PASSION SUNDAY AND THE PARADOX OF OUR (COVID-19) TIME
The paradox of Palm Sunday is shown at the beginning of the Mass when the crowd who gathered raised their voices and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” Jesus rides on a colt into Jerusalem. The people spread their cloaks and palm branches on the road for Christ’s triumphal entry. But shortly after that, we see in the passion narrative where the glorious chant of hosanna shifts to an angry “Crucify him.” They all believe that Jesus deserves to die. That’s exactly what the Holy Week reminds us, the mystery of our faith, the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ rides into Jerusalem for that purpose, for the real crowning- his passion, crucifixion, and death. That’s what the Holy Week celebrates.
There are several transitions in the readings and in the passion narrative- from hosanna to crucify him; from spreading of their cloaks and palms to jeering at Jesus; from close following to distancing and desertion. Jesus eventually ends up alone on the Cross where he exercises his kingship. As Saint Paul says, “Because of this, God has greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The world needs to acknowledge the kingship of Christ on the Cross. That’s one great message of Holy Week.
Peter, who vowed to stay with Jesus unto death denied Jesus three times within hours. Judas Iscariot, an apostle, provided the platform for the arrest of Jesus. Pontius Pilate, who had power as governor at the time, succumbed to political pressure, released the notorious Barabbas in place of an innocent Jesus. The soldiers were ruthless to him, stripped his clothes, weaved a crown of thorns, mocked him, spat on his face, and struck him like a criminal. The chief priests and the scribes preferred his innocent blood to be on their heads and those of their children rather than release him. Even the criminal abused Jesus on the Cross.
Only the weak identified with him. Simon of Cyrene, the women of Jerusalem, the thief on his right, and Joseph, the rich man from Arimathea who offered the tomb at his death. In the eyes of the world, Jesus would always manifest himself through the weak.
The question could be for us, where do we fit in, in this drama of the passion of Jesus? Are we like the crowds who cheer Jesus one moment and deny him the next moment? Are we like Peter relying on ourselves only to be exposed to our human weakness a little after? Are we like Judas taken over by material things and monetary pleasures? Are we like Pontius Pilate blinded by fame and power? Are we like the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees filled with jealousy and hatred?
This year’s Holy Week celebrated in what seems like a different socio-economic, political, and religious atmosphere gives us an opportunity to contemplate the salvation brought to us in Christ Jesus. We have to appreciate the Light of Christ more at this time that we seem to be groping in darkness. We should be hungrier for Jesus now that we are unable to reach out to get into the Churches to worship like before. The message from Jesus’ crucifixion is clear, no one can battle with the Lord. The victory of the Cross is a victory of light over darkness, the victory of truth over falsehood, humility over pride, goodness over evil, innocence over sin and iniquity. It is our victory because it brings us salvation. The centurion and the men keeping guard finally recognized this and exclaimed, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” Our time calls for a recognition of Jesus as the Son of God, the redeemer, the mighty one in battle.
Imagine the paradox of this period, that the coronavirus pandemic has brought the whole world to a standstill. Political powers are in great panic. Economic powers are shivering. Medical powers are uncertain. The wisdom of science is frightened. Celebrities are quiet. The god of sports is silent. Stadiums are shut down. Hotels are closed. Las Vegas is isolated. Disney World is paralyzed. Airports and flights across different parts of the world are rarely functional. The only international trade available now is the trade for survival against coronavirus. No one is talking about money anymore. Stock exchange, we are told had lost over 16 trillion dollars in the past few weeks. The single problem of today’s world seeking a global solution is the COVID-19 pandemic. Do all these not point us to a rethink? No one talks about wars anymore. No more warships. No more missiles. The Middle East is quiet. Iraq is silent. Iran is mute. Syria is calm. Russia is peaceful. Terrorist groups and militants all over the world are all quiet. No one can battle with the Lord.
Imagine spending this holy week in isolation, in quarantine. Imagine the painful feelings of not being in church to celebrate the Easter duty. Imagine the strange thought of not receiving the Eucharist. Can this be our Gethsemane experience with Jesus? Could Jesus be telling us like Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, “Sit here while I go over there and pray?” Jesus’ soul is sorrowful for our sins and those of the world, bruised by our wickedness, greed, malice, and lack of respect for human life. Jesus says, “pray and watch with me so as not to undergo the test.” Are you going to fall asleep or are you staying awake during this period? Yes, you might be at home but not away from Jesus. Stay awake during this Holy Week, during this dark moment of our history and cry out with Jesus, “Eli Eli, lema sabachthani” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). Why have you forsaken us O God? That’s the voice of prayer, not of power. It is the voice of hope, the voice that looks forward to the resurrection and the dawn of a glorious light at Easter. It’s time for the world to say, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
FRIENDSHIP VERSUS BETRAYAL IN A BRAZEN MEDIA CULTURE
The loudest chant in the passion narrative was, “Crucify him” (Matt.27:22-23). Even when the pretentious Pilate struggled to verify the offence of Jesus, the crowd shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified”. The hatred was obvious. His executioners were bent on killing him; they preferred notorious Barabbas to Christ. As I read through Matthew’s narrative of the passion, I baffled at the concept of friendship. The sanctity of friendship was completely violated. Who were the friends of Jesus, and where were they? The women featured merely at the end of the crucifixion story. They were helpless, and “looked from a distance… (Matt.27:55). And Joseph of Arimathea? The bible described him as “a rich man from Arimathea who was himself a disciple of Jesus” (Matt.27:57). Joseph only asked for the body of his friend after he died.
