40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, 28 March 2021 Isaiah 50:4-7 + Philippians 2:6-11 + Mark 14:1-15:47
For the second straight year, we are again celebrating our holiest week in the most unholy time of our lives in this COVID-19 pandemic. The timing could not escape everybody’s suspicion of something so sinister, if not diabolic, that religious gatherings are again limited.
But on a closer look and deeper reflection, we find what is happening right now is something similar with what Jesus went through that made these days so holy.
Notice that the official designation of our celebration today is “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” when Vatican II fused the two earliest preparations by the Church for Easter: the palm procession by Christians at Jerusalem in the fourth century and the proclamation of the long gospel of the Passion of the Lord in Rome by the Pope in the fifth century.
Both ancient celebrations set our sights to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus beginning this Sunday stretching it through this whole week to remind us of the triumph and tragedy, of darkness and light, of death and life. These contrasts shall be most pronounced when we enter the Triduum of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection on Holy Thursday evening, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.
Then everything becomes light and pure joy in Easter!
And the key to understanding, appreciating, and deeply imbibing the meaning of all these confluences of mixed emotions and feelings, colors and hues like our situation while under this time of the corona is to have the same attitude of Jesus Christ expressed so beautifully by St. Paul in our second reading:
Have among yourselves the same attitude (mind) that is also yours in Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.Philippians 2:5-8
The mind and heart of Jesus Christ
Having the mind and heart of Jesus Christ is opening ourselves to the Father by trying to see everything in his light as we go through life especially during this pandemic. It is what Jesus has always reminded us of “reading the signs of the times”.
God is telling us something in this pandemic but we are not listening to him as we continue to see it as a medical and social issue, refusing to recognize its spiritual and moral implications. In a lot of senses, this pandemic and quarantine we are undergoing is similar with situation when Jesus entered Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago when Israel under Roman rule and life was so difficult but nobody recognized him as the Christ and Savior!
In his entire life here on earth, Jesus always saw everything in the light of his Father in heaven. He never got involved into politics and other temporal concerns or subject but throughout the course of history since then until now, his teachings remain relevant in addressing our social issues and problems.
Seeing things and events in our lives and history in the light of God demands that we have the same attitude of Jesus of opening ourselves to be empty of our pride, of our plans and agenda, of our self-interests as well as of our illusions and insecurities in life.
We will never see God nor find him when we are filled with our selves, especially with our bloated egos when we think we know everything, when we presume we are always right, when we play gods.
Like the people who welcomed Jesus entered Jerusalem holding palms, singing “Hosanna in the highest!”, soon we would also be shouting “Crucify him!” unless we get emptied of ourselves and be filled with God.
St. Paul could eloquently present the mind and heart of Jesus in this beautiful hymn because he himself went through a process of kenosis, of self emptying. He had experienced in himself how when Jesus emptied himself and went down to his lowest point obediently accepting death on the cross, that is also when he was at his closest union with the Father who raised him to his highest glory at Easter.
That is why St. Paul called it the “scandal of the cross” for when we empty ourselves and offered everything to God out of love for him and for others that we are willing to go down to our lowest point in life, that is when God raises us up to “meet” him, to be one in him that miracles begin to happen, when things change for the best not only for us but also for others and those around us.
Hence, while we are in the most unholy period of our history, the Lord is giving us every chance to have the holiest Holy Week of our lives by examining our very selves in this time of quarantine to cleanse and empty ourselves of sins and evil to be filled with God of his holiness and grace through Christ’s cross.
The logic of the Cross
As we go to another Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) or lockdown like last year, I am convinced that while we are sad at how things are going on, it is actually God who is most “sad” of all as we go through all these pains and difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
God cannot suffer because he is perfect; but, he can suffer with us that is why he sent his Son Jesus to become human like us to join us in all our sufferings including death and thus, “console” us in Christ.
“To console” is from the Latin terms “con” (with) + “solatio” (solace/comfort) that means not only to comfort or delight those in suffering but to also “strengthen” or make strong those weakened by trials and difficulties which is the literal meaning of cum fortis, with strength.
And here lies the “logic” of Christ’s Cross: Jesus died by the hatred of others so that we may live again by his love. Only God can give us the evidences of his love to render us capable through Jesus Christ to forge on amid our pains and sufferings, hoping against all hope that love is always stronger than suffering, death, and sin.
When we persevere in our sufferings, especially in silence for the sake of others out of love, imitating the self-emptying of Jesus, that is when God showers us with more of his love and mercy, strength and vigor to overcome everything in Christ.
This he had promised and fulfilled in Christ who is the “Suffering Servant” we heard in the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah:
The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. 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.Isaiah 50:4-7
See how everything Isaiah had written was fulfilled in Jesus as we heard in the gospel today when at the praetorium “They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. They began to salute him with, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him. They knelt before him in homage” (Mk.15:17-19). It went on up to the calvary when “They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it. Then they crucified him…” (Mk.15:23-24).
In my reflections this Lent, I have been dwelling lately on tenderness and compassion as mercy of God in action, as mercy of his hands. To be tender and compassionate is to be one with the suffering even if you are suffering too – just like our medical frontliners who risk not only their very lives but even their families.
Last Friday I was asked to give a talk via webinar about development of compassionate teachers and staff at Our Lady of Fatima University where I serve as chaplain. A doctor asked if there is such a thing as “over compassion” wherein she can already feel chest pains in seeing and hearing all the sufferings of their patients in this time of the pandemic.
I was so touched by her question because I felt it too; I told her she is not alone feeling that way when I also feel overwhelmed with the sufferings of the people but cannot do so much. I told her it is a grace to feel that way, that she had to find ways how her mercy in the heart can flow to mercy of the hands while ensuring safety protocols as a doctor.
But that is where the grace of God works fullest, when we believe and trust more in Jesus Christ when the chips are already down, when we feel defeat is inevitable that we just surrender everything to Divine grace and intervention.
That is the meaning of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion when we see life in its total weakness and even wreak, whether in our selves or among others, and yet we continue to persevere, to hope against hope because deep in us we know God is with us, God is working in us, and God will save us.
French poet Charles Péguy wrote in one of his great poems at the turn of the century that hope is God’s favorite virtue because “hope surprises him”.
Péguy described hope like the end of a play or a movie in our time; we know the show had ended but we stay on refusing to leave the theater because we believe that something is still coming up like a preview or a surprise scene!
See how St. Mark tells us at the end of his Passion Story when everything was so dark after Jesus had died when “he breathed his last” that the centurion standing there believed that “Truly this man is the Son of God!” (Mk.15:39)
Sometimes in life, God becomes clearest and most truest when we have lost everything, including what is most precious and dearest to us.
Have a heart with a lot of faith, hope and love that this may be the holiest Holy Week in our lives because it is the most unholy period in our history like when Jesus entered Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago. Amen.
Keep safe, be blessed, and be a blessing to others!