Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Pacing Between Palms and Passion
Picture: cc Will Spaetzel

Sisters and brothers, which do you consider yourself? An optimist? Or a pessimist? You may have heard that well-known story about how an artist once painted a big black spot on a white canvas. She then showed the painting to some friends, and asked them to tell her what they saw. As might be expected, everyone said that they saw a black spot. To which the artist replied: But what about the white background? Don’t you see that?
As you know, this story is often told to remind people to look on the bright side of life. Don’t be a pessimist, forever obsessing over the dark spot. Be an optimist. Focus instead on the light. Sounds like good advice. Especially since too much pessimism can often lead to depression, and, in extreme cases, even to suicide. But still, haven’t we also met people who are too optimistic, people who focus so much on the bright side that they blind themselves to the darkness around them? We may think, for example, of families who refuse to accept the fact that one of their members may be having a problem with alcohol or drugs or gambling. As a result, the addict does not receive the help that is needed. Extreme optimism can be just as destructive as excessive pessimism.
But if neither optimism nor pessimism is the way to go, then what are we to do? As Christians, how are we to react when a dark spot casts a shadow over the brightness of our lives? The answer to this question can be found in our liturgy today. Here, we discover that there is a properly Christian response to tragedy, a response that consists in three steps.
The first step has to do with how we see. As you know, today we stand at the doorway of the holiest week of the year. Today, we prepare ourselves to accompany Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Traditionally, we know this day by two names. The first name – Palm Sunday – draws our attention to how this week begins. It recalls to our minds that bright and joyful scene of the Lord’s glorious entry into the Holy City. We remember how the people welcomed him as a king. They greeted him by cutting branches from trees and enthusiastically throwing them on the road.
In contrast, the second name – Passion Sunday – reminds us of how this week will end. By the time we reach Thursday, the joyful acclamations will be replaced by angry insults. Instead of coats and branches strewn on the ground as signs of welcome, Jesus’ body will soon be stretched out on a cross in an extreme expression of rejection and scorn. By the end of this week, a big black spot will overshadow the white canvas of the Lord’s life.
While an optimist might focus only on the palms, and a pessimist only on the Passion, our liturgy today reminds us that the two are inseparable. For together they show us that ours is a king who rides on the back of a lowly donkey, and whose crown will be a cruel wreath of thorns. Indeed, our prayer books refer to this day as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. What we find here, sisters and brothers, is a particular way of looking at the world. This is not the pessimism that is blind to the light. Neither is it the optimism that ignores the darkness. Instead, what we have here might be called a Christian realism. This is a way of looking at the world that is willing to see both the palms and the Passion, to acknowledge both the darkness and the light. Through our prayers and our readings today, we are being taught to see realistically.
And by doing this, we will only be imitating the Lord. As we know from the many stories in the gospels, Jesus himself was not afraid to open his eyes to both the good and the bad, to both the light and the darkness. In his ministry, Jesus was able to recognize not only the remorse of the repentant sinner, but also the hypocrisy of the scribe and the Pharisee. But that is not all. Especially when we follow Jesus closely this week, we will see that the courage that allows him to see the world realistically leads him also to act compassionately. Such that he will be willing even to take the final step of laying down his life for us. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God... emptied himself taking the form of a slave... he humbled himself... being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
What we see then, in the life of Christ, is that the first step of seeing realistically leads eventually to the final step of self-sacrificing love. But the distance between these two steps is very great. To move from one to the other, we need a third, a middle, step. Just as Jesus himself did. In our reading of the Passion today, we find the Lord taking this middle step in the garden of Gethsemane. Here, Jesus sees clearly the darkness that surrounds him. And he knows what his Father wishes. But it is not easy to take the final step. He struggles within himself. My soul is sorrowful, he tells his friends, even to death. The distance between the steps is too great even for the Lord. A middle step is required. Jesus falls to the ground and prays. Before his Heavenly Father, with heartbreaking honesty, Jesus lays bare his soul. If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will. And out of this intimate and trusting conversation, Jesus finds strength to do what is required of him. The words spoken by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading may as well be spoken by the Lord of his relationship to his Father: Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I... have not turned back... my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting...
Seeing realistically, praying honestly, and acting compassionately. These are the three steps that make up the Christian response to tragedy. These are the  same three steps that mark the road Jesus is taking this week, a road that stretches between the palms and the Passion.
Sisters and brothers, regardless of whether we tend to be optimistic or pessimistic, how ready are we to walk this road today?

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