A friend is someone who can be trusted, someone close. A friend is one who shares pains and joys with another. The dictionary defines friend as a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard; a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile. A friend is a person who gives assistance; a patron; supporter. For Jesus, his disciples can be described as first in the category of his friends. He shared ministry with them. He calmed the storm for them. He fed them. He cared for their families and visited their homes. For instance, he cured Simon’s mother in-law. The mother of James and John came to him. Jesus said to the disciples, “I do not call you servants anymore; I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (Jn.15:15). He brought the disciples into his personal space and confided in them. Jesus ate from the same pot with them. He told them, “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me” (Matt.26:23).
One might argue that Jesus was destined to die, and that Judas was destined to be the traitor to fulfill the scriptures. That’s correct. But the friends of Jesus didn’t make sufficient efforts to support him. As he went up to the Gethsemane to pray, their attitude was passive. His closest associates, Peter, James and John were already tired even as he expressed his feelings to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death” (Matt.26:38). Scripture says, “When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, ‘So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? …Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? …Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand” (2640-46).
Peter was the captain of the Jesus’ team. He made fearful efforts to follow Jesus and to defend him. He expressed desire to stand with Jesus when he said, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be” (Matt.26:33). Peter tried initially to fight for his master by slaying the servant’s ear but when the chips were down, he couldn’t stand the pressure. Thrice he denied Jesus, and for the third time, “Peter began to curse and to swear, ‘I do not know the man” (26:74).
Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was premeditated. Deceitfully, he asked Jesus, like the other apostles, “Surely, it is not I, Rabbi?” (Matt.26:25). At the betrayal scene, the plans which Judas made with the enemies of Jesus became clear. According to the scriptures, “His betrayer had arranged a sign with them saying, ‘The man I shall kiss is the one, arrest him” (26:48). Meanwhile, Jesus’ reaction explained the relationship effectively. As Judas kissed him, Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you have come for” (26:50). Jesus saw Judas as his friend but his friend betrayed him.
The people on their part, were also beneficiaries of Jesus. He healed their blind, lame, deaf, mute. Jesus cast out demons from their possessed. He even raised their dead. Jesus fed them with physical food. He took care of them at crucial moments. Those acts of friendship didn’t make much difference to them since they were determined to kill him. The evangelist John writes, “The Jews fetched stones to stone him, so Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from my Father; for which of these are you stoning me?’” Their response was, “We are stoning you, not for doing a good work, but for blasphemy…” (Jn.10:31-32). It is like saying, we are not interested in any of the good works you did, all we know is that we are going to kill you.
Betrayal is a very bitter experience not even when it comes from a friend. The Psalmist says, “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship” (Ps.55:12-14). According to the prophet Jeremiah, “All those who used to be my friends watched for my downfall” (Jer.20:10). Betrayal means giving someone away falsely. It is covered in pretext. In Shakespeare’ s Macbeth, King Duncan trusted Macbeth, his brave and dependable soldier. But Macbeth betrayed and murdered Duncan and became the miserable king of Scotland. In the tragic story of Julius Caesar, Brutus, Caesar’s most trusted and reliable friend was the last of the conspirators to stab Caesar to death. His happiness was hindered for the rest of his life. And for Judas, his life ended as soon as he touched the blood money.
Betrayal happens among friends. It happens among families as well as colleagues, and for several reasons-money, envy, lies, possession, etc. In the era of social media, betrayal has taken a different and somewhat easy fashion. Friends give away friends on Facebook, text message, twitter, email and phone calls. Friends leak secrets entrusted to them by their friends. Friends connive for reasons of money and give away valuable relationships. That is what Judas did. The social media sometimes takes away the emotional attachments and component of friendship. In that sense, people get fixated on their phones and electronic gadgets. They feel nothing for their friends. Judas hung around Jesus but felt nothing for him. Family members interact more with their phones than with their siblings. They are physically present but emotionally removed, so they get attached more to their electronics. People set their close ones up for kidnap, assassination and armed robbery through social media. They pretend.
Like Judas, friends give false kisses, eat with and smile at their friends. They click “like” on Facebook even when they dislike. They click because they want to participate on Facebook, want the friend to see them. Wives give away vital information about husbands on social media. Husbands volunteer vital, confidential information regarding their families. Children give away parents on social media. Close friends betray friends on social media. The passion reminds us of the criminal effects of betrayal. Judas betrayed Jesus, and we condemn him. He had remorse but couldn’t reverse the situation. We might regret what we put on the social media, but the deed is done. If you betray your friend, you live with regrets all your life. If you give away vital information, it torments you perpetually. Let us reflect on betrayal and the sanctity of friendship in our world that lives and breathes on the social media. What do you say about your friend? Where is the emphasis in your friendship? Does it matter to you that someone is hurt when you put out a negative word out there? When we betray others, we betray love. When we betray others, we betray Christ. When we betray others, we act like Judas.