Palm Sunday 'B'

Saturday April 4, 2009

The Great Week

In his famous novel, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo with great skill portrayed the struggle between good and evil in the soul of one man and society’s struggle toward liberation. It’s a wonderful story not just about one man but about humanity and the possibility of redemption. Although completed in 1861 it was not until Boublil and Schonberg’s now legendary musical version that we have been able to enter the story not only as if we were there but also as if ‘there’ were here.

The combination of lyrics and music create a mood and a mindset opening doors to human mysteries. The mix helps us to grapple with the struggles in our own lives. We are caught by the combination of story and song and captured by the acceleration of the improbable events as they move toward melodramatic resolution. We discover that we are there not just to be entertained but also to enter the experience and risk the possibility of reform and transformation.

This introductory digression, I think, provides a bit of insight into the sacred story that unfolds again this week.

In recent years and at times such as this, the temptation is strong to visit the ‘holy places’ or at least to re-enact the biblical events of Holy Week in such a way that we discover or uncover the historical Jesus. Of course it matters that Jesus existed and was truly human, not some mythic figure larger than life. But the biblical accounts, including the Passion narratives are more than history. Indeed, the search for the historical Jesus can be an escape, and lead to excessive piety blinding us to the reality of the Christ who lives in and among us today. Just as we ought not confine Jesus to the manger at Christmas so we ought not forget at Passiontide that Jesus is risen and lives mystically in every creature, indeed in all creation.

With the Church, we enter the mystery of the crucified, buried and risen Christ. We do not commemorate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as if we do not know the conclusion of the narrative. The liturgical events this weekend and those to be celebrated during this holiest of weeks have as their purpose the ‘holy remembrance’ in the sense of the ancient anemnesis, i.e., sacred remembering.. Just as our Jewish elders bring the effects of the Exodus event to impact on their lives by way of the holocaust into the present, so through these sensuous liturgical rites and the telling of the story we make present today the salvific implications of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection to our own personal and communal struggles. Even during the solemn commemoration of Jesus’ death, the liturgy pulsates with the rhythm of Jesus’ entire life. Jesus is the new paradigm and, in the words of Karl Rahner, the perfect exemplar of what we can become in our time and place. Jesus is victorious over sin and death. This vision ought not sanitize the passion and death of Jesus, but energize the believer toward greater determination and faithfulness.

Palm Sunday is the doorway to the ‘great week’ as it was called in the ancient Christian writings. We are here in loving discipleship with palm branches but also aware of our dread fear and strong desire to run away from the crosses—personal and communal — that face us daily. Yet, we do not wave our palm branches as if we do not know the rest of the story. Jesus is addressed as the Son of David. This triumphant procession hints of the day when all people of every color and culture will process with Christ into the new Jerusalem. Sin remains a reality in our lives but we know that even as we sin, God is already forgiving us because God cannot do otherwise.

It is true; the passion narrative is our version of the ancient Jewish ‘Haggadah,’ [the story of the exodus] and the dramatic telling of the most significant event in our Christian tradition. It requires that we become fully engaged to the extent that the story becomes our story. “In doing so, we allow the story to impact our lives and become the leaven for transformation in the fullness of Jesus Christ’s paschal mystery.” We are there and ‘there’ is now! “Take up your stress and follow me;” pick up your pen and write your gospel! Scripture scholar and commentator, Donald Senior, reminds us: “the Passion story is a proving ground for fidelity. Jesus was faithful unto death with the same integrity and obedience that marked his life.” Recall that Jesus’ death was not the decision of a sadistic God or the result of some masochistic urge in Jesus. It was the result of radical fidelity to a love he could not resist. Jesus could not do otherwise. He was obedient in the sense of listening to the heartbeat of the Father. Truly the passionate Christ and the Christ of the passion lives among us.

In his book entitled: The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, contemporary poet-theologian, Matthew Fox, draws our attention to the suffering Christ in “mother earth” whose precious resources continue to be exploited for profit by the richer nations to the detriment of the poor. Brutality behind American prison walls is Gethsemane and Calvary by another name. And ethnic cleansing is one more version of the slaughter of the innocence by ruthless ‘kings’— wolves in sheep’s clothing. The quagmire or war is the strongest evidence to date that human might will never make right and the abuse of power and authority by Church leaders under the guise of the defense of orthodoxy give evidence that Christ’s mission is far from complete.

But the ‘Mystic Christ’ also reveals himself in the defining moments of healing and liberation in our lives as we become aware that we are swimming in the sea of God’s mercy. There can be no more death except death to sin, personal and communal. We are destined to be saved and we are empowered to be conduits of saving grace for others.

If we live in Christ, then we can no longer separate ourselves from the horrors of war, the hungers of humanity and the deprivations that result from exploitive socio-economic or unjust political systems. An inevitably expanding global economy cannot ride roughshod over poorer nations and our Church must lead the way in divesting itself of privilege giving title not just to those who wear the cross but who carry the cross.

The time was never more ripe for personal renewal and global reform than now!

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