Mystery Week

So, the Creator of the Universe has ridden into the Holy City on the foal of an ass to shouts of Hosanna – which is interpreted, praise and adoration to the one who saves. Right. But it’s fairly certain that, aside from some confused expectations about the “restoration” of Israel – largely of a vague political nature about throwing off the broad and deep state (Rome) occupying the Holy Land at the time – the people shouting and laying down their cloaks and palm branches didn’t much know what they were doing.

It’s a safe bet because after 2000 years of Christian prayer, evangelizing, preaching, martyrdoms, confessors, saints, sages, exorcists, theologians, philosophers, painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, composers, and polemicists, we don’t entirely understand either. Why did the Savior have to come into the world and do and suffer all that he’s about to do and suffer to accomplish the real restoration of Israel and the whole world? In a word, to make all things new? We know what he did. We don’t know precisely why it had to be the way we recall this week.

It’s all, to use the term in its technical theological sense, a mystery, which is to say a truth that we can contemplate because it’s been revealed to us. We may say, for instance, that only God Himself can atone for the offense to His infinite Goodness in Original Sin. But how he achieves that is not a question to which even the most brilliant human brain can work out an answer. It’s simply beyond us. And that’s a good thing because we have to come to see that only something, or rather Someone, beyond us could save us. We don’t save ourselves.

It’s always been a sad fact of public life that leaders can deceive people who might have shouted Hosannas to cry out instead, “Crucify him.”  Even the great pagans knew that. As one of Plato’s characters says in Book II of the Republic, “the just man who has such a disposition will be whipped; he’ll be racked; he’ll be bound; he’ll have both his eyes burned out; and, at the end, when he has undergone every sort of evil, he’ll be crucified.”

In the century just passed, we saw a growing departure from Christianity and the rise of several political messiahs promising salvation, liberation, and paradise on earth. And who instead produced slaughters and misery and oppressions on an industrial scale. Since the start of the new millennium, we’ve continued along our merry human ways: murdering millions in the womb in the name of women’s liberation; promoting the mutilation of young people in the name of sexual ideologies; believing that by forcing one another into this or that political configuration, we can save ourselves.

There are political things worth doing, of course. But in the truest sense, He saves us: He institutes the Eucharist, goes through horrible tortures and beyond to a victory over even the worst suffering and death, His Resurrection the ultimate triumph.


Yet today, it’s especially difficult to understand all that because more and more people who might once have called themselves Christian barely even know of what He did anymore, let alone think it has any significance for them living now.

Even worse, those of us who are still professing Christians may merely take it all as long-settled dogma, easy to grasp, something a bit too quickly taken for granted.

That wise woman Flannery O’Connor knew better and, as she often did, put the matter bluntly via one of her helpfully bizarre characters. Which helps us to recover both the surprise and the freshness of the whole Easter story and lets it really to speak to us about what God has done.


The Misfit, an escaped convict in her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” puts it this way:

He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness. . .

The Misfit is a murderer and he’s about to murder again. And he puts the case in terms that may seem too sweeping. But isn’t it true that the only alternative to following Christ and real redemption is following ourselves? It’s precisely because The Misfit is evil and knows that evil is spread all over the world that he also knows that it would take upsetting the balance – of everything – to accomplish true liberation from evils that have been with us since the beginning of time.

He gets the mystery that we should deeply contemplate this week.

Living in a democratic society is generally a good thing, especially if the system has been carefully structured so that the demos (the people) don’t turn into rampaging mobs. It also takes a public culture that doesn’t empower demagogues, politicians who flatter people into thinking that they and their very desires are good and the standard for what is good. That if you will only follow politicians – not often the best exemplars of our species to begin with – the good will triumph. It’s only others who are evil.

Holy Week is a time to put away the polemics for a little while. They’ll be back soon enough, with a vengeance. The media environment in which we’re all enveloped just now is like a daily scourging with deliberately hyped-up controversies, which will vanish quickly enough to be replaced by others.

We need to turn our gaze away from all that, from ourselves and our glib non-answers for a while, because we need help from beyond us, from the inexhaustible mystery that we cannot fathom. The mystery of this week that is our one hope and salvation.



* The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree (Le vigneron et le figuier) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum, New York]

** The Accursed Fig Tree (Le figuier maudit) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum, New York]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s Barabbas: A Holy Week Examen

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s Mass and ‘The Holy”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.