General flogging was one of those dreaded “facilities” we received during our minor seminary days. It was usually given when it is assumed that a group, class or cloister of seminarians had defaulted without exception. The initial challenge that usually preceded such general flogging then hung on who would be the first to go to the “flogger” to receive the strokes of the cane. Obviously, nobody would like to be the first to receive the lashes as it was assumed that the initial strokes came with great impacts and pains.
In the midst of us, the seminarians who dreaded the cane was one of my classmates who remained unshaken in the face of cane and flogging. In fact, Oscar would be the first person to come out gallantly to receive the strokes of the cane during such general floggings. Not only that, he would be smiling while he is being flogged and would not even show any sign of pain. On one of such occasions, he even offered to receive extra strokes for one of our classmates who was not feeling well and could not be excused from the punishment. Often I wondered why Oscar would be happy receiving such excruciating pains and even for another person.
The Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday marks the inception of the Holy Week. Appropriately seen as the great doorway to the Holy Week as the Pope emeritus, Benedict xvi, described it. Today our Lord Jesus Christ (like Oscar, in my story but more than him) gallantly entered Jerusalem not for merriment but for some painful encounter which included accusations, condemnation, insults, beating, crucifixion and death. From the celebration today we notice a quick transition from joy to sadness, from the sanguine shouts of joy to the melancholic face of gloom. The two situations jointly reflect our human experience. There are points of joy and points of sorrow, there are ups and downs but with God, there is divine stability no matter the situation on the ground.
Before the procession that led us into the Church, we heard the Gospel Reading (Matt. 21:1-11) where we are told that our Lord asked two of his disciples to go into the village facing Bethphage and they would see a donkey tied to a tree and they should untie it and bring it to him. And should anyone question them they should say that the Master needed it urgently. This directive which fulfils the oracle of Zechariah (9:9) gives us ponderable lessons.
The donkey represents our souls that God needs urgently. The coming of Jesus Christ into our context is to untie our souls from the tree of sin. The tree around which the donkey was tied reminds us of the tree at the middle of the Garden of Eden in Genesis (3:3) where Adam and eve contracted the sin of disobedience which befell humanity. Furthermore, the Village is known as Bethphage and the name means “house of unripe fruits”. We can clearly see from the name that the soul is suffering from deficiency; if you like unripe. Christ our Lord came not only to undo the power of that tree and replace it with the tree of redemption namely the Cross of Calvary but also to raise the donkey from being unripe and unfit to being ripe and fit for the harvest.
Attentive to the foregoing, we understand that the Lord has a need for our souls that have been tied securely on the stake of sin and damnation. He has come to deliver our souls from its prison of abandonment to the tree of sin outside Jerusalem into the Jerusalem of redemption. Our Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem marks the actual beginning of the triumph over sin and death that have besieged our souls being represented by the Donkey upon which he rode. The highest point of the triumph will be his death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day!
From the passion reading we just heard from the account of St. Matthew, we discover that between the entry and the Cross there was so much suffering. The concept of suffering had elicited so much discussion among thinker from various areas of specialization. Often the question revolves around why God should allow His Son to go through the route of suffering in order to save us. Without going into the debates because of time, we can actually point out that God allowed our Lord Jesus Christ to suffer for our sake because it was the only way for our redemption to come about. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 3:18) we are told that the suffering of Christ is part of the fulfillment of God’s words through the prophets.
In the Old Testament, people offered up animals without blemish to atone for one sin or the other. But in the New Testament, we have only one person who is capable of taking away the sins of the world (John 1:29). To be able to accomplish the work of freeing us, our Lord had to suffer, shed his blood and die! The harsh reply of our Lord to Peter (“Get behind me Satan”) when he wanted to discourage him from going the way of suffering tells us that the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ issues from the irreprehensible will of God (Matt.16:23)
After the triumphant entry with Palms and the singing of hosanna came the passion of the Lord. We can fully appreciate and understand the Lord’s passion on three centres of gravity. These represent the three important places and instances where our Lord suffered under three different hands.
1. The Gethsemane Passion
At Gethsemane, our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in the hands of Satan. In Luke 4:13 we are meant to understand that after the temptation, the devil left Jesus Christ and waited for an opportune time. Gethsemane represents that opportune moment for the devil to attempt at stopping the redemptive work of Christ. The depressing and agonizing monologue our Lord had in the garden showed cleared that he was troubled and deeply distressed (Mark 14:33). In the account of Matthew (26:37) our Lord said that he is sorrowful unto death.
At that point, he was feeling the impact of the load of our sins and the devil was at hand to discourage him from carrying the load of our sins. In Gethsemane, Christ shudders before the cup of God’s wrath upon our sins orchestrated by the satan. Often we get “beautiful suggestions” from the devil on our way to do the will of God which may involve some suffering. Gethsemane actually means “oil press”. It thus appears that the load of our sins was pressed upon him that it seemed to be too much for him to bear. No wonder then he asked if the cup could pass, but let the will of God be done.
2. The Gabbatha Passion
At Gabbatha our Lord suffered in the hands of sinners. The gospel of Matthew (26:45) confirms this when Jesus asked the apostles with him: “are you sleeping? The hour has come and the son of man is being delivered into the hands of sinners”.
At Gabbatha, as Isaiah (53:3ff) prophesied, he was betrayed, deserted, beaten, rejected, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns and condemned to die by those he came to untie from the tree of sin.
3. The Golgotha Passion
At Golgotha our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in the hands of divinity; he suffered in the hands of his own father. But this suffering is unlike the preceding ones because it is the kind that is sacrificial. It was the kind of suffering that was most needful for our redemption. The kind of suffering that St. Paul recommended to the followers of Christ (Philippians 1:29).
At Golgotha God dealt with sin fully and finally in the body of his own son. At Golgotha, our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in his full humanity and did not count on his equality with God (Phil.2:7) At Golgotha, the Father forsook the Son (Mark 15:34) and allowed him to taste the bitter gall of death so that humanity can be saved and be reunited with the Father once more.
With these three instances of suffering, we understand that suffering is part of our human reality. In life, we meet various forms of suffering. Sometimes we tend to think that God had forsaken us. The truth is that some forms of suffering we pass through are meant to help us get to where God wants us to be. Whenever we see ourselves going through some forms of suffering let us remember that our Lord Jesus Christ went that road and came out victorious; what God has prepared for you is more than what you think you are going through at the moment (1 Cor. 2:9).
We are called within this week to make an active connection with our Lord Jesus Christ. We see from the event of today that there were praises followed by condemnation. “Hosanna to the Son of David and Crucify him” were parallel statements coming from the crowd. Do not jump on the praises from people (the crowd) at the entry point because they may also formulate your judgment and condemnation at the end of the road.
Finally, a friend of mine made a funny but thoughtful reflection on the donkey that our Lord rode into Jerusalem. According to him, the donkey was delighted when the Lord was riding on her as people also praised her along with the Lord. However, on her way back from Bethphage without the Lord, nobody took notice of her. Even when she tried to draw attention. On coming back she asked her mum why people praised her earlier and later nobody noticed her. Her mum turned and said to her that it was the man who rode on you that gave you relevance and recognition and without him you worth nothing. This is indeed very instructive. Without Jesus Christ we worth nothing!
Do have a wonderful and inspiring Holy Week.