Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

Homily – Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion – 13 April 2014 – Of Happiness and Suffering


Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion – 13 April 2014 – Of Happiness and Suffering

Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11 and Matthew 26:14-27:66

What makes you happy? What makes you sad? The New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks recently wrote an article called “What Suffering Does.”  [1] While reading this I wondered what role suffering plays for each of us particularly and as members of this Christian community as we embark on this holy week. His premise is that although we Americans love to pursue what it takes to be happy, most people “feel formed through suffering.” He continued, “suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and what they cannot control.”

Many of us have been there. No matter how blessed or fortunate we may be there is nothing like death, sickness, unemployment, verbal or physical abuse that can remind us that suffering is part of the everyday human experience. It is a rude awakening for anyone who thinks he or she is immune from it.

Was Jesus ever a happy man? Did he ever know the love of another human being? Did he ever laugh or dance or sing? Probably he did, but the bible does not spell it out. We do read that Jesus died on the cross to redeem us from our sinfulness. Maybe he could not bring himself to be joyful because of all the suffering in the world. The Letter from Paul today said he emptied himself, he humbled himself, he was obedient to the point of an ugly death on a cross. Is that all he was called to do — suffer?

As Christians we believe that we are the mystical body of Christ. This is not a new teaching. You and I are invited to share in the very life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Baptism is the response to that call. Like other faith traditions we carry the hope for a restored creation where all people, animals and the planet itself can be at peace with each other.

We are not spectators in this mission. What we do here during this liturgy or any liturgy rehearses us for what we do with our lives the rest of the week. This is what is meant by active, conscious participation in the Mass. It is not only singing and praying together or enacting a liturgical ministry. It is active conscious participation in the life of Christ everyday, all day.

Have you ever heard that we must accept and offer up our sufferings? This bidding has made life miserable for many people around the world especially for some women. Barbara Reid wrote “the notion of a life sacrificed for others can be a terrorizing interpretation of the cross for persons who are in oppressive situations.” [2]

This is not entirely what it means to identify with the cross. The cross in our midst is a symbol of all the suffering in the world. In our transformed place of worship we will place the crucifix in the floor next to the altar table so we can touch it and embrace it as our own. The cross is not something to be gazed upon from a distance. The introduction to today’s liturgy reminded us that we are “partakers of the Cross.”

Our identification with the cross is similar to taking communion. We understand the body and blood of Christ to be our body and our blood that sustains us and others. This is one way for the narratives, songs and prayers of this holy week to come alive in our everyday world. We participate in the divine work of the Triune God. Not everything is done for us by others.

Like Jesus we are called to empty ourselves of whatever can get in the way of our transformations. We don’t look to suffer any more than Jesus did. However, we believe that in the face of pain and suffering we too can rise up. Our hardships coupled with the awareness of the pain and suffering all around us are opportunities to develop new strengths, new possibilities for ourselves and others.

David Brooks concluded that the right response to pain is not pleasure but holiness. He did not mean holiness in a religious sense but rather the perception of life as a moral drama, “placing the hard experiences [of life] in a moral context, trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.”

Some time ago a crucifix was found in the chapel of St. Francis Xavier in northeastern Spain. It dates to the thirteenth century. Stripped, bloody and nailed to the cross, Jesus is shown with a slight smile on his face. Maybe just before he died he had a moment of peace. This holy week then is not just all about Jesus and what he experienced. It is also about us and our search for justice and peace in our fragile lives.

If you are visiting us or come to church only once in awhile know that there is always a place for you at our table.


1 Brooks, David. “What Suffering Does” in The New York Times, 04/7/14.

2 Reid, Barbara. “Telling the Terror of the Crucifixion” in C21 Resources (Boston College, Fall 2008) 16


Author: Richard S. Vosko

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, is an internationally known sacred space planner. He is a presbyter in the Diocese of Albany who enjoys the classroom as much as the pulpit. On Sundays he presides at worship at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY. For more information on Vosko’s background, his projects, publications and speaking engagements please go to his website. For his homilies and occasional musings about religion, art and architecture go to his blog. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcomed there.

4 thoughts on “Homily – Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion – 13 April 2014 – Of Happiness and Suffering

  1. So here’s my next challenge: To meet the suffering with the sacred. Too often my reaction is to “fix” it rather than to “faith” it. If I can make that little conceptual leap from “relieving” the suffering to “releasing” it (into God’s hands), I lay myself at the foot of the Cross, surrendering my will to God’s. I expect that the Spirit will then ‘engrace’ me to respond to the suffering with much more spiritual power. Hmmmm…and I “up” for the challenge? On Palm Sunday afternoon two dozen of us sang in an ecumenical choir at St. Joseph’s in Troy for a liturgy on the Seven Last Words. The magnificent art and architecture of the sanctuary literally takes your breath away. Surrounded by such vivid, colorful, and iconic imagery, I felt transported to a different spiritual awareness. To be in that kind of worshipful climate helps my challenge. In fact it emboldens my challenge and encourages me to more faithfully consider what it is that I can do to help the Divine help me. I will encounter the rest of this Holiest of Weeks by focusing on my challenge and lifting it to Calvary. Thanks Richard!


    • Ray, Your reflection reminds me of a line from U2’s song ‘Stand Up Comedy’:
      “I can stand up for hope, faith, love,
      But while I’m getting over certainty,
      Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady “


  2. Thank you for a wonderful reflective start to Holy Week.


  3. I was also moved when I read the David Brooks’ column you cite, Dick.

    I was away at a weekend retreat, at which someone mentioned that rather than an ‘all-powerful’ or ‘almighty’ being to whom we address our prayers, Jesus hanging on the cross reveals a humble, self-emptying God who doesn’t interfere with the natural unfolding of events and physical processes by dictating outcomes, as the second reading from Phil. 2 says.
    (Thanks also to Elizabeth Johnson’s “Quest for the Living God”.

    A woman objected, saying that women in particular are expected to give and give until there’s nothing left of themselves. This was a fundamental misunderstanding of what was meant.

    A parent raising a child can begin to see as early as his/her age of 7 or 8 that there is an inner life unfolding that will take its own direction. While the parent continues to give support and guidance, he/she will not try to force that unique personality into a mold. This is the opposite of a soccer mom who races with her kids from activity to activity without allowing time for that inner unfolding to takes its course.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s