by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Great crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, while others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in his path. The crowds who went in front of him and those who followed were all shouting: “Hosanna to the son of David”…Pilate said to them: What am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said: “Let him be crucified!” He asked: “But what harm has he done?” But they shouted all the louder: “Let him be crucified!”
Matthew 21, 1-11 and 26, 14 – 27, 66
Holy Week begins and ends in drama. It starts with Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey. The gospel readings of Passion Sunday and Good Friday are extensive presentations by Matthew and John of the dramatic events that constituted the passion and death of Jesus. We are each invited to choose for ourselves the role or roles which fit or coincide with the way in which we are living out our lives. The liturgy invites us to choose our own parts, to identify in those three dramas with the players in whom we recognise ourselves. It invites us to be participants rather than observers who have paid for comfortable seats. What follows here is a series of scenes that might draw us into the drama and help us to make our own meaning of it, Let us allow the drama to unfold and let us take our part. No other homily is needed.
Jesus did not have to orchestrate his entry into Jerusalem. Following his raising of Lazarus from the grave in nearby Bethany, word had spread that he was approaching Jerusalem. What he had said and done had increased his popularity among the ordinary people who had come to regard him as a capable teacher, a healer and, indeed, a leader. His celebrity status had become a huge threat to those in power, and the welcome he received as he came into the city unsettled them further. Yet, he was experienced enough to know that worshipping crowds were very fickle. He had already experienced rejection when he refused to bow to crowd demands. He knew what it was to have threats on his life. He had learned not to have total confidence in his disciples and would soon state that one of them would betray him and another deny all association with him. Was he tempted to play the crowd as he rode in, increasing his popularity by giving them what they demanded or by criticising the Roman occupiers? Instead, he lessened his popularity by turning over the tables of the stall-keepers in the Temple court-yard, who were making a profit out of the worshippers. It was love for a world that was broken and shackled that kept him focussed. Self-interest mattered nothing to him.
Though I’m not an avid student of history, I read some months ago that Abraham Lincoln was shot and fatally wounded by a Confederate sympathiser in a theatre in Washington on Good Friday 1865. Six days earlier, on Palm Sunday the people of America rejoiced when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant, commander of the Union forces at a courthouse in Virginia, thereby ending the bloody civil war that had devastated the nation. Hosannas in Virginia on Palm Sunday, crucifixion in Washington on Good Friday! As we hear/read the accounts of the passion and death of Jesus, we are prompted to reflect on our triumphs and failures, our integrity and our moral compromises, our support of decent people and our betrayals. As we follow Jesus through the bogus trial that condemned him, we will find ourselves mixing with the good, the bad, the weak and the fence-sitters. With whom in this drama do I identify? For what do I need to repent? Am I prepared to get down from the fence and fully commit myself to walking in the footsteps of Jesus, even if it means ridicule, rejection, loss of reputation?
The great Swiss Protestant theologian, Karl Barth was noted for his aphorisms. He once said: “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” And followed that up with: “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” In giving advice to preachers, he commented: “Sermons should be written with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” If we are prepared to read the daily newspaper with an open heart and a discerning eye, we will discover the action of God in the goodness and decency of people the world over. We will also find there accounts of the evil perpetrated by some of our fellow human beings. The crucifixion of Jesus continues for as long as people for whom Jesus lived and died are oppressed, persecuted, tortured and murdered.
Still, it is true that the only places where you and I will meet God in our everyday lives are in the thoughts we think, the feelings we feel, the people we encounter, the events that happen around us and in the multiple facets of creation close to us and in the universe in which our world is located. Barth’s remark about the Bible and the newspaper provided the title to a book The Bible and the New York Times published in 1998 by Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopalian theologian and preacher. Still going strong at the age of 83, Rutledge’s preaching invariably relates the message of Jesus to the events happening in the contemporary world. In another of her books Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ she writes:
“If our preaching does not intersect with the times, we are fleeing the call to take up the cross. We can learn from the example of Dostoevsky, who in The Brothers Karamazov used material that he read in the newspapers to give a human face to the problem of evil.”
The readings of Holy Week are confrontational. They invite us to confront our own shadow side, our own darkness, our own need for repentance. Do we dare invite Jesus Christ into our world and into our lives? After all, he comes as one who disturbs and unsettles, who challenges our lived priorities, who questions the things we seem to value – status, possessions, control, image, wealth and comfort. These things don’t sit easily on the Jesus who, riding on a donkey, entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of an adoring crowd.
If our churches were open this coming Good Friday, many of us would participate in the Stations of the Cross. The sixth station is named Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus. Its origin is in a legend that grew up in the Eastern Church. It tells of how a woman broke from the crowd with a towel and wiped the face of Jesus as he made his way to Calvary. She later discovered the imprint of Jesus’ face on her cloth. Like so many legends it was added to and improved over the years. By the 4th century, the woman who had reached out to Jesus was identified as the woman with the haemorrhage who was cured by Jesus after breaking through the crowd to touch his cloak (Matthew 9, 20-22; Mark 5, 25-34; Luke 8, 43-48). The woman was even given the name Bernice. However, somebody in the 14th century, presumably to ensure that the significance of the image on the cloth/veil was not lost changed the woman’s name to Veronica, a name derived from the Latin words vera meaning true and icon meaning image. The legend is now set into the 6th station of the Cross which embodies the truth that those brave enough to step out of the crowd to those marginalised by disease, poverty, the circumstances of life, a criminal record carry in their heart and their compassionate actions the face of Jesus. Are we among them?