Sunday, April 10, 2022

Learning By Contrasts

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (C)

Readings: Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 21(22):8-9,17-20,23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 23:1-49

Picture: YouTube LittleJerryFan92

[At the Entrance:] My dear friends, as we enter this holiest week of the church’s liturgical year, the gospel reading we’ve just heard begins by telling us that Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem… We all know, of course, why Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. As we heard earlier, he goes there to accomplish his Passion and Resurrection, to save us and the rest of the world. But why does he go on ahead? Why not stay in the middle, or follow from behind? The prayer that we will offer shortly, at the sanctuary, gives us a good indication why. The prayer tells us that Jesus goes to Jerusalem also to offer us an example of humility and a lesson of patient suffering. It is to offer us an example to follow, and a lesson to learn, that the Lord goes on ahead of us. So let us follow him closely on his journey to Jerusalem, and let us pay careful attention to all that he has to teach us…

[At the Ambo:] My dear friends, does anyone here still remember a game called three of these things belong together? It’s often played on that popular children’s show, Sesame Street. In the game, children are shown four objects, out of which they have to pick the one that doesn’t belong. What the game demonstrates is that effective learning often happens by considering contrasts.

Similarly, the scriptures today help us to learn more effectively the lesson that Jesus teaches in Holy Week, by offering us three contrasts. The first is between the colt that Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and the cock that alerts Peter to his own denial. On the one hand, by riding that young donkey, Jesus shows his courage in steadfastly walking the Way of the Cross right to the end. Throughout the journey, he offers no resistance, but empties himself. And he is able to do this, because he draws strength from his heavenly Father, as we see him doing at Gethsemane. In contrast, Peter fails to persevere, because he relies on his own meagre resources.

The second contrast is between the kingdom, about which Jesus preaches, and the kiss, by which Judas betrays his Lord. In his farewell speech at the Last Supper, we see just how authentic is Jesus’ care and concern for others. He goes to the Cross, not just to claim a kingdom for himself, but also to confer that same kingdom on his disciples, on you and me. In contrast, the kiss that Judas offers is not just an act of hostility, but one disguised as friendship. The kiss not only betrays the one who receives it, it also uncovers the self-centredness and hypocrisy of the one who offers it.

Finally, we see a third contrast between the sword, which Jesus tells his disciples to prepare, and the sleep that overcomes them. It’s puzzling, isn’t it, to see how Jesus tells his disciples to prepare a sword, and yet seems unhappy when they make use of it? Perhaps the sword that Jesus means is really a metaphorical one. Not a literal weapon of steel, but that sharpness of insight, that enables the Lord to pierce the dark night of sin and deception enveloping the world. That clarity of perception that allows him to penetrate Peter’s hollow show of heroism, and Judas’ deceptive display of affection. In contrast, the disciples avoid facing the painful reality of their Master’s suffering, by allowing themselves to be overcome by sleep. Similarly, both Pilate and Herod are, in a sense, asleep as well. Both refuse to wake up to the truth of the Lord’s innocence. Pilate is made drowsy by moral cowardice, and Herod by apathy and self-indulgence.

So colt and cock, kingdom and kiss, sword and sleep. Three striking contrasts that speak to us respectively of the importance of courage, and care, and clarity. Courage: to persevere in doing what is right. Care: to place the interests of the common good before one’s own. And clarity: to recognise and stand on the side of truth. As in that game from Sesame Street, these three qualities belong together. They characterise Jesus, and all those who belong to him. They enable Christians to stand out as witnesses to the Light, in a world often still engulfed in Darkness.

Sisters and brothers, as we accompany the Lord to Jerusalem this week, what must we do to beg for and accept these same gifts, so that we may truly belong to him, and to no other?

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