come down from the cross!’ [6]   The people who chanced on the scene were not moved to compassion or sorrow by suffering of Jesus.  Rather, they jeered.  Passers-by they might have been, but they knew enough about the Lord to make fun of his teaching and to mock his crucifixion.

Who are these passers-by?  Do we recognise them? They are not members of the crowd who allowed themselves to be persuaded by the chief priests and the elders to demand he release of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus [7].  That mob did not just happen to be there: they had come for the kill.  The passers-by may quickly have joined in the mockery of Christ but they were not there for that purpose.  They had some other business from which they were deflected to join the assailants of Jesus.  What about us?  Could we be these passers-by at the passion of the Lord?  As his disciples, we are hardly indifferent to his sufferings.  Yet, as events proceed, we can find ourselves curious uninvolved.  A numbness can reduce us to being merely onlookers at Calvary.  We the baptised?  We who have been keeping Lent, after our fashion?  Could we be casual observers of the sufferings of Christ?  The drift from discipleship to being a mere onlooker is not unknown.  These  saving events, familiar as they are, utterly important as we know them to be, can somehow push us away.  Repelled, we watch the death of the Son of God from the side-lines.  This detachment is different from running-away or explicit treachery. Jesus himself acknowledges with a mixture of disappointment and compassion the unfeeling torpor which overcomes some of his friends: you can sleep on now and take your rest [8].

Why do not the Lord’s supporters do something? How lonely sits the city that was once full of people [9].  The multitude which welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with hosannas and brandished palms drifts away when trouble comes.  No doubt some of the same people now cry: crucify him [10].  However, others who joined enthusiastically in the Palm Sunday welcome might now be among the passers-by at the passion.   Fickle, they took up and then dropped an enthusiasm.  Whimsical, such people drift along.  Their short attention-span is, for them, a comfortable foible.  So you had not the strength to keep awake with me one hour? [11]  Are we among the inert inhabitants of the ‘lonely city’?  Jerusalem, seething before Pilate, seems a long way from a world locked-down to prevent contamination.   Many are obliged to be onlookers from a distance rather than attentive participants.  Where Jesus was once welcomed by a multitude, now he is on his own. He emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave [12].  Friendship with Christ was delightedly proclaimed.  Now lonely sits that devotion to him which cannot be expressed in the community.  Do we watch his passion, not indifferent, but frozen?  Then, Pilate, saw that he was making no impression [13]. The right feelings are to seek.  All that happened to Jesus is carefully reported to us, but being mere passers-by, we are at a loss to know how to react.  The Lord has given me a disciple’s tongue.  So that I may know how to reply to the wearied he provides me with speech [14].    The empty streets do not signify that no-one is paying attention.  Behind the doors of the locked-down community, listeners strain to hear the passion of Christ.  As usual, actions speak louder than words.

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?  One passer-by to whom the suffering of Christ was not nothing was Simon of Cyrene. On their way out, they came across a man from Cyrene, Simon by name, and enlisted him to carry his cross [15].  Luke adds the detail that Simon was coming in from the country [16].   Mark echoes this and tells us that the passer-by [17] who was made to carry the cross was the father of Alexander and Rufus [18]. Going about his own business, Simon suddenly found himself helping Jesus to bear this terrible burden.   Someone who might have glanced at the scene in passing now takes centre-stage.  On the role of passer-by at the passion of Jesus is now conferred great nobility.  If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take his cross and follow me [19].   Simon of Cyrene did not choose to help: he was conscripted. The help was good.  Our own cross, whatever it is, is likely not to have been chosen.  We are forced to bear some unwelcome burden.  Simon, the passer-by, gets to the heart of discipleship without being a follower of Jesus!  There is some encouragement to us in this if we are dismayed by the ways in which we have not been able to keep faithful to the Lord. A crisis comes and we find ourselves pressed into giving service in a way which might have seemed too difficult when contemplated from afar.  

Why have you deserted me? [20]  Jesus puts this question to all those who hold him not only to his Father.  Our saviour dies for us in a lonely place. The crowd has melted away.  They are obliged to stay in their homes.  The cry of the Crucified is however heard everywhere.  Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.  Our seeming distance from the passion is an illusion.  Bystanders are fully involved. 

Homily by Fr Peter Gallagher SJ

[1]       Jeremiah, Lamentations 1.12
[2]       Matthew 26.56
[3]       Matthew 26.72
[4]       Matthew 26.57
[5]       Matthew 26.73
[6]       Matthew 27.39-40
[7]       Matthew 27.20
[8]       Matthew 26.45
[9]       Jeremiah, Lamentations 1.1
[10]      Matthew 27.22-23
[11]      Matthew 26.40
[12]      Philippians 2.7
[13]      Matthew 27.24
[14]      Isaiah 50.4-5
[15]      Matthew 27.32
[16]      Luke 23.26
[17]      Mark 15.21
[18]      Mark 15.21
[19]      Matthew 16.24
[20]      Matthew 27.46