Photo courtesy of Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

PORTLAND — “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.”

At the base of the sanctuary in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Bishop Robert Deeley began Holy Week with the blessing of the palms on Sunday, March 28, with a large assembly gathered in person and via livestream to participate in the celebration.

“Sanctify these branches with your blessing that we, who follow Christ the King in exultation, may reach the eternal Jerusalem through him,” said the bishop before sprinkling the branches with holy water.

On Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, we recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when palm branches were waved and cloaks were placed at his feet. It marks the start of Holy Week, the most solemn of the year, when the faithful reflect upon the events that brought about our salvation. During this week, the Church invites all to enter into the powerful liturgies that recall and relive the central mysteries of our faith.

“The celebration of Palm Sunday has rightly been called ‘The great doorway leading into Holy Week, in which we commemorate Our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem,” Bishop Deeley said during Sunday’s Mass. “That journey to Jerusalem, however, is not just a memorial of the triumphant entry into the city. It is also a memorial of Jesus’ great moment of love.”

While the tone at the beginning of Palm Sunday Mass is one of joy, it soon turns more somber, as the focus shifts to the events of Jesus’ life that would occur just days later.

“That is, of course, the cross of Christ and the Passion and Death of the Lord. For us, as Christians, this is the ultimate event of Jesus’ life. The most powerful image of the Gospel we just heard proclaimed is Jesus standing alone, deserted by his followers, even Peter,” said the bishop during his homily. “In his standing alone, however, the Jesus we meet is not weak or cowed by his suffering. This is something he has set out to do, and it is our belief that his determination is on our behalf. Jesus died for our sins.” 

Bishop Deeley pointed out that there are, of course, many stories in the account of the Passion, all rich with meaning. But he focused on one particular story unique to the Gospel of Mark.

“Jesus is in Bethany with friends. While he is there, a woman comes to him and anoints him. The Gospel writer makes it clear that this was no simple anointing with oil. The jar holding the oil was itself expensive. It was alabaster and was not going to be used again because the Gospel tells us the woman broke it as she poured the oil, an oil which is itself described as ‘costly,’ on his head. The oil was certainly expensive. It was worth the price of a year’s wages.” 

Observers saw the action of the woman as extravagant, but Jesus is basically thankful as she is one person who has tried to help him as he stands alone before those who seek his death. He knows what is about to happen and is grateful for her kindness.

“What is the point of the story? It points us to the very meaning of the Passion. Extravagant kindness is shown by the woman. Extravagant love is what the Passion of the Lord is all about. He could have redeemed us by the shedding of a drop of blood. This is, after all, the Son of God. But Jesus wanted, like the woman who anointed him, to show his extravagant love,” said the bishop.

The response of the faithful must be to acknowledge our need for that redemption.

“If we can acknowledge that this Passion and Death happened for us, that we do have sin in our lives, we, like the woman, can do as the Lord called us and, having experienced the extravagant love of the forgiveness of the Lord, of his redeeming love, bring that same love to others,” said the bishop. ”Jesus shows us true love. The true greatness of human life rests not in power or riches but in the love of Jesus, a love which shares, which strives to be close to humanity, particularly those who suffer, and which gives itself to service of the other. Extravagant love, that is what we witness, receive, and reflect on during the week. Extravagant love, that is what we are called to live.”

In a week that begins with triumph, descends into the suffering of death, and rises with joy in the resurrection of Easter, Bishop Deeley prayed that all enjoy renewal and reflection on that extravagant love.

“Come and join us all week either here at the cathedral or on livestream as we walk with Jesus to his Passion and Death in anticipation of the joyful hope we will celebrate at Easter.”

On Sunday, the cathedral was adorned with palm fronds for the celebration of the Mass, including some placed at the foot of the Lenten cross. The vestments worn on Palm Sunday are red, the symbol of martyrdom and blood, a color that will be again used on Good Friday.

The celebration of Holy Week continues with the Chrism Mass on Tuesday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland at 3 p.m. (livestreamed at www.portlanddiocese.org/online-Mass). During the Chrism Mass, the bishop will bless the oil of the sick and the oil of the catechumens and consecrate the sacred chrism. The oil of the sick is used to anoint the sick, the oil of catechumens to bless those preparing for baptism, and the sacred chrism is used for baptism, confirmation, and the ordination of priests, as well as the consecration of altars and churches.

A special Holy Week section is available on the Diocese of Portland website that includes Mass times and locations at all Maine parishes, listings of parish events, daily prayers and reflections, and many other resources. The section can be found at www.portlanddiocese.org/holy-week-2021.

In addition, stories from many Masses and services, messages, and other resources throughout Holy Week will be posted on the diocesan website (www.portlanddiocese.org), the diocesan Facebook page (www.facebook.com/PortlandDiocese), the diocesan Twitter page (www.twitter.com/PortlandDiocese), myParish App, and on Bishop Deeley’s personal social media pages on Twitter (www.twitter.com/BishopDeeley) and Instagram (bishopdeeley).