Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection

Passion (Palm)
March 28, 2010

Today, Holy Week opens with a drama in two acts. The first act is nothing short of triumphant and glorious. Palm fronds and branches, traditional and universal “buntings” that speak of joyful celebration, are swayed, swished or “swooshed,” as the case may be, in heartfelt welcome to the coming of the most awaited one. Men, women and children who, for centuries have been patiently awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah, spill out in full force into the streets, bidding welcome to him “who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The joyful and exultant hosannas though, abruptly recede into the background, as the drama moves into its second act. This time around, exultant rejoicing is replaced by awed and respectful silence, as people’s initial – if, misguided – enthusiasm, gives way to a more realistic appraisal of him who entered the city of Jerusalem for the last time. Historically, some of those who gushed and raved as Jesus rode into town astride a colt, may well have cried out later for his blood, or at least watched in stony silence as “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness … becoming obedient, even unto death on the cross.”

The people were right in welcoming their “King.” He has come to finally fulfill the long-awaited promises of old, relative to their expectation of total liberation and definitive salvation. But they kind of missed the bigger picture that had to do with the meaning of this integral salvation that he has come to bring.

Today’s second act is what this important realization is all about. It is all about joyfully joining in welcoming Jesus, the Christ, and singing hosannas of praise to the one who comes in the name of the Lord. But it is also all about transcending initial misconceptions or misunderstandings as to who Christ was, and is, for us.

It would do us good, if today, as we start Holy Week, our awed and reflective silence, would lead us to take a deeper look at him to whom we sing hosannas to. With so many things running through our minds, so many worries, so many work-related projects, so many personal and collective dreams for our families, our communities, our societies and nations, precious little time is left for us to do any form of solid reflection on the contents of our faith. With so little reflection and careful study on the person of Jesus Christ, God and man, savior, redeemer and Lord, many Christians (and Catholics) get to know only partial truths about Christ. Small wonder then, that, like the Jews of old, our warm and lusty hosannas can turn abruptly to cold and silent indifference as quickly as politicians can change their loyalties to opposing political parties.

Many of those who laid down their cloaks on the streets to give honor to Christ thought of him as their political savior, a messiah endowed with earthly power and authority. Their disappointment probably gave way later to indifference to the person of him who said “My kingdom is not of this world.” Sadly, their understanding of Christ revolved around the mere satisfaction of an earthly need – the need for political salvation.

In our times, there are those who subscribe to an equally less than integral image of Christ, reducing him to a mere friend, whose Lordship takes a back seat, a friend who is there just to stand by us, to be with us, to journey with us. This “sweet friend” makes no strong moral demands, and his teaching can be summarized into what is known as the “gospel of prosperity.” For them, the best way to worship Christ is to be joyful and upbeat all the time, and “medieval practices” like fasting and abstinence have no place in the life of a Christian. Life, for these people, is nothing more than an endless celebration devoid of any semblance of sacrifice. Penance and self-denial do not in any way enter into their scheme of things and value systems. In essence, all they have is a “cross-less” Christ, whose passion and death would rather be glossed over than meditated on. These people would most likely be scandalized by such movies as “The Passion of the Christ,” and would be bored to death during the Good Friday services.

Similarly, in our times, there are those who emphasize, to the neglect of others, the image of a suffering Christ, for whom imitation of Christ, solely means joining him in endless fasting, penance, and all sorts of bodily deprivation. The best image of the Christ they know is the suffering and bloodied “Nazareno,” or the “Santo Sepulcro.” It almost looks like the good news of the resurrection has not yet reached them. These people go through life like as if they were programmed to be depressed, and suffering has to be welcomed with resignation, if not looked for. For these people, life is nothing more, nothing less than an endless soap opera where tears of sorrow are the best things that could ever happen to them and their relationship with Christ. They have emphasized a tad too much the “gospel of suffering,” finding intrinsic value and goodness in suffering per se. The more suffering they can inflict on themselves, the holier they feel themselves to be, and the closer they get to the suffering Christ.

There, too, are those who look on Christ as a punishing avenger, one whose anger at the world’s sins could no longer be held back except by our endless acts of reparation. Seen as the ultimate “judge,” this angry Christ needs to be appeased with endless rounds of penitential acts, year-round fasting and ceaseless prayer. Fed by questionable “visionaries” who make much of their “private revelations,” they go through life under a perpetual cloud of uncertainty, insecurity, and wonder whether they have been forgiven by God and whether they have done enough to merit his love. Frightened like children who have misbehaved and terrified of the dire consequences of their sins, these people do not feel worthy enough to receive Christ, and so they need to do repeated acts of penance, prayerful rituals and would go to confession every day if they could. They are a walking lesson summed up in the car bumper sticker that says: “Jesus is coming soon, and boy, is he mad!”

The drama in two acts that Passion Sunday liturgy is, puts us into the heart of a balanced acceptance and outlook on Christ our Savior, Lord and King. Here, we find a glimpse of who he is, and who he ought to be for us who believe.

The first gospel passage from Luke shows Christ as King, who enters triumphantly into the city that would condemn him. As King, he takes possession of the “city” that represented the world that he was to save – a world made up of saints and sinners. But the rest of the carefully chosen readings show us how this King was to effect that work of salvation.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us that military and political might is not the way this Savior was to follow, but the path of self-emptying and humble obedience – obedience even unto death. The other two readings further show us his status of exalted savior, by way of suffering and death. He redefined triumph not in the sense of conquering opponents, but in his readiness and willingness to be put down first himself – to die so that others might live. His exaltation took place by allowing himself to be lifted up on the cross.

As we open the protracted drama of Holy Week, it would do us good to check on what type of savior we are expecting. Failure to reflect on and understand the fullness of Christ’s image in Scripture would lead us to any of the various excesses cited above. Palm Sunday is a good day for us to find our sense of balance in the welter of these theologically unsound excesses and abuses.

Jesus presents himself as our King. To him we pledge allegiance. He also presents himself as savior, an exultant one, but without the usual earthly trappings of power and might. This savior chose to follow the way of exultation through the path of self-emptying, through the path of freely accepted suffering and death, not because suffering in itself is good, but on account of a greater good that is our salvation. As King and Savior, as Lord and Redeemer, he went to where salvation was most needed. He went to the poor, the broken, the humiliated, the distressed and the marginalized. He went to those who suffered unjustly; he sided with those who were persecuted and who had no one else to rely on but God. He made salvation happen where it was most needed.

Perhaps those who cultivate an image of a Jesus that is merely sweet and kind and someone to relate to in private could be led to a more complete image of a Jesus who saves, who goes where salvation has to take place – in streets and homes and communities where there is little love and concern for others. Perhaps, too, those who follow the image of an angry Jesus who needs to be appeased constantly, could be led to a more complete image of Jesus who “wants our love and not our sacrifices.” Again, those of us who are too comfortable with an image of Jesus who gives us what we ask “in full measure, in cups overflowing,” may be led to transform their “gospel of prosperity” to a “gospel of social responsibility” that makes the work of salvation the inclusive work that it is meant to be, which includes the less privileged and the neglected of society.

Palm Sunday liturgy boils down to one important question for us… What type of savior do we have in Jesus?