Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shamed No More: The Triumphant Entrance of Christ

Sunday, April 20, 2008: ENTRY OF OUR LORD INTO JERUSALEM (Palm Sunday). Ven. Theodore Trichinas ("the Hair-shirt Wearer"), Hermit, near Constantinople. Ven. Alexander, Abbot of Oshevensk (1479). Child Martyr Gabriel of Bialystok (1690). Ss. Gregory (593) and Anastasius the Sinaite (599), Patriarchs of Antioch. Ven. Anastasius, Abbot of Sinai (695).

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said,Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always. Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus. The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: Hosanna! 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' The King of Israel!" Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written:

Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, Sitting on a donkey's colt."

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him. Therefore the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign.

John 12:1-18)

Reading the sermons of St John Chrysostom it is hard for understand why he seems to be so marginal to the theological life of the Church. His work us especially important for those of us who are interested in reflecting on the pastoral life of the Christian community. Chrysostom's sermon (Homily LXVI) on John 12 is a case in point.

St John begins with his usual forthrightness: "As wealth is wont to hurl into destruction those who are not heedful, so also is power; the first leads into covetousness, the second into pride." He then proceeds to examine the events recounted in the Gospel passage for Palm Sunday.

See, for instance, how the subject multitude of the Jews is sound, and their rulers corrupt; for that the first of these believed Christ, the Evangelists continually assert, saying, that "many of the multitude believed on Him" (Jn 7: 31, 48); but they who were of the rulers, believed not. And they themselves say, not the multitude, "Hath any of the rulers believed on Him?" But what saith one? "The multitude who know not God are accursed" (Jn 7: 49); the believers they call accursed, and themselves the slayers, wise.

The unwillingness of the rulers to accept the Christ reflects not such much a lack of faith, but the presence of pride and a desire to hold on to the power that they have acquired. Where the majority saw a reason for belief, for example, in the raising of Lazarus from the dead by Jesus, those who coveted power saw a pressing need to "kill Lazarus." By an act of human power these men hope to be able to overcome the power of God in their midst.

The rulers had Chrysostom says at least contrived grounds "to slay Christ." After all "He broke the Sabbath," and "He made Himself equal to the Father," and He represented a threat to Roman rule. But "what charge had they against Lazarus that they sought to kill him? Is the having received a benefit a crime? See thou how murderous is their will?" It is here that Chrysostom diagnosis the illness that afflicts many in the Church: I see God's bestow of blessing on my neighbor as somehow an affront to me.

And the greater the miracle, the greater seems to be my anger and jealousy.

Yet He had worked many miracles; but none exasperated them so much as this one, not the paralytic, not the blind. For this was more wonderful in its nature, and was wrought after many others, and it was a strange thing to see one, who had been dead four days, walking and speaking.

The malice I feel toward my neighbor reflects my deeper animosity toward God Himself. The great temptation of any who have power and authority is first to try and "to draw away the multitudes." And when I fail at this, when it is clear that I can find "no fault" with Christ, what choice do I have but to kill the one who Christ has blessed?

Since then the charge which they continually brought against Him was removed, and the miracle was evident, they hasten to murder. So that they would have done the same in the case of the blind man, had it not been in their power to find fault respecting the Sabbath. Besides, that man was of no note, and they cast him out of the temple; but Lazarus was a person of distinction, as is clear, since many came to comfort his sisters; and the miracle was done in the sight of all, and most marvelously. On which account all ran to see. This then stung them, that while the feast was going on, all should leave it and go to Bethany. They set their hand therefore to kill him, and thought they were not daring anything, so murderous were they. On this account the8 Law at its commencement opens with this, "Thou shall not kill" (Ex. xx. 13); and the Prophet brings this charge against them, "Their hands are full of blood." (Is 1,15).

And when even this fails? When I am unable to kill the one who Christ has blessed?

Murder to be murder need not slay the body. Jesus makes this clear in the Gospel when He tells us "do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt 10.28). Commenting on this passage St Augustine tells (LXV Ben) us that in saying this Jesus teaches us "in fearing not to fear, and in not fearing to fear. " He continues

See where He advised us not to fear. See now where He advised us to fear. "But," says he, "fear Him who has power to destroy both body and soul in hell." Let us fear therefore, that we may not fear. Fear seems to be allied to cowardice: seems to be the character of the weak, not the strong. But see what says the Scripture, "The fear of the Lord is the hope of strength." Let us then fear, that we may not fear; that is, let us fear prudently, that we may not fear vainly. The holy Martyrs on the occasion of whose solemnity this lesson was read out of the Gospel, in fearing, feared not; because in fearing God, they did not regard men.

