Fr. Roger J. Landry
April 6, 2012
During his Palm Sunday homily, with his characteristic candor, comprehension, clarity, and courage, Pope Benedict led the Church to the Heart not only of Holy Week but also of the Christian faith and life itself.
After tracing the crescendo of Messianic expectation that accompanied Jesus on His ascent to Jerusalem, Pope Benedict described how that enthusiasm reaches fever pitch as people began to lay their coats on the street for Jesus to pass them riding on a colt in fulfillment of Zechariah’s messianic prophecy and to exclaim, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” They were festively acclaiming Jesus as the new King, as the Messiah sent by God to reestablish His kingdom.
The problem, however, was that most were acclaiming an idol of their own imagination rather than Jesus as the real Messiah and King. Pope Benedict probingly queried, “What is really happening in the hearts of those who acclaim Christ as King of Israel?” He replied: they had “their own idea of the Messiah, an idea of how the long-awaited King promised by the prophets should act.” He would be a political liberator who would free them from the power of the Romans and reestablish the Davidic reign. When He didn’t live up to the expectations of the straw man Messiah they had imagined, they turned Him into a punching bag. “Not by chance,” Pope Benedict noted, “a few days later, instead of acclaiming Jesus, the Jerusalem crowd will cry out to Pilate: ‘Crucify Him!,’ while the disciples, together with others who had seen Him and listened to Him, will be struck dumb and will disperse.” The reality is, the pope declared, that “the majority was disappointed by the way Jesus chose to present Himself as Messiah and King of Israel.”
The enthusiastic people in the crowds on Palm Sunday were not the only ones disappointed by Jesus and mistaken about what the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom would bring. The Apostles were as well. During the Last Supper, right after Jesus described how one of them would betray Him, the Apostles somewhat shockingly started to argue about which of them should be regarded as the greatest. As had happened many times in Jesus’ public ministry, the Apostles, too, had been looking toward Jesus’ kingdom in temporal terms, hoping to have the choicest portions of what they predicted would be sizeable spoils. Jesus corrected them and called them to a different standard.
Together with the unforgettable example of doing the service of a slave by washing their feet, Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; … but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the least, and the leader as the servant. … I am among you as the One Who serves.” His kingdom would be defined not by thrones but by towels and the greatest would be those who followed His example of serving others to the point of giving themselves as a ransom to save others’ lives. That notion disappointed Judas Iscariot so much that he ended up trying to sell Jesus for what he could get for Him. It also bewildered the other 11 so much that no matter how many times Jesus sought to describe the real kingdom He was coming to introduce, they just couldn’t fathom it.
Grasping Jesus as He presents Himself as Messiah and King, Pope Benedict stressed, “is the heart of today’s feast for us, too.” It’s not enough for us to answer the question Jesus posed in Caesarea Philippi — “Who do you say that I am? — as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We also need to have a true sense of what it means to be the Messiah and Son of God.
That, Pope Benedict said, leads to a “crucial question one cannot avoid,” namely, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth for us? What idea do we have of the Messiah? What idea do we have of God?” The Jesus who calls us to follow Him is a “King Who chooses His Cross as His throne,” he continued. “We are called to follow a Messiah who promises us, not a facile earthly happiness, but the happiness of Heaven, divine beatitude.” That leads us to ask, especially on this Good Friday on which we behold Jesus crucified, “What are our true expectations? What are our deepest desires?” Do we similarly have false expectations such that we, like so many of those on the first Palm Sunday, will end up disappointed?
Jesus had not come as a terrestrial conquering superhero. The kingdom He had come to establish He elucidated in His response to Pontius Pilate’s question, “Then you are a king?,” which we will hear in our churches today on Good Friday. Jesus declared, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.”
Pope Benedict XVI comments about this dialogue in his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth, Part II”: “With these words Jesus created a thoroughly new concept of kingship and kingdom, and He held it up to Pilate, the representative of classical worldly power.” In contrast to worldly force, Jesus proposed truth: “Dominion demands power; it even defines it. Jesus, however, defines as the essence of His kingship witness to the truth.” Jesus came to testify to the truth, which Pope Benedict says means “giving priority to God and to His will over against the interests of the world and its powers.” Jesus declares that God — not physical force — is the fundamental reality of life.
“In this sense,” the pope continues, “truth is the real ‘king’ that confers light and greatness upon all things. … If man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger. ‘Redemption’ in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth’s becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history. Truth is outwardly powerless in the world, just as Christ is powerless by the world’s standards: He has no legions; He is crucified. Yet in His very powerlessness, He is powerful; only thus, again and again, does truth become power.” The center of Jesus’ message, Pope Benedict writes, “is the kingdom of God, the new kingship represented by Jesus,” and this kingdom is “centered on truth” all the way to the Cross and to the inscription above the Cross. This message of His true kingship, which was initially proclaimed in parables and then quite openly before Pilate, is “none other than the kingship of truth.” The pope says that the inauguration of this kingship of truth “is man’s true liberation.”
Therefore, to hail Jesus, to acclaim Him as king, to follow Him and to enter into His kingdom, is to receive the witness to the truth He gives us for our liberation, to live in that truth, and to seek to bring others to that same liberation and kingdom by helping them to receive and remain in the truth. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” he says. Truth — not merely as a conceptual reality but incarnated in Jesus and those who hear His voice — is the key that opens the door to the kingdom. In the midst of a relativistic age that continues to echo Pontius Pilate’s skeptical question, “What is truth?,” the acceptance of the real Jesus and the truth to which He bears witness is the challenge of our age. Just as in Jesus’ day, many would prefer another type of Messiah to the one Jesus really is: one who is domesticated, who doesn’t mention moral truths we don’t like, who doesn’t call us to convert from sins to which we’re attached, who doesn’t insist on dying in order to pay the price for our “peccadilloes,” who doesn’t insist on the importance of the Church He founded as the continuance of His presence and mission of truth and love, and who doesn’t call us to deny ourselves, pick up our own crosses and follow Him all the way to Calvary.
But this is the Jesus Who entered the Holy City on Palm Sunday. This is the Jesus Who pierced the clouds on the Ascension. This is the Jesus Whom we must follow to enter into His kingdom.