For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. — The Gospel of Saint John (3:16)
MANY people are content with a regular life and nothing more: steady job, happy family, daily entertainment, weekly worship. If we are among them, we can stop reading now and turn to the latest excitement in the paper, on the air, in the mall, or online. And God understands our contentment with the ordinary, and has forgiven any shortcomings we may have. After all, He forgave those who crucified Him.
But those seeking something more, perhaps the fullness of life and oneness with the Almighty (even those who don’t believe in God), read on.
The title of this article refers to the three paramount days of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, when crowds in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus with palms waved in celebration and cloaks spread on his path in homage; Holy Thursday, when the Lord affirmed His redeeming sacrifice in the Eucharistic rite of turning bread and wine into His Body and Blood; and Good Friday, when Christ was scourged and stripped, mocked and condemned, thorned and nailed for the forgiveness of all our sins and the salvation of the world.
In reflecting on these earth-shaking and heaven-sharing events, we are thankful for the Palm Sunday’s homilies by three priests of Loyola Heights: parish priest Dennis Soriano of Our Lady of Pentecost, and Jesuits Timoteo Ofrasio and Arnel Aquino, who emailed his homily from Boston.
Welcoming the Cross
At his Palm Sunday masses, Fr. Dennis recounted how the morning parish procession included not just the Palaspas tradition of waving palms, but also Paglalatag, the laying of cloaks, shawls and other wraps for the priest to walk on. Thus was reprised how Jews welcomed the donkey-borne Jesus to Jerusalem two millennia ago.
“This week will only be holy for us if, like the people in Jerusalem, we too welcome Jesus with palm branches and cloaks, with hope and joy,” he told mass-goers. Then he dropped the mood spoiler: “Unfortunately, there are people who become afraid to welcome Jesus once they realize that He does not only bring with him grace and blessings, but also the cross. … Jesus demands self-offering, self-giving and self-denial. … But we are assured of hope and joy, because the Lord has been there and back, because the Lord totally gave himself and He found new life.”
In fact, one might add, only by devoting oneself to something beyond oneself, whether kin, community or country; creativity, knowledge, commerce or conquest; that one feels alive and has reason to get up in the morning. And for Christians, that difference between staying alive and being alive is none other than Christ’s call to join him in his mission of salvation.
All fine, except that Jesus’s path of blood, sweat, tears and trouble isn’t one that stirs widespread eagerness. Fr. Tim noted how in the old liturgy before the 1960s Vatican II reforms, “the reading of the Passion was greeted with total silence. There was no homily. Even the concluding acclamation, ‘The gospel of the Lord’, was omitted. On a day like this, it seems and feels like the most eloquent response to the word of God we have proclaimed is silence.”
Everyone needs a scapegoat
“Even the best of homilies could be a distraction from the deep meditation in which many of us find ourselves at the end of the story of the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Fr. Tim ventured to explain the age-old sermon-less mass. Yet for many of us, skipping the homily might have been better for another reason: there’s no point hearing even five minutes of exhortations to self-sacrifice if few actually heed it.
The fact is, the great majority of humanity, Christian or otherwise, are too burdened just making ends meet and coping with daily concerns, to bother with daily prayer, let alone lifetime service. And in this self-serving, sinful world, we are quick to find excuses for falling short of the heroic or saintly ideal.
Fr. Arnel calls them scapegoats: “We babysit a favorite scapegoat, a pet scapegoat. It’s that dad who always withheld fatherly affection. It’s that mom who was a control freak. … we must look outside of ourselves to account for the rut we’re mightily stuck in. In our worst selves, we hunger for a crucifixion. When the scapegoat stops moving, then we can walk away feeling better about ourselves, and quite justified.”
Looking for someone to suffer blame and punishment for our ills is indeed a universal pastime. And guess what: God sent his own son to be our scapegoat.
“He died for us,” Fr. Tim said: “Many of us have heard this phrase so many times that it now carries with it neither the shock of someone dying on account of what we have done, nor the good news of our being delivered from death. For us to hear this message again today as for the first time, the story of a man who literally died for the misdeeds of his brother might help:
“Two brothers lived together in the same house. One night the younger brother runs into the house with a smoking gun and blood-stained clothes. ‘I killed a man,’ he announced. In a few minutes the house was surrounded by police. The elder brother had an idea. He exchanged his clothes with the blood-stained clothes of his killer brother. The police arrested him, tried him and condemned him to death for murder.”
“Only a fool—a scapegoat—would assume upon himself the ills of others,” mused Fr. Arnel, “and very strangely call it ‘no greater love’.” In fact, Christ did far more than just take on our sins. As Fr. Tim explained, “Jesus did not deem His equality with God as something to be grasped at; rather He took the form of a slave for our sake.” And in saving us by totally giving of Himself, Christ points the way for every human being to live life to the full.
Thus, in this week commemorating redemption, we face the singular choice for every human being: fend for ourselves, as every creature has done, or give of ourselves, as our Creator did. I bet even atheists would know which path leads to the fullness for life. Amen.