Sixth Sunday of Lent: Palm Sunday
Barbara Quinn, RSCJ
Matthew 21: 1-11
Isaiah 50: 4-7
Psalm 22: 8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Philippians 2: 6-11
Matthew 26: 14 – 27: 66
Today, we stand on the threshold of the holiest week of the liturgical year, a week that unfolds the stories of profound darkness and death and the promise of light and life unimagined!
Immediately, we feel psychological and spiritual whiplash as Jesus makes a royal entrance into Jerusalem to a chorus of “hosannas” only to be reduced to ultimate shame in the following days. And so we begin our journey with him.
Ours is a painful, trying, and confounding accompaniment. Jesus was spared nothing. He was stalked by his enemies and betrayed by his closest companions. He suffered utter loneliness in the garden as his friends slept away the impact of the drama. Even God felt far from him as he begged to be saved from the dreadful fate that lurked in wait. And in the end, we hear the woeful lament: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
I have an enduring memory of a moment during my thirty day retreat in Rome years ago. There I sat on the hill of the orange grove behind our RSCJ house with a view of the entire city. It was glorious but I must have been wrestling with one of those Irish moments of melancholy and angst when life seemed more of a burden than a joy. I found myself praying, again and again: “Jesus, why didn’t you get out when you could have escaped humanity?! Why did you choose to undergo our human life with all its struggles and disappointments, sorrows and hurts when you didn’t have to?” The only response I heard that day, and the only response I’ve heard since is: “because I love you; because I love you.”
That moment was one of greatest graces of my life. I realized in a way I never had before, that God’s way is all about love. Even more, that love is the only way for God. This awareness came alive again with unmistakable power when I knelt at Mass some years ago during the consecration. I heard the words as if for the first time: “On the night he was betrayed, he took bread….” It wasn’t a night when the disciples “got it.” It was on the night he was betrayed that Jesus poured out his entire life for each one of us simply out of love. Such an astonishing gift brings us to our knees.
I do not believe that Jesus went in search of suffering. Yet living the love of God that he was sent to reveal led him to a fate that stripped him of everything, even his life. For hatred and selfishness, false power and lies, cannot stand the sight of Love. There is nothing to do but to eliminate it. What anchored Jesus in the face of such tragedy was the embrace of a greater good, a greater Love, that was more important to him even than life. Jesus lived the spirit penned by Isaiah: “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” His faith, his hope, his utter love of God would not betray the Love that was his core. What a magnificent gift to us! And what a radical call to do the same. As Pope Francis writes in his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium”:
“The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summons us to the revolution of tenderness.” (88) We, too, are summoned to love to the end.
I know on some days that the possibility of loving this way seems all but impossible. But a cloud of witnesses surround us, people who under the severest conditions, refused to give up on love as the only way.
Etty Hillesum was a Jewish woman living in Holland during the horrific months of the Holocaust. Her status as a social worker exempted her from the deadly transport to the concentration camps but she refused to abandon her people. She made regular visits to the camps, her freedom to come and go secure. But the day came when she was no longer permitted to leave and she suffered the same dire conditions as hundreds of others, including extermination itself. During this nightmarish time, she kept a journal that was smuggled out and posthumously published under the title An Interrupted Life. Imagining the horror of those months, she still could write:
True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within (him)self; when
we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings
of whatever race – even into love one day, although perhaps that is asking too much.
It is, however, the only solution. I am a happy person and I hold life dear indeed,
in this year of Our Lord 1942, the umpteenth year of the war. (p. 151)
Such love beyond telling!
Senator Robert Kennedy was on the campaign trail the night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. There he stood, having to announce the assassination to a crowd of almost entirely black people. He acknowledged that they might feel bitterness and hatred and a desire for revenge especially since it seemed white people were responsible. And then, with such tenderness and vulnerability, he told the crowd that he, too, could feel in his heart the same kind of feelings; that he had a member of his family killed by a white man. But still, he believed that we must replace violence with compassion and with love. And then, with voice cracking, he recited a poem from his favorite philosopher Aeschylus:
Even in our sleep,
pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair
against our will, comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.
What magnanimity of soul we witness. How understandable it would have been for Robert Kennedy and for Etty Hillesum to cave into cynicism and despair about the power of love. They didn’t. They somehow had a rock solid belief that love is the only way. They are counted among the great friends of the One who was crucified for Love.
During this holiest of weeks, let us pray with and for each other to enter more deeply into the mystery of Love, a Love that never dies. It is our mission, too, to make this believable for the life of the world. Love is the only way.