Saturday, April 08, 2006

Palms of Victory

This weekend, beginning with the raising of Lazarus, begins the holy and divine drama of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The Lord manifested his power over death by raising Lazarus, and soon He will show that he has power to rise from the dead Himself. And in his resurrected body, glorified and indestructible, He opens our path to Paradise, offering us also resurrection and eternal life.

The entrance into Jerusalem is an event of universal significance. It is as if all creation is joining in the glorification of the Son of God as He proceeds toward his awesome sacrifice. In Luke’s version, when the Pharisees try to tone down everyone’s praises, Jesus said: “If these would be silent, the very stones would cry out.” For it is God Himself in the flesh who is coming to transfigure the entire cosmos by the power of his death and resurrection.

In the Gospel of John this event is prepared by Mary’s anointing of Jesus, a symbol of her love and reverence, which Jesus accepted as a preparation for his death and burial. Judas objected, however, feigning interest for the poor, while the evangelist explains that he was a thief and was distressed that all the money spent on the oil wasn’t going to go into his pocket.

In recent news, though, there are some who are trying to rehabilitate Judas. An Egyptian Gnostic text, called “The Gospel of Judas” was recently translated and published. When it first came out in the second century it was condemned by St Irenaeus, and now it’s just being used as another way to denigrate the Church. In it, Judas is a kind of hero, for his betrayal set in motion the condemnation and death of Christ, which resulted in our redemption. In this phony story, Jesus gives Judas absolution and a little penance, and the betrayer lives happily ever after. That’s similar to that other anti-Christian story, Jesus Christ Superstar. In that one Jesus dies but does not rise from the dead. But Judas does! He returns for a song and dance number all dressed in white, vindicating himself and pointing the accusing finger at Christ.

It has been common in general in modern films to exalt the villains and denigrate the virtuous. The world, as Jesus said, does not know Him; therefore their attempts, whether in books or films, to say something about Him fail to give us the truth. Often enough, they are not merely mistaken, but are deliberately trying to deny or distort the truth of the Gospels. That is one reason why our approach to the mystery of Palm Sunday is important. We come to Jesus in an attitude of praise and worship and welcome, not with criticism and suspicion and demythologizing. We sing Hosanna with the crowds, with the same joy, but not with the same fickleness of heart, for we are not to be among those crying, “Crucify Him!” a few days later. Rather, we are to be like Mary of Bethany, anointing Him with the oil of our faith and love, and following Him, like Mary Magadalen, to the foot of the Cross and to the sealed tomb. We have to have integrity; we can’t be praising him one moment, and even receiving his precious Body and Blood, and then committing sins shortly after we leave the place of worship. We know the judgment Christ passed on the hypocritical Pharisees.

The King, says the Gospel, came in fulfillment of the prophecies of Scripture. The disciples didn’t understand any of this until after the Resurrection. We too have to be in communion with the risen Lord if we are to be able to fully embrace the mysteries of our faith. As St Paul says, spiritual things seem to be madness to carnal people, and they do not understand them, for they have no capacity for spiritual discernment. We have to be open to grace, to the presence of Christ in our midst, if our lives are going to be enriched and transformed by the celebration of these holy mysteries of our salvation. Carrying palm branches isn’t merely a cute little adornment to our Sunday service. The ritual of holding blessed palms is a symbol of our acceptance of Christ as our King and Lord and Savior, and also of our willingness to follow Him along the via dolorosa, the way of sorrow, of his Passion. For these palms are palms of victory, but the victory is only won by engaging in the battle. Christ had to battle the whole of hell; all satan’s armies were mobilized for this utterly decisive moment in the history of the world. But Christ was victorious through death and resurrection, and He now holds out the victor’s palm to those who will follow Him to the Cross and then to Paradise.

So let us rejoice in this celebration, even if we are to weep come Friday. For we know from the psalms that weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes with dawn, the dawn of the Resurrection, which prefigures the everlasting dawn of the Day without end in the Kingdom of Heaven.