PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION
A look at the Cross: Love, Humility & Patience
One of our greatest theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, taught that meditating on our Lord’s passion gives powerful example of how we are called to act. I choose three items from Thomas’ list for my meditation on Jesus’ suffering and death: love, humility and patience.
I recently came across a quote from Allan Boesak, who was a South African clergyman and one of the leading spokesmen against the country’s policy of racial separation or apartheid. Boesak said, “We will all go before God to be judged, and God will ask us, “Where are your wounds?” And we will say, “We have no wounds, Lord.” And God will then ask, “Was nothing worth fighting for?”
I was intrigued by this depiction of our final judgment in light of an interesting fact about Easter according to the Gospel of John. “On the evening of that first day of the week, even though the disciples had locked the doors of the place where they were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood before them. “Peace be with you,” he said. When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side” (John 20:19-20). In other words the risen Jesus, who now was beyond the normal ravages of suffering and death, in what we have come to call a “glorified body,” still had his wounds. As a matter of fact, a week later when he comes back, he says to the absent “doubting” Thomas, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe!” Thomas said in response, “My Lord and my God!” He had told the others unless he saw the wounds, there was no way he would believe that it was Jesus. The wounds were a kind of “passport” for Thomas to enter a state of belief and to accept that the crucified one had indeed risen.
“Was nothing worth fighting for?” Boesak’s God asks at the judgment. It was a question Jesus had struggled with himself, in the now famous scene of the agony in the garden. “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.” In the end, however, his answer was yes: “Still, let it be as you would have it, not as I” (see Matthew 26:36-46).
In one of my favorite scenes from the Disney film, Frozen, Anna, who is gradually experiencing the ravages of a frozen heart, is brought in front of a blazing fire by Olaf, the magically created snowman. Anna cries out, “Olaf, get away from there; you’re melting.” Olaf’s memorable answer is, “Some people are worth melting for”—which, if you think about it, is the equivalent of “worth dying for”, for that’s basically what melting means in this case. Later, when Anna admits that she really doesn’t know what love means, Olaf says, “That’s OK, because I know: love means putting another’s interests ahead of your own.” Whenever, I discuss this beautiful film I always say that Olaf was the brains of the outfit. And he had heart, believing that people, because of love, were worth melting/dying for.
Jon Meacham, the American historian, who has also authored several books related to faith, in a recent book about Jesus’ seven last words on the cross, has a beautiful reflection on the meaning of the cross, which he sees as “a reminder that at the center of the Christian story lies love, not hate; grace, not rage; mercy, not vengeance.”
Some years ago the wealthy industrialist Charles Schwab shared some wisdom that came from long experience. “Nine-tenths of my troubles are traceable to my being kind to others. Look, you young people, if you want to steer away from trouble, be hard-boiled. Be quick with a good loud ‘no’ to anyone and everyone. If you follow this rule, you will seldom be bothered as you tread life’s pathways. Except you’ll have no friends, you’ll be lonely and you won’t have any fun!” Schwab had learned from both his career and his personal life that, if we open our hearts in tenderness and love, there will be a lifetime of little, daily hurts, as well as some monumental pain. In other words, love will give you wounds.
Jesus, prior to his crucifixion, had pointed out that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I am reminded of the supreme sacrifice in times of war, when a soldier would lie down on a live grenade, using his body to shield his buddies from suffering and possible death. There is no “greater love”. In small and large ways, in mundane and heroic ways, the risk of love can cause wounds. Both Charles Schwab and Jesus Christ experienced wounds because, as Olaf reminds us, some people are worth melting for, and as John Meacham reminds us, at the center of the Christian story lies love, and not hate.
The second reading for Palm Sunday is taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, 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 the point of death, even death on a cross” (see Phil. 2:6-11).
I am reminded of the story of an internationally known organist who was performing a concert on a huge, antique organ. The bellows that provided the air for the pipes were hand-pumped by a boy who was behind a screen, unseen by the audience. The first part of the performance was well received. The boy came over to the organist and said, “We played well, didn’t we?” The organist haughtily replied, “And what do you mean, ‘we’?” After the intermission, the organist began to play again, but no sound came forth from the pipes. Then the organist heard a youthful voice whisper from behind the screen, “Say mister, now do you know what ‘we’ means?”
The organist’s ego had become inflated like the bellows providing air for the organ’s massive pipes. He evidently had considered equality with the gods something to be grasped at. Can you imagine his panic when he started to play and no sound was produced? Perhaps, when he looked at the cross in that beautiful old church, he appreciated Jesus’ humility in a new way.
In the famous passage about love, St. Paul writes, “Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not jealous, it does not put on airs, it is not snobbish…Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure” (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
“Love is patient.” An anonymous letter I came across represents the need for patience from the perspective of a small child.
My hands are small. Please don’t expect perfection whenever I make a bed, draw a picture, or throw a ball. My eyes have not seen the world as yours have. Please let me explore it at my own level without unnecessary restrictions. Housework will always be there, but I will be little only for a short time. Please take time to explain about this wonderful world. My feelings are tender. Please be sensitive to my needs. Treat me as you would like to be treated. I am a special gift from God. Treasure me as God intended, holding me accountable for my actions, giving me guidelines to live by and disciplining me in a loving manner. I need your encouragement to grow, so go easy on the criticism. Try to correct my behavior without criticizing me as a person. Give me the freedom to make decisions. Permit me to fail so I can learn from my mistakes. Don’t do jobs over that I have done. This makes me feel that my efforts don’t quite measure up to your expectations. I know it’s hard, but please don’t compare me with my brother or sister. Please set a good example by taking me to church and religious education regularly. I enjoy learning more about God.
I would suspect that this passage was not written by a five-year old, and that the last part might have come from someone responsible for the faith formation of children. But I offer this passage especially to those who are exasperated by the effects of social distancing and quarantine. Being stuck together can strain the patience of just about anyone, and, oddly enough, especially by those we care about the most. At times, love is not easy. At times, it doesn’t come spontaneously. True love takes work and comes at a price. True love, and all that is worth fighting for, can leave wounds—just as it did on the One who died on the cross.
St. Paul reminds us that when our lives are stripped down to the basics, “there are in the end three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” Wounds and all.