Thursday, March 21, 2013

Departing from the Script

Palm Sunday (Year C)

It's just been slightly over a week since the election of our new Pope and a few days after his inauguration and we have learnt that this Pope in both his formal and informal addresses is someone who favours departing from the script. I don't envy the job of those responsible for transcribing his addresses or providing translations because the spontaneous extrapolations often take everyone by surprise. If there is anything predictable about him is his unpredictability. Both left and right wing factions are frantically trying to make sense of the man, the direction which he will set for the Church and the kind of changes that he will make.

Many have given up trying to read the tea leaves and have prudently decided to reserve their final judgment. He just doesn't fit their neat categories and description. His doctrinal conservatism worries the progressive reformers who had lobbied for a Pope that would launch the Church into a new era. His seemingly minimalist attitude towards liturgy in comparison with his predecessor’s predilection for rich and elaborate celebrations have sent shivers among liturgical purists. His comments about unlimited forgiveness comes as a disappointment to those who hope the Church will finally bring the perpetrators of the sexual abuse scandal to justice. Of course, his penchant for bus rides, free interactions with the dotting crowds has caused a nightmare to his security team. Pope Francis is proving to be a man who departs from the script not only in his words but also in his deeds.

But the Pope also seems to have garnered popular support from many quarters. Ever since his election, I’ve marvelled at the overwhelming media attention given to this man. By and large, he has become the darling of the popular media, not unlike the late Princess Diana. The largest nation of the world, China, also saw the election of a new president, but the media coverage came nowhere near a fraction of what the Pope received. The present ‘ga-ga’ over the newly elected Pope and the speculations and assessments of the kind of Pope that he would prove to be parallels the media maelstrom which covered the conclave prior to his election and which had also produced a whole range of speculations and predictions, most of which have been proven presumptuous and untrue. For gambling pundits, it appears that the Pope has become a hotter item than the best race horse.

Today, every utterance and gesture of the new pope is analysed and evaluated by both those within and outside the Church, and all sorts of weird and wonderful predictions are made about what this new pontificate will mean. Many are already claiming ownership of Pope Francis and making him out to be the long sought after Saviour of the Catholic Church, a subtle indication of their discontent with the reign of his predecessor. They also seem to be claiming the exclusive right to be Papal interpreters, reading significance into every little detail, which includes the choice of papal clothing to cute little waves of the hand. I’m not sure when they will abandon their positive assessment of the man as soon as he displays a departure from the expectations they have of him. Perhaps, this will happen sooner than later.

Today's two part liturgy seems to parallel the recent happenings in Rome. Jesus, the celebrated hero of the crowds, dramatised by our grand triumphant procession at the beginning of the mass, now becomes the greatest cause of discontent and is finally cast aside by an angry and disappointed crowd. From Israel's greatest hero, he descends to the level of its biggest loser. Those who had placed their greatest hopes and expectations on him may have been the first to betray him. What happened to the story? Did the characters miss a cue?

The evangelist or rather Jesus seems to have been departed from the script written for him, a script that paints him as a political messiah who would enter Jerusalem, claim his birthright and inaugurate a rebellion that would mark the start of Israel’s plan to regain her sovereignty and dignity. But perhaps it is not so much a departure from the script. In fact, the Bible affirms that Jesus really stuck to the script which his Heavenly Father had written for him, one which called for his personal sacrifice in order that humanity may be redeemed, one which his many human editors would have wanted to rewrite based on their own personal agenda and expectations. But Jesus rejected the crowds’ claim over him. His life and his ministry are not dictated by the people’s expectations. Jesus was fully aware that his ministry was not his own, it belonged to the Father. And thus, the Father’s will becomes the compass which steers the course of his life. Jesus was willing to disappoint everyone but the Father. Everyone. Ponder that for a moment. Jesus loved His followers enough to disappoint them.

I think when we find ourselves most disappointed with life, it's not because something in life has failed us. Rather, our expectations of what life "ought to be" have failed us. Or understood a different way, when we find ourselves most disappointed with God, God has not failed us—our expectations of God have failed us. By wishing to make God and Jesus in our image, we are set for disappointment. We should always hesitate to assume the gospel doesn't "work" when we simply cannot see the big picture. When we struggle to connect truth with life, we must embrace the limitations of our understanding and also the limitlessness of God's. Our inability to understand Jesus should give cause for worship, not cause for doubt.

Returning to our modern day retelling of this age old story, Pope Francis, in his first public meeting with the media, tried to explain why the media often experiences disappointment and frustration when covering church news. The reason for this tension or frustration is because of the lenses or perspective which the media and the larger society adopts - they view the church through the lenses of politics, or basically the lenses of man. The problem with looking at the Church and judging it’s actions based on political expediency is to assume that all things rise and fall purely on the basis of human personalities and abilities. The biggest missing piece in all of this is God. In his signature style of departing from the script, Pope Francis said, "(Ecclesiastical events) do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. (… The Church’s) nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the People of God, the Holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the Church’s life and activity." It’s never just a matter of what strategy might best fix or whatever problem seems most critical at the moment. God must always be at the centre of any equation.

The events that will unravel during this Holy Week will also escape the logic of the world. The actions of Jesus would appear politically suicidal; indeed it will cause him his life. But Jesus proves faithful to the Father's plans, a plan that does not lead merely to a meaningless destruction of his beloved son's life, but to man's ultimate salvation. Man needs to be saved from the delusion of sin, sin which blinds him to seek meaning from power, influence, honour, riches, popular support; the delusion that man is the master of his own destiny. Christians should never try to conform to the world's script for them, only to God's. So, let us stop playing God and allow God to do so. Likewise, we should stop playing the Pope and allow the Pope to be the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, as he opens himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, rather than by the strategy, machinations and expectations of man.

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