Sunday, April 09, 2006

Passion Sunday (B)
Hardened or Broken?

Readings: Mark 11:1-10; Isa 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever paid attention to how you react to things that seem strange, or incongruous, or even shocking? For children, I suppose, the immediate reaction would either be to laugh and make fun, or to say “yee-eh!” and run in the opposite direction. What about when we’re all grown up? Does our reaction change? Even a little?

I’m reminded of the time, years ago, when someone I know noticed some grown men walking in pairs around Clifford Pier, and holding hands in broad daylight. “Very strange,” he thought with the hint of a smile on his face, even as he felt the “yee-eh!” gradually creep from the back to the front of his mind. But he later found out that these men were sailors from a foreign land, for whom it is culturally acceptable for men to hold hands in public, and that there was probably nothing sexual about the act.

The surprise that accompanied this discovery was significant. You might say that something broke in my friend that day: the preconceived idea that it is not right for men to hold hands in public. And with that breaking, there came, if only in a small way, a new perspective on the world, a new insight into the truth.

And yet, he could just as well have resisted the new idea. He could have said to himself: “Men should not hold hands in public. And that’s that!” In other words, instead of allowing his prejudice to be broken, he could have chosen to let it harden.

But why talk about such strange things on Passion Sunday, when the length of the prayers and readings seems to invite the prudent homilist simply to remain silent? Is it not in order to highlight something striking in our liturgy today, something that is not obscured by its length? Have you not noticed the strange and incongruous elements in them?

Consider, for example, the biblical event we celebrate with our palms today: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In the words of the hymn: “The king of glory comes, the nation rejoices.” Yet, this great and mighty king chooses to ride on a donkey. That’s not very glorious, is it? Yet the people hail him.

Then, in the passion narrative from Mark, the disciples are told to “meet a man carrying a pitcher of water.” Another incongruous sight surely, given that fetching water is the work of a woman. Yet the disciples are told to “follow him.”

And what about the woman who anoints Jesus with the costly ointment? More than strange, it’s downright scandalous. One can imagine the thoughts going through the minds of those present: a highly sought-after spiritual teacher who allows himself to be touched so intimately by a woman. “Yee-eh!” And yet Jesus praises her.

What are we to make of all this? Clearly, we are being invited to go deeper: to see beyond the donkey, the water pitcher, and the ointment. We are being invited to examine our image of God and our understanding of how God chooses to be present in our lives and in our world. What is our God like? How does our God compare with the God that is found in our readings? We are being called to allow ourselves to be shocked by the image – so beautifully and poignantly described for us in our second reading – of a God who wishes to be so intimately present to his people, that God “emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave… even to accepting death… death on a cross.” It is a familiar image, to be sure. But we must not allow familiarity to breed indifference, much less contempt.

For familiar though it may be, do we not still find ourselves shocked by our own belief in a Crucified Saviour? Are we not challenged by it, for example, when our dreams of a comfortable and trouble-free life are shattered by the reality of pain and tragedy? Or when, in our never-ending quest for upward-mobility, we suddenly hear the Lord remind us of how “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and how “the meek… will inherit the earth” (Mt 5:3, 5)? Do we not continue to be disturbed by it when, despite our best efforts to find God in the tranquility of an air-conditioned church, our attention is somehow strangely directed to the poor, the suffering, and even the problematic people in our midst? Does the reality of a Crucified God not continue to shock us especially when our attempts at being true to the gospel attract not admiration and praise but rather “insult and spittle”?

In situations like these, are we not faced with a choice? We can join those who eventually crucified Christ, and harden our hearts. Or, like that alabaster jar of costly ointment, we can allow ourselves to be broken, the better to welcome the One who is at once the King of glory and the suffering servant of God; to allow Him into our hearts and into our lives, so that like Him we too may be poured out as a precious anointing upon our world.

The choice is not an easy one, especially when we find ourselves in a dark valley. But even there we are not alone. Consolation is found in the One who cried out from the desolation of His cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”

My sisters and brothers, in this week of all weeks, as we watch our Lord move from table to garden to cross to tomb and beyond, the choice before us is clear. Will our hearts be hardened? Or will we allow them to be broken? Our Saviour awaits our answer…

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