Palm Sunday (A)

April 17, 2011

Back in the day when I was a very young priest and formator at the College-Seminary, when seminarians used to do a lot of “manualia” (manual jobs), when they were not in class, we had a water buffalo, a beast of burden known as carabao in the Philippines.

That carabao was a little unwieldy and hard-headed. He refused to be tethered. He kept on tugging at the leash that was connected to his nose, until it tore his nose muscles. He wriggled himself free one day, but in exchange, he had a torn and, I imagined, a sore and ugly swollen nose!

That carabao was the exact opposite of what Isaiah in today’s first reading extols. Isaiah speaks of docility, obedience, and humility. He seems to extol powerlessness and apparent inutility and downright weakness. But his last line turns the table on what the world considers as futility and seeming irrelevance. “The Lord God,” he says, “is my help. Therefore, I am not disgraced!”

Everything in today’s liturgy speaks of the same troubling and seemingly disturbing paradox. We have images of a man entering the city in triumph and enjoying the loud and lusty acclamations of people. Profuse hosannas accompany his triumphal march. But no sooner had we joined in with our palms hoisted and voices raised in praise of “he who comes in the name of the Lord,” do we drastically change gears and fall back to a somber, sad, silent mood, deep in realization that the triumph and glory that he deserves, are not the values that he embeds in our collective memory as a people.

Palm Sunday opens a big slice of what Hans Urs von Balthazar refers to as “theo-drama.” The beginning action opens with pomp and pageantry and palms galore. The rising action segues into a picture of seeming defeat – the lengthy reading of the Passion account! This is followed up till Wednesday with other stories of defeat, betrayal, disloyalty, and scheming manipulative wiles of the powers-that-be in Jesus’ times.

Palm Sunday, whilst it is focused on the passion of he who comes in the name of the Lord, is as much a story about the passion that we as believers need to undergo, too, in humble obedience to the path that he traversed, the way he showed us, as the way, ironically, to glory and victory.

We can give it to the hapless and clueless carabao to be so disobedient and recalcitrant. We can give it to ourselves, too, as we actually do, so often in our lives, when we prefer to live out the drama of Eden, than to live out the drama of Calvary. The drama of Eden is the exact anti-thesis of the “theo-drama” that unfolds before us today. The drama of Eden is worse than the dramatic antics of the carabao who would simply not be tethered to his place. Unthinking, unreflecting, devoid of moral intelligence that the carabao really is, we can give it to that carabao to be so rebellious and disobedient.

I don’t know about you, but I do get to become protagonist in this drama of Eden so often in my life. I am a sinner, like Adam and Eve. Like Eve, I deny and deflect, and what I deny and deflect, I project to others. Like Adam, I am a pushover. I get easily carried away by so many forces … the forces of lower passions, the forces of the surrounding culture of postmodernity, the forces of individualism and hedonism. Name it, I have it, including perhaps, the forces of discouragement and despondency, about a nation so broken, so rotten, and so misled by so many conflicting and contrasting ideologies, brought about by the irresponsibility of the so-called “media moment” that has no respect for human dignity, for truth, and justice.

We are all protagonists in this drama of Eden. We are all pushovers in this non-level playing field of life where the name of the game is money from pharmaceutical companies, and so-called philanthropists, who, ironically, want to “do good” by snuffing out new and innocent life, in the name of their love for humanity! We are all major players in the drama of deceit, manipulation, and shallow and false charity by ostensibly helping the poor while at the same time debasing their dignity.

We are all sons and daughters of sinful Adam and Eve. We are all producers in this ongoing drama of Eden where the real protagonist is not us, but the serpent!

When I was a child, I used to be fascinated by the “Cenaculo” or passion play shown in old town Makati. Every year, the opening scene was all about the drama of Eden. Every year, I was fascinated by the cameo appearance of the devil, with tail and all, black suit and horns, bloodshot eyes and cope, for a very brief, but meaningful role. By Good Friday night, the high point of the “theo-drama” in popular culture back then was the lengthy procession of barefoot, hooded penitents, along with what seemed to be endless rows of statues depicting the significant events of the “theo-drama” of Holy Week.

Today, we begin all this, minus the fanfare and the somber, but much awaited representations of the same mystery in popular culture. In our times, people don’t flock anymore to Churches and “cenaculo” shows. No … they go to beaches and “country clubs” either up the mountain or down by the seashores all over the country. The “theo” in the “drama” is gone and leaves nothing but the dreary and dreadful drama of a country dehumanized by a powerful mainstream media focused on showbiz and inane entertainment. Why, even news has become entertainment, now known as “infotainment!” What is left is a debilitating world of politics that goes through the motions of governing, whilst led by the superseding motivation that is less than honest, less than honorable, and less than respectable.

I invite my readers to join the “theo-drama” that picks up today and goes on all through the week. The beginning action takes place in triumph. The rising action takes place in a somber mood of quiet reflection on the passion. The several high points take place when the triduum begins on Thursday, with the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. The peak is both actually and symbolically reached when he who came in the name of the Lord is lifted up on the cross, up on Calvary. The drama of Calvary upsets and overturns the drama of Eden. In seeming defeat, the Lord, in utter humility and total obedience to the Father, offers his all, that we might have ALL!

And this ALL begins with a word, nay, with the Word become flesh! This Word now rouses weary men like me … like you all … He is the Word that rouses us all to victory!