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Palm Sunday, Year A, 05.04.20: Defenceless for a Purpose


From the beginning of the First Reading, right through the Second Reading and the whole of the Passion according to St. Matthew, Jesus seems totally defenceless, vulnerable, helpless: “I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard.” When Peter takes out his sword to cut off the ear of Malchus, the Hight Priest’s servant, Jesus promptly tells him to put the sword away and reminds Peter that, if He wanted to be defended, He could call on more than twelve legions of angels to come and help him. He didn’t need Peter! During his public ministry, on many occasions people wanted to arrest or otherwise lay hands on Jesus, yet he was perfectly capable of looking after himself.

At each step of the Passion, Jesus is a sitting duck, and He allows Himself to be that, as if he were inviting people to capture and murder him. He doesn’t even defend Himself in front of Pilate or Caiaphas, until, that is, these two eventually put to Jesus the two key questions He was waiting for. These are the only times that Jesus speaks to His accusers, and promptly incriminates Himself in doing so. Pilate put to Him the key political question, “are you the king of the Jews?”, whilst Caiaphas put to Him the key religious question, “are you the Christ, the son of God?” To both questions, Jesus answers yes, knowing He would be condemned to death.

The prophet Jeremiah’s image of the innocent lamb being led to the slaughter only partly captivates Jesus. He is an innocent Lamb and He is being led to the slaughter, but He is also perfectly aware of what He is doing. In fact, it seems clear that He had now come to the conscious decision that the time to fulfil His mission from the Father, or His “hour”, had now come. This decision is given its finishing touches at the only point in the whole of the Passion where it would seem that Jesus was struggling, prayerfully, between His human will’s revulsion at what was coming and the divine will’s calm determination to proceed. In other words, during His prayer in Gethsemane. “If it’s possible, Father, let this cup pass me by.” Yet, each of the three times He makes this prayer He ends by saying, “not what I want, but what You want.”

So, what’s happening here? We can bemoan the sufferings of Jesus, and rightly, because our piety is offended, our love for Him makes us want to weep for what happens to Him. It’s only right that we should feel that way because we believe and hope in Him. And so we are tearing out what hair we have left trying to understand why He had to go through all that. Could not have God brought about our salvation in some other way? We might feel like lifting our fist to God and asking, “why? Why the suffering? Your own Son?!”

And here we face the will, the wisdom, the plan of God the Father. It’s because of Christ’s total and utter surrender to the will of His Father that He endures whatever is sent to Him. He seems defenceless, and is defenceless, in certain types of things like the violence of men, the calumny, the way he is mistreated and mischaracterised, and so on. But Christ’s eye is on the goal. His eye is not ultimately on the Cross or on the sepulchre. He endured these, as the letter to the Hebrews says, because of the joy which awaited Him beyond them. And that goal of joy consisted not only of His own individual resurrection but on the entire redemption of the whole of the cosmos and of the entirety of the human race from Adam and Eve to the last person in history to be conceived in the womb. That’s the goal. And He will endure whatever it takes for it to be achieved.

If we were to understand why the suffering was necessary, we would necessarily be equal to or greater than God. We cannot comprehend the ways of God. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” The minute we think we have caught on to the ultimate explanation of God’s ways of doing things, then, like a slippery bar of soap, we will lose it straight away. The will of God is to be obeyed. The will of God is to be adored. The will of God is to be loved. The will of God is to be sought because in that will is our ultimate peace and salvation and escape from sin and death and from suffering.

So, Jesus is only apparently defenceless. He knows the bigger and final picture. And here is where it can interface with our situation today in the world. I am not saying for a moment that the current pandemic is the dispositive will of God, that He positively decreed it to happen. What I am saying is that, within the Passion of Jesus Christ is the only place in which we can in any way begin to find meaning to this terrible pandemic and its suffering. And as we know, it is not the only pandemic there has ever been and it probably won’t be the last. And it’s not the only suffering there is. Our hospitals are filled with people suffering from all kinds of things. Our homes are filled with people suffering from other kinds of problems. I myself, you, we all have our sufferings of one kind or another. We must work at overcome all suffering. We must invest and investigate and do all that has to be done to receive the suffering in others and in ourselves. This is one of the corporal works of mercy.

But there is always going to be an inscrutable element in suffering, that we are never going to get our heads round, especially when it is innocent suffering, when it is the slaughter of the innocents, when it’s the suffering of those who have done nothing to merit a war or abortion or any of the other ways that innocent people are killed every day. Only from within the passion and cross of Christ can we begin to find some sense that this will not end in catastrophe and annihilation, but that there is something more to this. And the answer we will begin to understand will not be understood with our heads. It won’t be some magic formula of words that will suddenly explain everything. No, the answer will be grasped by experience, by living through the suffering with trusting heart in the suffering Christ. The big questions in life are rarely answered by words or concepts. It is the heart that intuits and uncovers these answers. We have all had occasion to hear someone say something as the result of experience which, at the time, we didn’t understand – until, that is, we experience it ourselves.

“By his wounds we are healed.” Of course it will be medicine which will heal the physical wounds of our bodies, but the deepest wounds of our humanity are only healed in the sufferings of Christ. Only from within Christ, only by placing ourselves in Him, can we find an “interpretation” and a way forward in our individual suffering, in our collective suffering and, indeed, in our understanding of death itself.

So, if you feel defenceless and helpless at the moment, it is a terrible thing to feel; but you are in good company. You are in the company of Christ Himself. He has gone through much worse than us. And one day, when it’s all over, the truth of that will become manifest to you and the joy you will then have will far surpass the sufferings that you feel at this moment. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to help each other now. Of course we do. But to find our way through it in a way that will give us peace and hope of victory, we must look to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and its eternal blossoming in the resurrection of the dead. That is why he became defenceless. That is the goal of history.