Hands signing "Jesus" pointing the holes that were in His hands.

“Truly this man was the Son of God!”
~ Mark 15:39b

Ah, Palm Sunday. My sons used to refer to it as “the Mass that requires us to stand forever and ever (amen).” It is the Mass that turns most healthy, able-bodied children (and even some adults) into spaghetti-legged blob-o-kids.

There was a time when even my body balked when I heard the priest announce, “This morning, we’ll be following the LONG form of the Gospel.”

Since 2010, I have viewed every Mass differently because that is when I began to interpret the Mass for my daughter, Faith, who is profoundly deaf, in American Sign Language (ASL). Since I am passionate about the Passion, the dread of translating the longer scripture passage is quickly replaced with excitement as I remember the blessing of sharing the Good News in one of the most beautifully expressive languages. Today’s reflection will be based on the ASL glossing (interpreting) guidelines given in a wonderful book, Signing the Scriptures, by Joan Blake. I wish to highlight three moments where ASL provided me with an entirely new, thought-provoking, and visually rich way of looking at Jesus’ Passion.

First, the Last Supper. The interpreter takes on the position of Jesus at the table, the bread and wine before you. Your eyes look to the heavens as you give God thanks and praise. You take the bread into your hands and break it. Then, mimic the gesture of one by one, giving a piece to the disciples and instructing, “Take, eat, this my body” (ASL grammar).

Then sign “finish” and take up the cup. Look to the heavens and illustrate how Jesus gave God thanks and praise. Mimicking the offering of the cup to the disciples, followed by “Drink this, all, this my blood, means new promise-connect. Blood I lose for many, their sins forgive.” (ASL grammar)

They sing a hymn (a detail I had always missed as a listener of the Passion) and leave for the Mount of Olives. Jesus shares how their faith will be shaken that very night. Peter tells him, “Maybe they doubt, but I doubt never.” (ASL grammar)

Ah, how boldly Peter can proclaim those words, and in his heart, I am sure he believed he would be strong enough to fulfill them. How many times have I, like Peter, proclaimed those exact words about my faith but likewise, in weakness or fear – fallen into doubt or, with some word or action, denied?

In the garden, Jesus says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”

This will be one of the most challenging lines to interpret. In ASL, your facial expression is as important to the meaning and tone of the sentence as what your hands are doing. As I read the ASL phrases, I am to string them together:

● Father

● Suffer die

● I don’t want

● But your will I accept

I know with each one, there will be an increasingly agonized expression, yet I will conclude with one of peace, acceptance, and a profound understanding of God’s love that I can only dream of someday experiencing.

After we hear of Peter’s denial and Judas’ demise, we are introduced to Pontius Pilate and Barabbas. I love the ASL description of Barabbas, “one prisoner awful.” That sums him up nicely.

Now, we arrive at the most difficult moment of the Passion to interpret—the Crucifixion. Your face and body must take on the suffering of Christ, which I realize I can never do justice. The interpreter’s body twists from left to right as their hands portray the anger of the crowd seeking Jesus to be crucified to the agony of the God-man being nailed to the Cross. The right hand made into a fist and pounded into the palm of the left; as the crowd “shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”

At the end of Palm Sunday’s Gospel reading, my body was exhausted from the physical, emotional, and mental efforts of bringing forth—as best as my human limitations would allow—the power and immense love embodied in those words. Without a doubt, I could not help but know, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”

Prayer

Lord, as we prepare for the Holiest week of our liturgical calendar. Help us to be fully present to you. Jesus, we cannot begin to comprehend what strength it took for you to offer yourself for our sins. We ask for the special grace this week to recall the Passion story often — the betrayal of a friend, the doubt of one who never thought he could doubt, the powerful imagery of the Last Supper, the hands-off approach of Pilate, and the painful death on the Cross. Dear Lord, give us new eyes to see and a renewed heart with which to love so that we may fall even deeper in love with You. Amen.

Call to Action

At Mass, there are so many things vying for our attention—the kids, the music, maybe even an interpreter. How can we stay actively engaged in the beauty, mystery, and miracle happening before us on the altar?

This post also appeared at WINE.