Sunday, 9 April 2017

Palm Sunday Year A

Readings: Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

Crucifixion was a form of execution devised by human beings to get rid of rebels, thieves, murderers and nuisances. The electric chair, the gas chamber, shooting, beheading, stoning, strangling, poisoning, lethal injection: human beings have used their imaginations to invent many ways for the judicial elimination of other human beings.

Crucifixion has a special place because it involved a slow and painful death for the unfortunate person, as well as maximum value as a public display, and therefore as a deterrent to others. The person was stripped, stretched, totally exposed and vulnerable to the blows, insults, spits and ridicule of onlookers.

Because the cross and the crucified Christ have such a secure place among religious symbols, and in our own religious awareness, it may be that they do not any more seem strange, weird, scandalous, or shocking. We can forget that the cross was an instrument of torture and death, that the crucifix represents a dead human body nailed to wooden beams.

Saint Paul very quickly pointed out that the language of the cross is illogical and paradoxical, a sign of God's foolish wisdom and of God's vulnerable power. Christianity is not a morbid religion which is preoccupied with suffering and death. It is a religion whose heart is love. Because the crucified Christ is all about love, his cross is a symbol of hope. His death is the prelude to new life. As the Easter Liturgy puts it, the tree of death on which he died has become the tree of life for us.

The image of the crucified Christ is venerated, as is the wood of the cross, because they represent the way in which salvation came into our world. The cycle of violence and reprisal, the impossibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, the ever-deepening darkness which can lay hold of sensitive and vulnerable spirits, the apparently inevitable cruelty of the world: all of these things are stopped and broken open by the event of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Here is one who does not respond to violence with violence, and who establishes God's kingdom of long-suffering love. By his wounds we are healed. Here is one who intercedes for forgiveness for those who killed him and who, because he is the Son, thereby reconciles the world to the Father. Here is one who has entered the deepest darkness which can afflict human beings. Here is one who does not summon armies to his aid but offers only the gentleness and compassion of loving: an apparently fragile thing, easily disposed of ... yet vindicated and endorsed by the power of God who is love. This is the human face of God, 'an obstacle', 'a madness', says Saint Paul, 'but to those who have been called, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God'.

We already experience something of this power of the crucified Christ in our own human attempts to love, no matter how poor and imperfect. Love always means opening up to the suffering of the one who is loved, sharing it with him or her, becoming vulnerable to suffering and pain which is not our own. The strength to be vulnerable in that way is strength indeed. It is the strength of the Lamb who was slain but who thereby turned history around, who transformed human experience, who is worthy to receive glory and honour and power.  To love is a wise foolishness and a vulnerable power. It is the only atmosphere in which human beings really flourish.

We are called to take up our own cross and to follow this crucified Christ: Try to imitate God and follow Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as an offering and a sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2).

 

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