CANDOR, CONTRASTS, AND SPLENDOR

Catholic Homily/ Sunday Reflection
Passion Sunday - Year A
March 16, 2008

Today is the last Sunday of Lent. In a few days, we will enter into the holy triduum, the holiest of days that will culminate in the glorious celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. In the meantime, as we long for the “joys of Easter,” we are confronted with a deep experience of contrasts and an unmistakable situation of lights and shadows.

We begin the liturgy today with a tinge of triumph, in an unmistakable tone of joy. Two disciples are sent on ahead to be an advanced party of sorts. They were told to prepare for what the “master” needed. Misreading the poetic parallelism of Zechariah’s language (9:9), the Matthean author speaks of two beasts of burden used by the Master: an ass and a colt. Whether he rode only on one or both is immaterial to the focus of the story: Jesus made a triumphant entry into Jerusalem as befits the people’s expectations of what he was perceived to be, the “Son of David,” the awaited Messiah, from the house of David.

When Mass proper begins, the tone of triumph immediately is transformed into a tone of gloom, as the account of the passion of Jesus Christ is read in its entirety. The image of two disciples getting two beasts of burden ready, is matched by two gospel readings today – the only time in the liturgical year where we have two gospel readings in one celebration, two readings that smack of contrasts, two readings that speak of a deep situation marked by light and shadow.

Lights and shadows … this is the situation of our faith as Christian believers. Our lives as followers of Christ are wrapped in a multiplicity of contrasts. Like that of Christ’s, our Master and Lord, our existence is immersed in a world of temptation, and a world of grace that makes triumph possible (1st Sunday). To say that we are surrounded by ungodly desires is to belabor the obvious, but equally obvious is the fact that holiness of life is something that can be lived, as, in fact, it is, by countless holy women and men of our times. Like Christ, we need to go up the mountain literally and figuratively, to exert magnanimous efforts to reach our own “transformation,” as Christ was transfigured. But like him, too, we know experientially all about the favor that comes daily from God, the “look of love” from Him who considers us His own beloved sons and daughters, on whom He is well pleased (2nd Sunday). Like the Samaritan woman, we must profess our thirst and accept our neediness, if we are to be given the water of eternal life (3rd Sunday). In a world that seems to specialize on blurred ethical norms and muddled values, in a situation that makes people blind to God’s love being poured out, a man born blind teaches us to “live as children of light” (4th Sunday). In a world that prizes a culture of death, a “commodified” culture of consumerism, materialism, hedonism, minimalism, and individualism, we are confronted with the final victory of the resurrection. This “death-dealing” world, in the words of Karl Barth, in which death is a very real and frightful experience, “is threatened by resurrection” (5th Sunday).

This is the world of contrasts that the liturgy shows us in its typical candor and sincerity. This is the reality of a hyphenated world characterized by an epic, bipolar tension between the forces of evil and the forces of grace and redemption from Christ, who himself comes as the ultimate hyphenated character: God-Man, Son-Savior, Victim-Victor. Coming in today in triumph, hailed with resounding hosannas one time, he is pelted with scorn at another. Greeted with palms and fronds as he entered Jerusalem at one time, he was led out to slaughter outside the gates of Jerusalem, at another, pummeled with thorns and thistles.

Two Gospel readings with different foci, both referring to the same hyphenated guy with a hyphenated mission … “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will” (Jn 10:17).

In this hyphenated day called “Palm-Passion Sunday,” we would do well to allow the richness of the liturgy enlighten our hyphenated lives marked by lights and shadows, sin and grace, fall and redemption, death and resurrection.

The salvific drama of holy week begins in triumph and ends in torture and pain. The glorious hosannas are replaced by grim condemnations leading the very same one they welcomed to an undeserved death just days after the welcome party. What irony! What contrast! What candor on the part of God who claims as he did in the person of this Christ-Savior, victim-victor, who passes over from life-to-death-and-once-more-to-life-eternal: “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”

Palm-Passion Sunday is a study in candor and contrast. It leads us to the core essence of the person and mission of the one sent “to die so that others might live.” Palm-Passion Sunday shows us the full import of what it means to live ambivalently and mysteriously – if, prophetically – in a world deeply mired in conflicting situations, caught up in a multiplicity of conditions that remind us that blessedness can only happen for the poor, the suffering, the peacemakers, for those who thirst for righteousness. Palm-Passion Sunday leads us to understand that this hyphenated Servant-Lord, the suffering servant of Yahweh, the beloved Lord betrayed by a kiss from one who loved him (at least externally), but whose real Master had more to do with coins than with what money could not buy, the treasure beyond price, the pearl of great price, has sealed his and our ultimate victory, by subjecting himself to suffering – and, yes – death … death on a cross. Palm-Passion Sunday is a day in which God speaks to us in His characteristic candor: “The Lord God is my help, therefore, I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame” (1st reading).

Palm-Passion Sunday is the ultimate hyphenated reality of a God who claims victory by suffering seeming defeat. As the ultimate and original AI proponent the Appreciative Inquiry approach to development that we spoke of some Sundays back, Christ has come to put not a period to the trials and tribulations of the meek, the humble, and the peacemakers of this earth who work for Christian righteousness and justice, but a mere comma – if you will – a mere hyphen, a bend, not the end through which we all pass on our way to our own glorious transformation and victory in Christ.

Yes, Palm-Passion Sunday needs another hyphen. In all candor, with all the possible contrasts and conflicting situations we all could possibly imagine and experience, despite all the possible trials and tribulations that life in this hyphenated, conflicting, war-torn, sinful, but graced world can offer us, there is no period to the gloom and doom of passion Sunday. The glory of the palm fronds accompanied by sweet, soulful hosannas, transformed into sour and dour condemnations on a Good Friday, give way eventually to lusty and glorious alleluias another Sunday hence. The story, then, can only come full circle if we speak of Palm-Passion-Resurrection Sunday.

Christ’s candor in his shedding off his divinity and taking up the humility of his human condition, subjecting himself to the ultimate ignominy of a shameful death on a cross, is behind our ability to withstand the contrasts in our lives, the situations of lights and shadows, the various thirsts and blindnesses that we all experience, the multiple pains that we undergo, all “the sweat, care and cumber; sorrows passing number” that we all are subjected to at some time or other in our lives in this valley of tears and fears.

Palm-Passion –Resurrection Sunday is a day to cheer up. There is no period for us to see in this ongoing story of salvation, told and retold in a language that smacks of candor and contrast. That ongoing story, that additional hyphen is one that ends in victory. It ends in ultimate splendor, when the old order would have been replaced by the new, the “new heavens and the new earth,” that Christian faith and tradition hold so dear.

Awake, O sleeper! Rise from the dead. Rise up in splendor, for once you were darkness, but now are light in the Lord!

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