April 5; Palm Sunday; Year A

Palm Sunday 19 20The King who comes in Humility and Silence

Public opinion is a fragile thing, especially for politicians. In a world, where polls often seem to take the place of prophets, the final outcome still remains an open question. You may be leading in the polls, but that doesn’t mean that you would get the most votes when the actual ballots are counted. Likewise, the underdogs should not throw in the towel too prematurely. Who knows? They may emerge as the unsuspected victor.

This is what happened during the first Holy Week. A descendent of David enters the city of Jerusalem and is hailed as king by the crowds but at the end of the week, he is condemned a criminal. At the beginning of the week, he is considered the best candidate, but as the week progresses, as public opinion wanes, he is regarded as the worst. This is reflected in the triumphant tone at the start of our liturgy which slowly evolves into a bitter story of betrayal and rejection. As far as public opinion is concerned, it had turned against this man. It is true that public opinion is a dangerous beast to try and ride, not even kings are safe from its force.

The transition in today’s liturgy reflects these two moments in the “political career” of Jesus. We heard in the gospel reading at the beginning of this liturgy, how the crowds came out to welcome Jesus greeting Him as the Son of David. They gave Him the Messianic title and acclaimed Him as the royal Son of God. Saint Matthew quotes from the prophet Zechariah who in a series of prophecies, tells of the coming of the last king who will be a true prince of peace. He was writing against the memory of failed kings whose inadequacies and vanity had brought about the end of the kingdom of Judah. Zechariah tells the returned exiles from Babylon that the true king will come not as a tyrant robed in power and might, but gentle and humble and riding on a donkey. They had seen enough of powerful rulers in the pagan kings. In other words, he would not seem like a king at all. His coming was to be so discreet that it would be possible to miss it altogether. No pomp and pageantry. This king would be characterised by humility and silence.

Saint Paul reminds us that “Christ Jesus did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, He was humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross.” He could have chosen to descend on the city of Jerusalem arrayed in His divine glory, surrounded by angelic courtiers, but instead, in His humility He chose to be “born of a woman.”(Gal 4:4) In His humility, He shows and manifests His own need for the Father, for the help of others, and for created things. The Creator of all things, who is complete and wholly sufficient, affirms His need for a steed, to ride on His journey into Jerusalem, “The Lord has need...” The King of glory chose to communicate His need for a room to keep the Passover with His disciples. The One who is all knowing, chose to allow one of His own intimate disciples to betray Him. The all-powerful One did not pretend or hide His sadness and distress from His disciples at the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He who had the ready command of twelve legions of angels asked for the company of frail men, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death. Wait here and keep awake with me.”

As Holy Week progresses the contrast between the imperial liturgy that surrounded Caesar, the earthly Lord of the World, and Jesus, the Incarnate Word through whom all things were made, becomes more marked. He is dressed in the parody of the imperial purple. He wears the thorny crown as a mock diadem. He bears the reed as the fake scepter. Pilate presents Him to the crowds for their acclamation and finally He is enthroned on the cross. As his soldiers on a shield raised the emperor at his accession, so Christ is raised on the lofty eminence of the cross. Instead of the crowd of admiring courtiers shouting acclamations of praise, a motely group of frightened and insecure clerics, ruffians and disappointed idealists, shout insults at the foot of the cross. The drama of Holy Week is an exercise in pantomime. The true prince, whom nobody can really see, is present all of the time and his true identity is revealed in the last scene of the drama. The true Kingship of Christ is not revealed during His triumphant entry into Jerusalem with all its fanfare. No, His true Kingship is revealed on the wood of the cross where He willingly hangs in place of the shame and humiliation brought on by our sinfulness.

Earthly powers attempt to emphasise their might and dignity through inflicting ridicule and humiliation on those who oppose them, little do they realise that the joke is on them. It is their pretensions to supremacy that are being held up as vain and empty. Christ, the Lord of Glory, in His humility, questions the foundations on which all earthly power is founded. At the end of the crucifixion scene in Saint Matthew’s Passion, the Centurion ironically declares “in truth this was the Son of God.” The representative of Caesar, standing beneath the throne of the cross acclaims the true king whose identity is now clear for all to see. Christ who submits to the yoke of the cross holds out His arms and says ‘come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest.’ ‘I am gentle and lowly of heart and you will find rest for your souls.’

Jesus Christ remains a central figure of interest for modern man. There isn’t much argument about whether He actually was a historical person, but nearly everything else about His life generates enormous, and sometimes rancorous, debate. Some love Him, others hate Him, some revere Him, others feel ambivalent about Him. Public opinion will always be divided. But our Christian faith is not built on public opinion. Even though we may be constantly under pressure to conform to the standards of the world, Christians should not allow mainstream public opinion, the standards of society, to dictate our conduct or decisions. Our faith is built on the conviction that He is indeed the long-awaited king, the Saviour of the World, “the stone rejected which has become the corner stone.” Things that the world considers foolish, weak, and ignoble, God views as wise, powerful, and honourable. (1 Cor. 1:25-28)

We Malaysians have suffered a double blow. In the face of a growing frightening pandemic unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, we saw a transition in our government through a “back door.” Within a week, we witnessed changing political alliances that seemed to move faster than the speed of light. The way the present government is dealing with the medical crisis and the implementation of the lockdown order have also seen shifting public opinion. One day we think they are doing a good job. Another day, we blame them for all and sundry. How will this all end? We have to admit in all honesty that we do not know. The outcome of this political upheaval is as uncertain as the course this pandemic will take in the coming weeks and perhaps even months.

Though I cannot give you a prediction about our political future or how this pandemic will turn out, I can confidently tell you how the story of Holy Week will end for Jesus. We don’t need political pundits or scientists to tell us how the story will end. We know how the story ends – His supporters will abandon Him, one will betray Him, His enemies will kill Him. But that’s not the real end of the story. His campaign will not end in defeat but in astounding victory. And if we have remained steadfast and faithful to Him, His victory will be ours too!