With Palm Sunday comes the Week that Christians cherish as no other. We name
it as Holy. With Palm Sunday comes the high solemn feast of God’s dark glory and
grandeur. With Palm Sunday comes the most awesome and terrifying time in the Church
With Palm Sunday, we Christians take up again our peculiar waiting. We are
accustomed to waiting; indeed, Advent creates in us an expectation—pregnant with life
and possibility. During Advent, we wait in transparent joy even as we grieve over our
scarred and battered world, our sinful human condition, the bright glory of the Advent of
our God enfolds us and our world in grace so that we might live in hope.
But the waiting that begins with Palm Sunday is not the waiting of Advent. It is a
peculiar fearful kind of waiting and anxiety: In his passion, in allowing himself to be
handled and seized, beaten and mocked and spit upon, Jesus discloses for us a distinctive
quality of God which disturbs us: Jesus discloses the vulnerability of God, the willingness
of God to suffer with us and for us. And even though we know the end of his story, the
idea, the image of a suffering God disturbs and unsettles us.
We experience little or no difficulty with the child Jesus—after all, we were
children and many of us are parents or godparents or guardians to children. We learn
slowly not to be dismayed by crying, we accept the 2:00 am feeding, we have memorized
the quickest route to playing fields. Our children are miracles full of so much wonder and
possibility. But images of the passion of Jesus disturb us.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic artistic representation of the
passion of Jesus was often so graphic as to be gruesome and repulsive, but since the
Council, we have beautified and sanitized the cross. For some time now, I have thought
the old depictions preferable. For more than two hundred years Christians were mocked
and jeered by their colleagues, friends, and relatives because these men and women
worshipped a God who had been crucified. And in their world (what we call the ancient
world), crucifixion was the most scandalous and ignominious way to die. How, their
colleagues, friends, and relatives wondered, could such sane and reasonable people
worship a God who allowed himself to be crucified? This is the image of Jesus which
unsettles us and disturbs us: a suffering God: a God who in free initiative gives the
divine self over to suffering; Jesus who in free initiative gives himself over to be handled
and beaten, spit upon and tortured, crucified. This image unsettles us because it brings us
to anguish: If our God so suffers, is so exposed to the brutality and power of the world,
what shall become of us? It is a daring and daunting theological prospect—for God and
for us. For as we believe that our God suffers, we who confess, who worship, who love
are called to a share in the suffering of Jesus, a share in the suffering of the peoples of our
world. Moreover, we who confess, who worship, who love are charged to bring about
with him and with them that trajectory of expectation released at the Advent of our God,
signified in the Resurrection, and to be realized in the eschatological banquet.
With Palm Sunday comes the high solemn feast of God’s dark glory and
grandeur. Now begins the most awesome and terrifying time in the Church year. Now
begins our vigil; we wait, we stand beside and with our God who loves us and suffers
with us, beside us, for us. But we can stand with our God only insofar as we stand beside
and wait in active and compassionate solidarity with children, women, and men who
suffer concretely, unbeautifully, and actually in our world which is God’s world—the
poor, oppressed, and excluded; abused children, battered women, and homeless men;
those who believe, those who believe differently, and those who are afraid to believe. We
stand and wait in love for Love to cast upon us the rays of dark, divine glory.
M. Shawn Copeland
M. Shawn Copeland is Professor of Systematic Theology in the Department of Theology with a joint appointment in the Program in African and African Diaspora Studies in the Morrissey College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston College.
Copeland’s research interests run in three intersecting lines: The first focuses on shifts in theological understanding of the human person or theological anthropology and accords particular attention to body, gender, and race; suffering, solidarity, and the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. The second interrogates the African American Catholic experience, and aims to thematize an African American Catholic theology. Here her research attends to theological method and history, religious and cultural aesthetics, spirituality and traditioning. The third line of research takes up issues pertinent to political or praxis-based theologies and analyzes the religious, cultural, and social conditions under which human persons may flourish.
She is the author of Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Fortress Press, November 2010), The Subversive Power of Love: The Vision of Henriette Delille (Paulist Press 2009), the principal editor of Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience (Orbis Books 2009), and editor (with Jeremy Wilkins) of Grace and Friendship: Theological Essays in Honor of Fred Lawrence (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016). She has authored more than 125 articles, reviews, and book chapters, and along with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has co-edited two volumes of the international theological journal Concilium: Violence Against Women (1/1994) and Feminist Theologies in Different Contexts (1996/1).
Professor Copeland is a former Convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium (BCTS), an interdisciplinary learned association of Black Catholic scholars. She was the first African American and first African American woman to serve as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA).