Monday, March 25, 2013

A Reason to Live

ElieWiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize-winning peace activist, once said “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Indifference, a lack of concern or a refusal to act, is at the heart of human suffering. With this in mind, another holocaust victim, Saint Maximilian Kolbe (who was murdered at the Auschwitz concentration camp on August 14, 1941), described indifference as “the most deadly poison of our times.” In most cases, it is indifference born of comfort and complacency, that sense that “I shouldn’t get involved” or “it isn’t my business,” that allows injustice, abuse, and neglect to survive and flourish. The idea of an indifferent God (the “Divine Watchmaker” of the Enlightenment) is perhaps the greatest heresy ever dreamt by humankind.

Palm Sunday Procession at Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris
Passion (Palm) Sunday pointedly challenges our penchant for indifference. Marked by both the triumphant procession with palms and the reading of the Passion, this celebration brings together the conflicting values and drives that co-exist within the human heart:

It reminds us that at the moment of what seems to be the height of Jesus’ public acceptance also begins the process of His public betrayal, His public failure, His public abandonment. Only in the mind of God is Jesus any longer a success, it seems… On Palm Sunday, we are forced to remember the distance between apparent public success and personal commitment. Jesus stays the course to the end, we see, and so must we, despite all other pressures, both internal and social, to the contrary. Here in the Passion narrative, we trace the struggle, one scene at a time, between the Word of God and the ways of the world.
-Joan Chittister, O.S.B.,

However tempting it might be to pretend otherwise, there are things worth living for, suffering for, even dying for. The Cuban poet José Marti’s question, “When others are weeping blood, what right do I have to weep tears?” hints at the more essential question, “What is the value of a life that is lived without anything worth dying for?” The inconvenience, unease, and even pain we might feel if we open our hearts and broaden our vision to what is happening in and to the world around us is the only real antidote to the indifference that plagues us. Passion Sunday and Holy Week reveal a God who, in Jesus, is anything but indifferent and who is willing to die for love of His creation. A dear friend, Pastor Bear Waters, has reflected, “Jesus knew what was coming. But he didn’t turn and run. He followed the events through to the end, knowing that some things are more important than one’s own self. Knowing that love is more powerful than fear; and faith, more powerful than doubt.”
These sacred days challenge us to envision a life in which, rather than simply limping along from “mistake” to “mistake,” we take responsibility for our indifference, our poor choices, our sins, and our self-preference and grow in our love and care about what we do to others, to creation, and to our own bodies, psyches, and souls. Living the mystery of the Cross leaves no room for indifference because, as Saint Cyril of Alexandria observed, “Christ’s example of courage in God’s service will be of great profit for us, for only by putting the love of God before our earthly life and being prepared when occasion demands to fight zealously for the truth, can we attain the supreme blessing of perfect union with God” (Commentary on John, 12.19).

Although Palm Sunday’s ability to confront and confound our indifference can be startling and off-putting, the real grace of this celebration (and of Holy Week) is in the opportunity we are given to renew our commitment to life in Christ. Christian Tradition (embodied in the liturgy) understands how quickly we, like the crowd in Jerusalem, can move from crying “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him,” or, even worse, to simple silence. It isn’t by chance that the same palm branches we bless and wave on Palm Sunday become the ashes that are used to mark our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Our experience of Lent allows us to enter into the enthusiasm and drama of Palm Sunday anew each year, hopefully more alive and faith-filled, having not forgotten the symbol of our shame and failure which marked the beginning of our 40 day journey.
More than four centuries ago, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga wrote,
See how the pillars of heaven have fallen… Very many priests and religious think but little of their vocation. How can God suffer longer such a devastation of His Kingdom? The faithful rob Him of honor through their carelessness; who is to make reparation? Woe to the worldly who put off their penance until the hour of their death; and woe to the clergy who slumber on! Such thoughts ought to rouse us from our lethargy and renew our resolution to do penance and to serve God with constancy and sincerity.
Saint Aloysius’ words, although they reflect a theological perspective that may feel very foreign to us, remind us that hard work of conversion and renewed-commitment has been and will continue to be a reality for each one of us. Palm Sunday, anticipating the mysteries we will celebrate during the Paschal Triduum, reminds us where true life can be found. As Pope Francis recently reminded the Cardinal Electors and the Church: "My wish is that all of us, after these days of grace, will have the courage, yes, the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s Cross; to build the Church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the Cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way, the Church will go forward" (Homily, March 14, 2013).

The Lebanese-American poet, Kahlil Gibran (who did not associate himself with any religious tradition) included this prayer for us in his reflection The Crucified:

O, Crucified Jesus, who art looking sorrowfully from Mount Calvary at the sad procession of the Ages, and hearing the clamor of the dark nations, and understanding the dreams of Eternity: Thou art, on the Cross, more glorious and dignified than one thousand kings upon one thousand thrones in thousand empires.
Thou art, in the agony of death, more powerful than one thousand generals in one thousand wars.

With thy sorrows, thou art more joyous than Spring with its flowers.

With thy sufferings, thou art more bravely silent than the crying of angels of heaven. Before thy lashers, thou art more resolute than the mountain of rock.

The wreath of thorns is more brilliant and sublime than the crown of Barham. The nails piercing thy hands are more powerful than the scepter of Jupiter.

The spatters of blood upon thy feet are more resplendent than the necklace of Ishtar.

Forgive the weak who lament thee today, for they do not know how to lament themselves.

Forgive them, for they do not know that thou hast conquered death with death, and bestowed life upon the dead.

Forgive them, for they do not know that they strength still awaits them.

Forgive them, for they do not know that every day is thy day.


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