Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Emptied and Exalted

Palm Sunday 2016

Luke’s Jesus is a man in motion and there is nowhere better to witness this than in the liturgy of Palm Sunday. The liturgy provides us not with one road, but two roads, two processions. The first procession, the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, is re-enacted at the beginning of the mass. Hailed as a hero, Jesus is presented as the long awaited liberator of the masses who fills their imagination with the possibility of being finally rid of the humiliating yoke of colonisation. The second procession is a little more discreet. It is the procession that we hear in the Passion Reading of the gospel as we accompany the humiliated Jesus to his execution on Calvary. Takes little to go from hero to zero. The kingly procession into Jerusalem would lead to the condemned man’s procession to Calvary and humiliating execution on the Roman cross.

But the two processions also provides us with a greater contrast. They take different directions – literally, there is a downward movement, from the top of the Mount of Olives to the Gates of the City of Jerusalem; and then there is an upward movement, from the Praetorium to the Hill of Calvary. Figuratively, these two directions point to something much more profound than movement between geographical and archaeological localities. It speaks of the vocation and mission of Christ. St Paul in the beautiful hymn we just heard in the second reading written to the Philippians, provides us with the two major themes of the path chosen by Jesus, his descent and ascent points to the emptying and the exaltation. In this V shaped piece of poetry, St Paul maps the coming to earth of Jesus Christ, his hard hit at the rock bottom of his death, and God’s raising him again so that all creation sees who he is and has been all along. In His humiliation He was exalted; in His exaltation He will be humbled.

The gravity of what this hymn is attempting to convey is lost on many of us. Jesus did not exploit his situation. He did not have to assume human form, but he did. God is not limited, yet Jesus assumed the limitations of humanity. God cannot die, yet Jesus accepted this ultimate consequence of becoming human. He “emptied himself,” accepting the lowly status of a slave. Jesus did not become just any human; he became a servant of all. The downward spiral ends at the cross. Thereafter, the hymn makes its upward ascent. Just as Jesus willingly offered himself, so did God raise him on high. Jesus received the name above every other name; he bears a title that none can deny. He is exalted above all creation. We now follow Him on this royal road.

The two processions of Jesus should well define the duality of life of every Christian. A piece of wisdom that comes from the Chassidic tradition would help us understand this. 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. We must learn to empty ourselves. According to Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha, everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each. The two pockets suggest a kind of balance that we need to achieve, as we walk through life and through this Holy Week. How should you choose? My suggestion would be to look into the one that feels a bit difficult, or alien. The one that is less natural to you.

Some of us are quite comfortable with the idea that the world was created for our sake, that is, we look forward to applause, affirmation, positive appraisal. We have no difficulty with the path of exaltation. Maybe it’s hard to admit, but if you carry yourself with a certain sense of entitlement, an expectation that the world’s doors should open easily before you, if you tend to think that most of the time you’re right and the world around you is getting it wrong, then perhaps it’s time to spend a little time in the “dust and ashes” pocket, where we are also reminded to emulate Christ in emptying ourselves. “Dust and ashes” helps cut through our arrogance; our conviction that we’re always right or that we need to be right. It helps put our life and our ego in perspective. “I am but dust and ashes”—is a call to an awareness of our finite-ness, our mortality, our smallness in the cosmic scheme of things. It is a potent reminder that if we wish to be exalted, we must be ready to embrace humiliation.

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. It is easy, however, to despair in such a situation.

For those of us who spend too much time in the “dust and ashes” pocket, we may forget that we are unique and necessary creations. For our sake the world was created. And certainly more significantly, for our sake the Saviour died for us. When we deny our worth, we end up either trivialising or rejecting the sacrifice of Our Lord on the cross. Ultimately, the procession which takes us down the road of self-emptying will lead us up the glorious throne of the cross. The procession which empties necessarily leads to the procession which exalts. True exaltation comes in knowing that we have won the glorious crown which the Lord has reserved for us, and which the praises and honour offered by men pale against. The necessary path of humiliation which a disciple must experience when he lives the demands of the gospel will end in exaltation.

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 we remain standing by the King who eternally stands by us 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, when our face hits the dust and the ashes. There will be times we will feel like negotiating with God to ask him to take the cup of suffering and humiliation 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, and we remember that this world and universe was created for our sake. And never, never, forget that it is for our sake that the Son chose to humble and empty Himself so that we may be filled with everlasting life. With that assurance, let us accompany Jesus to the cross.

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