As the events of Great and Holy Week make clear, what the rulers of the Jews feared was Roman power and authority. And what the rulers feared as well was the loss of their own power and authority if they lost Roman favor. Like all who acquisition of power has given birth to pride, what I fear is not God but human opinion.

This plays itself concretely in human communities through shaming.

We get an example of this is Judas' criticism of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with myrrh; "Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" Here we can see the power of shame. Shame minimizing the good we have done by contrasting it negatively with the good that we do not do.

Human life being what it is, every good thing that we do necessarily leaves a myriad of other equally good, or even better, things undone. And how can it be otherwise? We are creatures, we are finite and so our power to do the good is always and everywhere limited. Shame exploits human finitude, human limitations. And it does so in such a way as to cause us to turn against our own humanity—the shameful of shame is that it cause us to reject our own humanity, to condemn ourselves not for our sinfulness, but our creatureliness. (As an aside, it is not unexpected that shame is often associated with sex. Our sex, our being male or female, is intrinsic to our identity. While sex does not exhaust human identity, it is still foundational to that identity.)

Like Judas, those who exercise power in a shaming fashion do so not simply for their own profit, but for a profit that comes at the expense of others. "This he [Judas] said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it." Shame is the consequence of those in power using their power to exploit us in our weakness. And again, because we are creatures, because we do not possess our one existence but receive it each moment as a free gift, we are all of us weak and so vulnerable to exploitation by others.

Given as well that to be human is to be a relational being our vulnerability is global. Because our absolute dependence upon God is incarnated as a relative dependence upon other human beings, shame remains a universal aberrant possibility in human relationships.

For many of us, sadly, the Christian life is often a life of shame, of turning toward the gift of our own life and humanity not with gratitude, but disdain or even despair. Like the woman in the Gospel, the gift we have received from God and which in gratitude we return to Him, is often greeted with self-serving contempt by those around us. Especially when that contempt comes from a Christian brother or sister, or worse still a father or mother in Christ, the wound is unimaginably deep and painful.

It is worth noting that the Gospel story of Christ's triumphal entrance into Jerusalem embraces not simply the political, but also the personal. Yes, Jesus challenges the authority, the power and the pride of the political and religious rulers of this world. But He also makes manifest that same challenge in the midst of the more ordinary, homey relationship that make up our everyday life. Jesus challenges not simply the powerful of this world, but the human heart out of which that attachment to power arises.

It is worth remembering that even as we are all vulnerable to shame, we are all of us also tempted to shame others. The vulnerability that shame exploits is shared—we are all of us able to wound as well as to be wounded. The Gospel that embraces says "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus," (Gal 3:27-28) finds its opposite number in our shared sinfulness. In sin there is also "Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female." But where in Christ this opens us the Infinite God and to each, sin closes us in on ourselves and so to God and to our neighbor.

The divine response to sin's toxic mixture power, pride, shame that exploits human ontological and psychological vulnerabilities is to come to us in humility, "Sitting on a donkey's colt." It is because of the humility of God that we are able to live without free. As Chrysostom reminds us, unlike kings of this world who are "the most part . . . unjust and covetous kind of men," our God is "meek and gentle."

The powerful of this world, and this includes at moments each of us, cannot see this. In my sinfulness, in my love of power, I am offended by, a King Who suffers and is betrayed. It simply cannot be this way for Him, but only because I do not wish it to be this way for me.

But the Kingdom that Jesus comes to announce is not of this world. It is an eschatological Kingdom that, by its very natures, comes as gift and so confounds all human attempts at power and control. It is, humanly speaking, a powerless Kingdom. And paradoxically it is in its powerlessness that the true power of the Kingdom of God is revealed.

St. John Chrysostom says "I call Him King, because I see Him crucified: it belongs to the King to die for His subjects." On Palm Sunday, on His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus reveals Himself as the King Who has come to die for His subjects. And in so doing He puts to death our sinfulness and liberates us from the grip of shame that gives pride its real authority in our life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory