Awe, Shock, and then Awe

On the sequence of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and then Easter

The term “shock and awe” entered our lexicon during the 1990-91 Gulf War when the American-led coalition sought to eject Iraq after the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. “Shock and awe” referred to the coalition’s aerial bombardment prior to a tank and infantry assault. It was meant to demoralize the Iraqi defenders. The shock and awe I address today is related to the Passion, that is, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Actually, we may view these events not as shock-and-awe but as a cycle of awe, shock, and then awe.


The contemporary witnesses – those who had followed Jesus, those who had been cured by Him (and their relatives, friends and neighbors), those who had been taught by Him, those who loved Him, and those who had applauded His entry into Jerusalem and had laid palm fronds before Him (hence “Palm Sunday,” the Sunday before Easter) — were in awe of Him.

His miracles included the curing of the mentally and physically ill, such as the crippled man whose friends tore a hole in the roof of a house where Jesus was speaking to lower him down in front of Jesus (Luke 6:17-25); the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage (Matt. 9:20-22); and the man who had waited 38 years for someone to help him enter the curative pool (John 5:1-16). Friends and neighbors had laid their sick before Him and He laid His hands on every one of them (Luke 4:40). “Wherever He went, to village, or town or farm, they laid down the sick in the open spaces begging Him to let them touch even the fringe of His cloak. And all those who touched Him were cured” (Mark 6:56).

They were all astounded and praised God, and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today”  (Luke 5:26).

Miracles took forms other than healing. For example, His disciples had seen Him calm the seas and waves (Matt. 8:27; Mark 4:39; Luke 8:25). Seeing this, experiencing this, “They were awestruck and astonished… ‘Who can this be, who gives orders to winds and waves, and even these obey Him?’” (Luke 8:25). As Jesus told a wider audience one day, “The Father loves His Son and shows Him everything that He Himself does, and He will show Him greater works than these, so that you may be amazed” (John 5:21).

In addition to miracles, there was His teaching, the teaching that drew crowds to isolated places without a thought as to what they would do for food. Jesus made a “deep impression” on them because He spoke with authority (Mark 1:22). Temple guards, tasked with arresting Him, returned without Him, explaining, “We have never heard anyone speak like this!” (John 7:46).

After miraculously feeding a crowd who had come to hear Him, some wanted to make Him king (John 6:15). And this was the same mood of the people upon His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

  • “The whole city was in turmoil,” asking, “Who is this?” (Matt. 21:11)
  • “The whole group of disciples joyfully began to praise God at the top of their voices for the miracles they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!’” This was too much for the Pharisees, who asked Him to tone down His disciples. Jesus replied, “If they were silent, the stones would cry out!” (Luke 19:37-40)
  • The Pharisees said the whole world was running after Him! (John 12:19)


On the Friday five days after this entry, now known as “Good Friday,” these same people:

  • heard folks standing next to them scream “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21; John 19:15)
  • saw Him standing before Pilate with a “crown” of thorns implanted in His skull (Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2, 5) with blood and sweat and spittle streaming down His face
  • saw Him clothed in a robe, not His own, hiding the fact that skin that had been scourged off His back and legs (Mark 15:15; John 19:1; see 1 Peter 2:24). It was a purple robe (Mark 15:17) mocking Him as a king of this world
  • heard people demand that the true criminal Barabbas be released (Matt. 27:17)
  • watched as the Roman Pontius Pilate conversed with and presented Him to the crowd, spoke with Him again (Matt. 27; Mark 15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:28-19:16) and then literally washed his hands of Him (Matt 27:24)

They were shocked, distraught, beside themselves, helpless to alter the course of events — what words can describe it? He walked step-by-deliberate-step on their streets uphill to Calvary. While He carried His cross to the site of His crucifixion, there were large numbers of people, including women, following Him, weeping (Luke 23:27).

Without sleep, without food, without water, losing blood, the Romans feared He would die of shock before they could crucify Him. They conscripted Simon of Cyrene to help Him carry His cross (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21-22; Luke 23:26). Offered a liquid that would help numb His pain, and His senses, Jesus refused (Matt. 27:33-34; Mark 15:23).

The events in Jerusalem of Thursday night and Friday were so tumultuous, so heart-rending, that, on the following Sunday, two men were walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus when a stranger approached them. They were astounded when the stranger asked what matters the two had been discussing. How could he not know! How could they have been talking about anything else! They answered, “You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days” (Luke 24:13-18).

It is possible that, after 2,000 years, the shock effect of the execution of Jesus, execution by crucifixion, is not what it once was. We are like soldiers in combat who have continually seen death up close. This is so even for those Christians who do not have bare crosses but crucifixes showing the corpus, the body of Christ. These three-dimensional images are on Catholic processional crosses, on church exteriors, on church altars, above altars, behind altars, on coffins, and on every Rosary, often hung around the neck, and for some religious, worn in the belt. For example, members of the Passionist religious order (Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ) take a special vow to remember the Passion and have a large crucifix in their belts.

We need to be reminded that Jesus’ death by crucifixion, a death meted out to criminals, was, as St. Paul wrote, a “scandal” (1 Cor. 1:23). The Greek word is skandalon, an offense. It was deeply offensive to suggest that such a man was holy, much less the son of God — something a good Jew simply could not abide.

We need, at least on occasion, especially on every Good Friday, to go into shock again, to recover our sense of how offensive it was. How might we do this?

First, the Catholic Church and other Christian churches bring to collective remembrance the Passion narratives found in the four Gospels. Catholics proclaim the entirety of the four during Holy Week – always John’s on Good Friday, and rotating the other three on Palm Sunday.

Second, there is the Way of the Cross which, in the Catholic tradition, uses 14 Stations of the Cross to walk the Way. These episodes are depicted in scenes found on the walls of churches. The traditional set of meditations is that of St. Alphonse de Ligouri (1696-1787; found here in English). In 1991, St. John Paul II adopted a more Scriptural-based Way of the Cross that can be found here. It is customary, during the meditation on this reenactment, to sing an English version of the Latin hymn Stabat Mater (literally, “Mother Was Standing”; by Edward Caswall, 1849). The first stanza is:

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

The Catholic liturgy for Good Friday begins with the priest, dressed in the color of red symbolizing martyrdom, lying prostrate before the altar. He represents the entire people in their sorrow and penitence. And the people recite the Improperia (Latin for “the Reproaches”) with the haunting, tearful, refrain: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me” (Micah 6:3). During the services, all present are invited to venerate a crucifix by kissing it.

There is more we can do to bring into our consciousness the pain and suffering of Jesus:

  • We can read Dr. Pierre Barbet’s detailed description, followed by a meditation, in his A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon (1953).
  • We can gaze on crucifixes painted in the Spanish style (see here), like that found in the crypt of the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio. Upon seeing this, I first thought of the word “torture” to describe it. I wonder sometimes whether we should use “torture” to describe Jesus’ crucifixion.
  • We can consider other crucifixions, like those committed by ISIS in 2014 and 2016, or those of St. Dominic del Val of Zaragoza, a Spanish altar boy, age 7, kidnapped and martyred in 1250, or Blessed Zynoviy Kovalyk (1903-ca 1941), a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest who was crucified.
  • We can mediate on “The Blessed Passion” by Anglican Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1622), which vividly describes Christ’s suffering: “The head wreathed with thorns driven in with the rods”; “The back ploughed with the weals and gashes of whips”; “The hands and feet digged through”; “The body broken/ The blood outpoured.”
  • We can view Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Still images from the movie can be found online.


The emotional turn to awe of Jesus came immediately upon His death — and to people whom we might not have expected. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the centurion in charge of the Roman military guard who had escorted Jesus to Calvary, stripped Him of His garments (Matt:27:35-36; Mark 15:24; John 19:23), nailed Him to the cross, and maintained watch until His death, exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47). In Matthew’s Gospel, it was the centurion and the entire guard who declared this belief: “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54)

Another expression of awe occurred a week after the Resurrection when Jesus appeared in a locked room to His apostles. Thomas had not been in this room when Jesus appeared the evening of the Resurrection, and Thomas had gone the entire week refusing to believe his fellows. This time, however, Thomas was there and, invited by Jesus to inspect His wounds, and doing so, declared his belief, his awe: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

And, as before the Crucifixion, it was not only Jesus’ miracles, like that of the Resurrection or appearing within locked rooms, that prompted faith and awe. It was also Jesus’ authoritative teaching. The two disciples with whom Jesus conversed on the way to Emmaus and with whom He dined as evening fell, rushed excitedly back to Jerusalem, saying that Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.” They told the others what they told each other, namely, that “our hearts [were] burning within us!” (Luke 24:27, 32).

This Holy Week we commemorate the Passion of Jesus Christ. On Palm Sunday we are in awe. On Good Friday, we are in shock. On Holy Saturday, we are lost, disheartened beyond words, grieving. But on Easter, we will again be in awe, with delirious delight, giving glory and thanks to God.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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