Pondering the story of Passion Sunday: Lessons for our lives

Passion Sunday calls us to be a little more attentive to what we say about others, what we accept about others … reminding us that there is never a single story about any place, any people, or any person.

Usually, on days like Palm Sunday, it’s not very advisable to preach long homilies because the readings themselves are very long and direct, but….. I would like to present this reflection before Palm Sunday, concerning the big picture of what is going on in this Gospel. As it has so much to teach us in our own lives.

Jesus, the God-made-man, the redeemer of the world, is undergoing his passion. Jesus, the one who opened the eyes of the blind, who healed those who were sick, raised the dead, made the lame walk, and gave food to the hungry, is being treated like a criminal and led to the cross. The people—forgetting what he did or was for them—mocked and laughed at him, accusing him of wanting to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.

A few months ago, during the RCIA session, someone asked if they were the same people that hailed Jesus on Palm Sunday as he entered Jerusalem, who were also present before Pilate shouting: “Crucify him.”(Mk 15:13-14; Lk 23:21) Yes, they were the same people, the very same people.

It is not very surprising to see that they succeeded very well. They used a very powerful strategic tool: the strategy of a single story. The strategy of a single story is a way of portraying someone, or people, as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.

Start the story of America with the arrival of the Christopher Columbus, and not with the lives and history of the Native Americans, and you get an entirely different story. Start the story of Oakland or Richmond or Detroit with how dangerous these places are, and not with the magnificence of the city, or of the bay, or with the early Huchiun tribe that inhabited the city of Oakland, and you get an entirely different story. Start the history of the Catholic Church, or of Christianity, with the sexual abuse scandal, rather than with the life and witnesses of the early Church, and you get an entirely different story. Base the identity of the church on its stance on contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, and not with the love of God, and the dignity and respect of all human beings, from conception to natural death, and you get an entirely different story.

In the minds of the Jewish people, Jesus was a mere man. And yes, the fourth ecumenical council of Chalcedon in 451 made it abundantly clear that Jesus was one with us in humanity. But then, he was also fully God. He manifested this among the people by doing what only God could do: raising the dead, curing the sick, and giving sight to the blind. Even before his birth, Elizabeth had referred to the pregnant Mary as the “Mother of the Lord” (Lk 1:43), thus bearing witness to the child’s divine nature.

While it is so easy to accuse the Jews for contempt against the very person of Christ, it is interesting to note that this unchristian strategy continues to be used today, even by us, whose loyalty to the person of Christ is beyond suspicion or question; we who are “whole-hearted” in our allegiance to Jesus as our Lord; we whose lives are hidden with Christ, and who gladly acknowledge him to be the center of our religious life and worship. The council of Chalcedon in 451 pretty much went a long way to settle the issue about the natures of Christ, yet, our own age is painfully aware of the fact that the problem of the person of Christ continues to baffle many. There are those who emphasize the humanity of Christ with little or no recourse to his divinity, and those who emphasize his divinity with little or no recourse to his humanity, thereby falling into the “danger of a single story” approach. To an extent, we can call it the fight between the extreme liberals who advocate “unrecognizable continuity,” and the extreme conservatives who advocate “stale repetition.”

The need to make a careful balance, due to the never-ending strife between an exclusive “repetition approach,” and an exclusive “continuity approach,” is something that we cannot deny, and still hold claim to the truth. We cannot just cling to traditional ways with no recourse to the present age, and, at the same time, the present age can never be the only determining factor. While we try to bring a 21st century approach to our 2000 year old faith, we cannot afford to engage in a complete deconstruction of our Christian heritage, and the things we hold so dear.

The history of our salvation is one history; one continuous history, that cannot be split to fit our current course. Engaging in the whole, and nothing but the whole, is the duty of all Christians. Failing to engage in the whole story suddenly makes us no different from those Jewish people for whom Jesus had ceased being the one who fed them when they were hungry, and healed them when they were sick, to being that man, and only that man, who “disobeyed” the Jewish laws.

It is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of their dignity. It dehumanizes the other, emphasizing how we are different, rather than how we are similar. Those who delight in blackmail, hate, gossip, euthanasia, abortion, obstinate heresies, oppression, racism, and marital infidelity always make use of the strategy of a single story.

What if the crowd had remembered the wondrous things that Jesus did among the people? What if they took into consideration how he fed the thousands who were hungry? (Jn 6:1-15; Mt 14:13-21; Lk 9:10-17; Mk 6:31-44). What if they took into consideration the times he preached so well that people exclaimed: “Never before has anyone spoken like this man?” (Jn.7:46). What if they had expressed their anger against him, and, at the same time, noted that he was a good man, with powers to heal and do miracles, that even the waters and the wind obey him?(Jn 8:27).

Even though stories have a way of dispossessing and maligning others, stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. The resurrection narratives, the testimony of the women, and the preaching and witness of the apostles and prophets, (old and contemporary) are good examples of how stories can be used in a constructive way. The things we say about others, and the way we act towards them, can undermine their dignity. But stories can also repair the broken dignity of people by engaging in the whole, and nothing but the whole, story.

The reading for Palm Sunday and the mysteries of Holy Week, bring to light the danger of a single story, demonstrating for us how impressionable, and how vulnerable, we are in the face of a story. Passion Sunday calls us to be a little more attentive to what we say about others, what we accept about others, and it reminds us that there is never a single story about any place, any people, or any person. May God free us from temptation—the temptation of a single story.

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avatar About Fr. Benedict B. Ehinack, STL

Fr. Benedict B. Ehinack was ordained a priest on May 22, 2010. He holds a B.A. in sacred theology conferred by the Pontificia Academia Sancti Thomae Aquinatis (Angelicum) in Rome, through the faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, Michigan. He also holds an M.A. in theology, a M.A. in Divinity from the same institution, and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California. He is presently working on both a Certificate in contextual ministry, and on a doctoral dissertation in patristic theology at the Jesuit school. He is a priest in residence at St. Benedict Church, Oakland, California.

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