The Word Embodied
“Jesus was to die for the nation.” (John 11:51)
Palm Sunday, now called Passion Sunday, is an uneasy union of names. Is it the day of Jesus’ victorious procession into Jerusalem, recalled by our parades of palm leaves? Or is it the day of his disastrous downfall?
It is both. For the great triumphant procession of palms as well as the betrayed allegiances of the human heart are both woven into the Passion and death of Jesus.
The liturgy of Passion Sunday is a collision of themes: glorious hosannas and somber omens. Isaiah promised a servant of God who would have a “face set like flint” to brave the pummeling, spit, and ridicule. Paul’s lovely hymn in Philippians is one of triumph—“every knee should bend in heaven and earth and every tongue confess”—but only after disgrace and ignominious death.
It goes unnoticed, for the most part, that the inescapable context of the Passion is a national, tribal, and political struggle. The betrayals are always hatched in the presence of looming authorities who seduce the betrayer—the Judas, the Peter, the disciple in us. You cannot avoid the sense that there is some profound geopolitical strife going on here. The stage is set for armed violence, the raised sword in the cause of right. There are secret police and public meetings of high priests, governors, assemblies. There are political prisoners. Finally, there is a crisis of authority. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Are you the king of Christians? Are you the king of Catholics?
They are questions that history poses not only to Christ, but to all who follow him. What would be our answer? Who or what is the real object of our allegiance?
In the Gospel Reading from the Saturday prior to every Passion/Palm Sunday, we behold the crisis of allegiance that the people of Jesus’ time faced. In that Gospel Jesus is condemned by a logic of self-defense and corporate survival. Chief priests and high councils are threatened by Jesus and his way. He is a menace to national and religious interests. Note the language: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come in and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Caiaphas, that “realistic” murmur of expedience in all our hearts, advises us: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
From this telling statement rises the suspicion that the crisis of Palm Sunday is the crisis of every epoch and culture. We are torn between Christ and tribe, between casting our allegiance with him or with the nation, between the king’s call and safety’s comfort.
From Rwanda to Northern Ireland, from Bosnia to Guatemala City, from Johannesburg to Washington, the great contemporary struggle of faith is its clash with nationalism and tribalism. Under every moral crisis lurks a dread that if we ever fully followed Jesus, we would lose our holy privilege and our clannish protections. In Jesus’ time, he was rejected and condemned for reasons of national security So he is today.
So he was rejected throughout history—when Christianity seized the mighty throne of Europe, when missionaries blessed the search for gold and turned their shamed eyes away from torture, when good Christians prayed for their slaves, their just wars, their blessings of property and plunder.
Christians may not feel the full impact of Passion week because they fail to see that Jesus Christ is still betrayed for the sake of safe religion and an imperious tribe or nation.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University