Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Portrait of Contrast

Palm Sunday Year A

Life is full of contrasts.  If we recognise and appreciate this then we are truly ready for Palm Sunday. This is because today’s liturgy is full of bittersweet contrasts. Today is obviously a rare exception to the usual Sunday Mass routine, as we have heard from two Gospel passages. At the beginning of the mass, we had the exhilarating atmosphere of the procession, reminding us of the overwhelming reception of Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. But as the priest enters the sacred perimeter of the sanctuary, the mood turns somber, even morbidly dark. The mood swings to one of sorrow as we listen to how Jesus fulfils the Isaian prophecy of the Suffering Servant which culminates in the horrific description of His Passion. They are so different to each other, that one cannot but be struck by the contrast in it all. We have both the ‘Hosannas’ as well as the mocking, ‘Crucify Him!’ As the believers honour Him, the unbelievers seek more intensely to conspire against Him. The first gospel gives us a foretaste of Easter joy, whilst the Passion gospel reading provides us with the grim prospect of Good Friday. Between the two, we can see a great contrast between the Earthly honour which was given to Jesus as He processed into Jerusalem, and the Heavenly honour given by God when he hung on the Cross.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Our liturgy begins with a reenactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem where he is given a grand welcome. It’s sort of a "Victory March." People are waving palm leaves in the same way that children in modern times wave flags to welcome someone important. In a poor man’s parody of an honour parade, Jesus received the welcome of a triumphant and home-coming king. In ancient times, palms were considered a sign of victory. Yes, the branches of Palm Sunday symbolises a victory hoped for and a victory promised. But on that first Palm Sunday, it was a victory not yet won. To enter Jerusalem, Christ had to pass through the Garden of Gethsemane - the place where He would be betrayed and arrested - and cross the Kidron Valley, which is fittingly referred to as the "Valley of Death." This valley, located right outside the walls of the city, had long served as a burial ground for the Jews. Before His great triumph over death, Christ had to pass through His own "valley of death." He had to suffer and face humiliation and abandonment. Before He could be Conqueror of death, Christ had to die. One must pass through Good Friday to get to Easter.

The crowds shouted: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They considered wealth, power and popularity as blessings from God. The people were expecting Jesus to lead them in a rebellion to overthrow the Roman colonial government. But his actions within the next few days would disappoint them. Instead of living up to the people’s expectation of a strong political or military leader, Jesus assumes the role of a humble servant. Jesus will show that to be truly blessed, one must be prepared to do the will of the Father. Instead of glory received from people, Jesus would suffer humiliation and rejection from them as the Suffering Servant in the first reading. Nevertheless, Jesus was indeed a king but his kingdom is totally at odds with any display of power in this world. Jesus will reveal his true power and authority from the totally powerlessness he experienced on the cross. He will be glorified by God on the cross. It’s hard to comprehend such a paradox unless you recognise that the values in Jesus’ kingdom is not naked power and domination but service and humility.

In the face of a violent end, Jesus maintains the calmness and the stature of a Prince of Peace. He enters into Jerusalem not riding a war horse, a steed raised and trained for battle, but instead chooses a beast of burden, a donkey, a symbol of peaceful times. If we continue our contrast of the first and the second gospel, we would recognise these parallels - On Palm Sunday he was carried on a donkey – on Good Friday he carried his cross. The donkey is an animal to carry burdens for people. Jesus was the person to carry the burden of all people. In the Passion Reading we hear of a tale of contrast and irony - Jesus is arrested in a violent way but reminds his disciples to reject all forms of violence. Jesus is accused of blasphemy but his critics are actually the ones guilty of blasphemy for having insulted Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus, the innocent one, is put to death while the murderer, Barrabbas is set free.

The story of the Palm Sunday is certainly one of contrasts and those contrasts help us to understand the path that needs to be taken by us believers. It is the story of the King who came as a lowly servant on a donkey, not a prancing steed, not in royal robes, but on the clothes of the poor and humble. Jesus Christ comes not to conquer by force as earthly kings, but by love, grace, mercy, and His own sacrifice for His people. His is not a kingdom of armies and splendor, but of lowliness and servanthood. He conquers not nations, but hearts and minds. His message is one of peace with God, a lasting peace, not just a temporal one. If Jesus has made a triumphal entry into our hearts, He reigns there in peace and love. As His followers, we too must exhibit those same qualities, in order that the world sees the true King living and reigning in triumph in us. As we follow the Lord, we, too, will face a certain amount of suffering, rejection, loneliness and yes, even our own death. Where the world values power, we must value humility. Where the world values strength and even physical force in order enforce an ideal, we must be peacemakers. Where the world values popularity, we must be prepared to receive criticism and insults from those who do not understand us. We must be living contradictions. Still, we must walk with Christ without fear and reservation, for He will lead us through the "valley of death" to everlasting life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

During this Mass, let us pray for the grace to walk steadily with Jesus. The cheers and jeers of people over the years may come and go, but I remain standing by the King who eternally stands by me and promises a reward to all those who are faithful to Him and His gospel. There will be times we will feel like giving up. There will be times we will feel like negotiating with God to ask him to take the cup of suffering from us. There will be times we will cry out in near despair: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” But then we remember once again the promise of Palm Sunday, look not for earthly honour from men which will not last but always set our hearts on the heavenly honour, the glory accorded only by God that will never wither. With that, let us accompany Jesus to the cross.

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