Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pacing Between The Palms & The Passion (Rerun)

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Picture: cc bradhoc

Sisters and brothers, which do you consider yourself to be? A pessimist? Or an optimist? Someone who sees the glass as half empty? Or half full? You’ve probably heard the story of the artist who painted a big black spot on a white canvas, and then showed it to some friends. Asking them to tell her what they saw. As might be expected, everyone said they saw a big black spot. To which the artist replied: But what about the white background? Don’t you see that too?

As you know, this story is often told to remind us to look on the bright side of life. To not be a pessimist. Forever obsessing over dark spots. But to be an optimist. Focusing instead on the light. Sounds like good advice. Especially since too much pessimism can lead to depression. And, in extreme cases, even to suicide. And yet, haven’t we also met people who are too optimistic? Who focus so much on the bright side that they simply ignore the darkness around them? We may imagine, for example, a family that refuses to acknowledge the fact that one of its members may be having a problem with alcohol or drugs or gambling. So the addict does not receive the help and care that is needed. And the whole family suffers. Extreme optimism can be just as destructive as excessive pessimism.

But if neither pure optimism nor pure pessimism is the way to go, then what are we to do? As Christians, how are we to react when a dark spot smears itself over the white canvas of our lives? Strange as it may seem, I think the answer can be found in our liturgy today. Here, we discover the proper Christian response to tragedy. A response that is actually a process. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. We will consider the beginning and the end first, before looking at the middle.

The first step in this process 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 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 reminds us of that bright and joyful scene of the Lord’s glorious entry into the Holy City. We remember how the people gave Jesus a king’s welcome. With great enthusiasm, they waved branches and threw their coats on the road as he passed.

In contrast, the second name for our celebration today, reminds us of how this week will end. Passion Sunday. By the time we reach Thursday evening this week, 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 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 have smeared itself on the white canvas of the Lord’s life.

In such a situation, 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 a lowly donkey. Whose crown will be a cruel wreath of thorns. Indeed, our prayer books refer to this day as Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. What we find here, sisters and brothers, is a particular way of looking at the world. Not quite the pessimism that remains blind to the light. Nor the optimism that ignores the darkness. Instead, what we have here might perhaps be called a true Christian realism. A way of looking at the world that is willing to see clearly both the palms and the Passion. Both the darkness and the light.

And this is precisely what Jesus did. As we know from the many stories in the gospels, Jesus was not afraid to open his eyes to both the good and the bad. To both the darkness and the light. In his ministry, Jesus was willing 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, His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself… even to accepting… death on a cross.

In the life of Christ, what begins with the ability to see realistically leads eventually to the end of loving self-sacrifice. But the distance between these two steps–between the beginning and the end–is very great. To move from one to the other–from realistic seeing to self-emptying love–a third step is needed. A middle step.

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. He knows what his Father wishes. But it is not easy to take the final step. He struggles. My soul is sorrowful, he tells his friends, to the point of death. The distance between the beginning and the end is too great even for the Lord.

What does he do? He falls to the ground and prays. Before his Heavenly Father, with heartbreaking honesty, he lays bare his soul. If it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it. And out of this intimate and trusting conversation, Jesus receives the strength to do what is required. So that the words spoken by Isaiah, in the first reading, may easily be spoken by Jesus as well: The Lord has opened my ear. For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away…. I did not cover my face against insult and spittle....

Seeing realistically, praying honestly, and acting compassionately. These are the three steps that make up the Christian response to pain and suffering. To trial and tribulation. These are the same three steps that mark the road that Jesus is taking this week. A road that, as followers of Christ, we too are called to walk in our own lives. Not just in this holiest of weeks. But at every moment of every day. A road that stretches between the palms and the Passion.

Sisters and brothers, faced with the black spots of sin and suffering that smear the white canvas of our lives and our world, how will you react? What will you allow yourself to see, today?

1 comment:

  1. Clarify my vision, O Lord - help me to see You in all people, events and situations - especially when I am blinded by my own prejudices, and numbed by my past hurts and pains....

    Be Thou My Vision, Lord -
    Open my eyes that I may see You
    Open my heart to love like You
    Open my mind to be more like You.

    Lead me. Lord, from my sinful darkness into Your Wonderful Light

    Despite my frail and limited humanity, please transform the black dots in my life into a (golden) spark of Your Divinity.


    Sih Ying
    13 April 2014 11pm


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