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Palm Sunday, Year B

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
And for His death
they thirst and cry.

We began our celebration today at the front door of the church in a spirit of exultation. We literally hosanna-ed Jesus in. His entry into Jerusalem was seen as triumphant. Everyone had heard of his miracles of healing, multiplying bread and raising the dead. Their conviction was that the Messiah had come. He would create and govern a people that would never get sick (his miraculous healing powers), never get hungry (he produces bread at will) and never die (he calls them back to life).

This Messiah they expected was, however, one based on their own needs and wants. And those needs and wants were all earthly, indeed political: they wanted their Messiah to throw out the Romans. They wanted a heaven on earth. So, their hosannas were more a collective expression of selfishness. They reflected a selective reading of Jesus. They “spun” the narrative around him to suit their prejudices. Their selective reading of Jesus was the logical conclusion of their selective reading of what we call the Old Testament. They “edited out” the bits they did not like.

They turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the full message of Jesus, as their forebears had done to the message of the prophets. Indeed, as Adam and Eve had done to the command of God. Certainly, they exalted the Law, but they first hijacked it to make it mean what they wanted it to mean. Had they been really listening to Jesus, they would have heard him rip them for emptying the Law of its meaning. And they did the same with the Sabbath and even with the Temple. They conveniently forgot that Jesus had accused them of violating the purpose of the Sabbath, as they also forgot that he had angrily expelled the corrupt market held inside the Temple.

Most of all, however, they pretended not to hear Jesus’ words about who he was, or his actions of forgiving sins, which only God can do. They wanted his miracles, but not the reason for which he performed them – which was not to establish heaven on earth but to draw their hearts to believe in his divinity.

And the Jewish establishment itself would have let matters go had it not been for their jealousy. If Jesus had put his miracle-making powers at the service of the establishment, and not threatened their comfortable and wealthy position or their power, they would probably have welcomed him with open arms. They would have put his criticism of them down to the madness typical of a prophet. But, alas, it did not work out that way. They saw Jesus as a threat to their human reinvention of Judaism and thus to their privileges and pride. They saw that he had the crowd with him, a crowd which resented and detested them. So, they had to take him out.

And it is this jealousy which led, within a matter of days, to the transformation of the hosannas into that other cry of “crucify him.” In a scurrilous and underhand way, they trap him. They trump up charges which could never have stuck. It is the fidelity of Jesus to his own identity and mission which gives them the ace card. He admits openly before them, as he had done in increasingly clearer terms throughout his public ministry, that he is the Son of God. The spin that tried to make him a political Messiah is suddenly unspun. The disillusioned expectations turn all the more angrily to visceral condemnation. The palms are exchanged for a reed; the laurels for thorns; the cries of son of David for those of son of the Devil; the exclamation of Messiah for the accusation of criminal blasphemer; the hands reaching out to touch him for fists desperate to strike him; the throne they would have given him as king for the gibbet of the cross.

But it was not just the Jewish people or the Romans who did not want the Son of God. The sinful tendency in every human being either only wants a God cut to suit personal opinions and preferences or no God at all. Sin closes us into an outlook on life, on self and on everything else, which will not, and eventually cannot, let God in for fear that God will tell us who we really are. And the fear is irrational, no matter how cleverly it is rationalized away, because who we really are is not who we think we are or who we want to be according to our own lights. No, who we really are, and the understanding of that, is a gift. Who we really are is who God created us to be and to become. It is his light alone which can reveal to us who we are. Only in the encounter with Christ does a person discover the full truth of who they are.

What Christ sought then and seeks now is that we become vulnerable to him. He stands at the door of our entire personal reality and knocks; he desires that we open and let him in so that he can “sup with us”, that is, enter into deep and intimate union with us. The way we think of ourselves and know ourselves can be so restricted and restrictive. How we see ourselves is often marred or even blinded by things that have happened to us. From sailing in the open sea of self-knowledge, we can so easily run aground trying to go up narrow inlets. Christ is that ocean. Allowing him access to our hearts opens up our awareness and understanding of everything, not least of our own very dear selves. Our potential is eternal, but only the Eternal himself can bring us to its realization.

As we know, the rejection of Jesus was itself foreseen by the prophets. It was foreseen by the Providence of God. And so, to fulfil his desire to open to us the ocean of his mercy, life and love, God himself turned that very rejection into the means of victory. By dying, he destroyed our death. By rising, he restored our life. You could say that the call to “crucify him” became the very means to restore the cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

Alas, however, a person’s rejection of Christ does not mean that that rejection will become that person’s victory. We all stand before the Cross with a decision to take. Either we let him in, or we don’t. Either we cry, “crucify him” or “hosanna.” The real drama of this week is not Christ’s, since he has won. No, it is yours and mine. The open ocean beckons.