The Shadow of the Cross
The image of Palm Sunday that is etched deepest in most of our minds is that found in the Gospel of today where Jesus rides on a donkey into Jerusalem with the crowds waving branches and crying Hosanna. Years ago we had to stand until our legs were breaking while the long Passion account was being read. It is still read in some places while personally I believe that it is much more appropriate for Good Friday than Palm Sunday.
If we were to unpack the message of the Palm Sunday event and see what it has to say to our lives I wonder what might we find, and how would it challenge us to look at things differently? On several occasions Jesus, with a very real sense of foreboding, had told his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem. There’s a saying that, ‘Coming events cast their shadow,’ and so it was that with the shadow of suffering and the cross hanging over him that Jesus resolutely took that road as the path he believed to be his destiny. The opinion of those closest to him was that Jerusalem was the last place he should be going, so much so that Peter, his closest companion, on being told what he was going said, ‘Heaven preserve you Lord from going in that direction, this must not happen.’ If you remember the reply Jesus gave to him was rather curt to say the least, ‘Get behind me Satan for the way you think is not God’s way.’
One of the big regrets often expressed by those who have come to the end of their life’s journey is that they never lived fully their own lives and were true to themselves. In other words, that they had allowed the opinions and needs and expectations of others to divert them from their true path. In teaching days I often used to say to young people who were setting out on the path of life; Always remember that it takes a live fish to swim upstream while any old dead thing can be carried along with the current. There is often a veritable current of opinion that can come, even from those closest to us. that tries to dictate the choices we make and the direction we need to go in. We need courage to take the road less travelled.
Here I might give a simple example from my own life. I now look back twenty-five years down the line and consider that one of the best decisions I ever made was to give the bones of five years to study psychotherapy. It was a huge commitment that entailed travelling to Dublin for classes twice or even three times a week along with parish duties and teaching at the same time. It also entailed a big financial burden that I had to take care of myself. Several of those I held in high regard came and said, ‘Are you mad, have you lost your marbles, apart from the time commitment, do you really think that this is in line with your vocation. Well actually I believed what I was doing was exactly what I was being called to do as a priest and so it was a road I resolutely took very much against public opinion and now I am so glad that I did what was true to myself. One of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare is, ‘To thine own self be true and it must follow as the day the night that you can’t be false to anyone.’ Many of those who were the original nay sayers later benefited from what I learnt while in training.
Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem also points to another reality. The need to confront painful reality head on and not try to divert from it. In my sea days I often encountered bad weather and when a mighty wave was bearing down it was always necessary to steer right into it and then to ride over it. The temptation was always to turn sideways out of fear. I remember one time being out at sea with Nicky Cullen, the original Silver Fox and the now famous chef in Mary Barry’s. A few mighty waves had tossed us about and while attempting to steer into the next one that was looming down I saw Nicky going down on his knees and with eyes closed and hands joined he prayed, ‘Dear Jesus, if we’re going to drown I don’t want to see it happen’.
A certain amount of joy and suffering are necessary components of life just as night and day compliment each other. Most of us try to evade all forms of pain and suffering like the plague. However while we may run from it all our lives we can never ultimately avoid it and even if it has to wait until we are on our deathbeds it will still be waiting for us to acknowledge it. In a culture where drugs are so easily available young people are tempted to evade the necessary pain of growing up when they indulge but the consequences are that they remain immature. The point of addiction is the place of evasion where emotional maturity stops. For adults it’s no different. In our vain attempts to evade our past we erode our future and so while wisdom is meant to come with age many just let age come on its own without any real maturity.
This is precisely why we find it so difficult to find quiet time, to reflect and be at home with ourselves. Why is there no off button on the TV, why do we need so much busyness and noise except as a distraction from our more painful realities? Why is there such a dependence on medication today, is that not too a numbing out of pain? Frequently I hear someone remark in relation to some unpleasant episode of their lives, ‘I don’t want to go there,’ to which I invariably reply ‘If you don’t go there you will just be there, because the past will never be where you think you have left it rather it will remain with you right where you are. It will reveal itself in your reactions, in your moods, how you behave and if ignored long enough it will scream at you through the sickness of your body. In the avoidance of our pain lies our reluctance to follow Christ and resolutely take the road to Jerusalem.
Let me conclude with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tuto in relation to the way we try to evade reality and run away from ourselves:
None of us have the power to say ‘Let bye gones be bye gones and hey presto they become by gones. Our common experience is just the opposite, that the past far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet is embarrassingly persistent and will return to haunt us unless it has been dealt with adequately. Unless we are prepared to look the beast in the eye we will find it returns to hold us hostage.