When I was a child, I climbed up on a billboard to see a soldier who had returned from an unpopular assignment. We waved flags and cheered. It was thrilling, despite the fact that this hero had come home in disgrace. I was proud that I could say, “I was there; I saw him.” I wonder what the people of Bethphage and Bethany thought as Jesus processed toward Jerusalem. It seems that their enthusiasm would quickly turn to disdain when he was captured, tried and put to death. Hero worship does not seem to enjoy a long shelf life.
We don’t usually think of Jesus as a hero, but hero he is. He is our savior; the one who handed himself over for our sake; the one who was abandoned so that we might belong. Today when the excitement of the parade is over and the waving of the palms ceases, we should spend some time reflecting on the character of our hero. On this first day of Holy Week, we should try to understand why a week of betrayal and denial, of mockery and bloodshed is called holy.
Today’s readings paint pictures of terror and viciousness. Isaiah speaks of a beating and derision; the psalmist staggers under the burden of abandonment and assault; the Gospel describes each excruciating episode of Jesus’ passion. How can such horrors be endured? But they are endured. In fact, for some incomprehensible reason, they appear to be embraced.
Trusting in God, the Isaian hero offers himself to his persecutors, some inner certainty convincing him that he was not disgraced. With lyricism heard through the ages, Paul proclaims that Jesus, our hero, emptied himself and humbly accepted death on the cross. Anticipating his torment, Jesus declared: “Not what I will but what you will.” What is it that empowers people to face unthinkable suffering bravely and unflinchingly? There is only one reason—unconditional love.
Traditionally during Holy Week we focus on the sufferings of Jesus. But it is not suffering, not even the suffering of Jesus, that makes this week holy. Rather, it is holy because of the inexplicable and immeasurable love that prompted that suffering. Genuine love often empowers, even transforms, us. We know that love of family can engender unselfishness, and love of country can inspire heroism. This week we see that driven by love for all, Jesus willingly accepted the consequences of his messianic role.
Today’s readings, like the events of this week, begin with excitement that is electric and unabashed acclaim, but end in numbing devastation and a sense of emptiness. It is too easy to say that the people were fickle, one moment supporting Jesus and the next rejecting him. It was probably more a case of frustrated expectations. They cheered him as the Son of David, and when he failed to act like a conquering king, they turned their backs on him and looked for another. This kind of behavior is not difficult to understand, because unfortunately we too give up on people when they do not meet our expectations.
This week is holy because of love, but it is love misunderstood. Jesus is a hero, but not in the traditional pattern of heroism. He actually looks more like a victim. He is not triumphant as we understand triumph. Instead he appears to be a failure. Judging by one set of standards—standards not unlike those of many people of his day— he has not met our expectations. But according to another standard—the standard of unconditional love—he has far surpassed our expectations.
Parents, lovers, patriots, committed people of every kind often disregard their own desires and comfort for the sake of those they love. Are they heroes? Of course they are! Are they failures? Certainly not! Have they frustrated our expectations? Quite the contrary. We expect them to act out of such personal disregard. Human sacrifice like this gives us an insight into the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus. The love that prompts us to give of ourselves is but a reflection of the magnanimous love of God that in the guise of suffering and death, unfolds before us this week.
The conditions of our world may make us feel that this is a terrible week, not a holy one. But we can change this, if only in some small way. We will make it holy if we can begin to realize the depth of God’s magnanimous love. We will make it holy if we can bring unconditional love into the lives of those around us. We will make it holy if we live according to the paradoxical standards of Jesus who, though disgraced, is still our hero.