Crucifixion, Tintoretto, Schuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy.
Then they crucified him and divided his garments
by casting lots for them to see what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.
The inscription of the charge against him read,
“The King of the Jews.” Mark 15:24-25
Today’s liturgy begins with a gospel reading at the entrance of the church of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Crowds greeted him there:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!” Mark 11:9-10
They had spread their cloaks and palm leaves (or “leafy branches”; only John calls them palms) in his way as he passed by. There are several explanations of the symbolism of these branches, and all of them seem to point to expectations of victory or unity, or even symbolic of land of Judea itself. Palms eventually became the Christian symbol of martyrdom: almost all pictures and statues of Christian martyrs are shown holding a palm. If they were laurel branches, that would indicate victory; indeed, the 2004 Olympic victors in Athens were crowned with laurel wreaths in imitation of the ancient Olympic games. So whatever it was, the greeting Jesus received on entering Jerusalem for the last time signified something very big. Or, at least, the expectations surrounding him were big. Almost certainly it meant that they thought he was the all-conquering messianic hero who would destroy the pagan Roman dominance over the Jews and restore the kingdom of David. The stories of his miracles and power must have preceded him, and now here he was, representing the dawn of the new age of political freedom and independence. At last, after years of Jesus telling everyone not to reveal who he was, here he was, deliberately adopting the guise and appearance of the Messiah. He was the Messiah, but not the stereotype messiah of the masses.
(Note that these gospel verses have been adapted and included in the Mass. The central prayer of the Mass, called the Canon or Eucharistic Prayer, begins with Hosannah! and Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. These words prepare us for the arrival of the Lord, our Messiah, in the form of consecrated bread and wine.)
Of course, the following days do not see a call to arms for the Jews to defeat the detested Romans. Jesus does not make great rallying speeches drumming up fire and hate prior to battle. He went around teaching in the Temple! He was not their stereotype messiah. Imagine the sense of disappointment and betrayal when that realization sank in. Glorification and ecstatic hope gave way to hatred and blood lust. How dare he enter Jerusalem as the messiah and then do nothing! A mere five days later they were baying for his death.
Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Titian, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Now I am going to suggest an idea which may seem shocking, but is not meant to be. We refer all the time to Christ the King, as indeed Jesus is. Well to be recognized as a monarch there is always some sort of ceremony that person goes through so that people can see s/he is rightly so. In the United Kingdom this is shown through the ancient coronation ritual, the last remaining among the crowned heads of Europe. There are distinctive elements which are found there which are unique to a coronation. There are robes, symbolic objects, recognition from the assembly, a crown, an anointing and an enthronement.
In one way or another these are all found in the Passion of the Lord. From today’s reading of the Passion we have: They clothed him in purple, traditionally the color of the emperor, the imperial purple, and probably deliberate here to humiliate him. Compare the Ecce Homo picture with the coronation picture. Matthew’s gospel says: They put a reed in his right hand. Look at the picture above; the queen holds the golden scepter in her right hand, a symbol of power. Pilate asks the crowd: Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah? The crowd shouted back: Let him be crucified! In the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the crowd shouted “God save Queen Elizabeth!” Then a crucial moment, after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. The queen wears St. Edward’s Crown. Images of this crown are found throughout all 16 countries and territories of which she is head of state. Then, instead of an anointing with oil, the most sacred moment of the queen’s coronation, the Roman soldiers spat on him. After the queen was crowned, she was symbolically “lifted” into her throne, the completion of the ceremony. For Jesus, he was lifted up on his throne of the cross: They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. In the picture above, the bishops of York on the queen’s right and of Bath and Wells on the left complete the parallelism. So the Passion was the anti-coronation, the utter opposite of the world’s idea of coronation.
So why did all this happen? Jesus had the power to stop all this, to destroy his enemies, to right all this wrong. From our point of view, all this suffering was avoidable and is very difficult to understand. Well he did have the power to reverse this humiliation, as the crowd challenged him to do: “Save yourself by coming down from the cross”. But no: Jesus had declared that he had come to serve, not to be served, especially for himself. When the temptation to use his power for himself was surely at its greatest, he refused to do so. That was not why he had come to us. His vocation was to be our Messiah, our Anointed One, to bring us his central teaching that we are here to serve God by serving each other and only serving ourselves to ensure we are able to fulfill these commands. To have used his power while on the cross would have been the opposite of that message. Just as Isaiah had prophesied, one who was totally innocent would suffer for our sins, would be mocked and beaten though he had done nothing wrong. And so it happened. As John’s gospel has it, Jesus’ last words are “It is finished”, meaning he had completed his vocation as the Messiah of God to perfection.
So with us, when we suffer for no good reason, such as in illness or being mocked for doing the right thing, we can see it as a sharing with Jesus’ innocent suffering, because we know that there is more than pointless pain for the Christian. Jesus did overcome all this evil on the third day. There is more to life than its challenges and hardships and anguish and torment. We know that dealing with such afflictions as Our Lord did, then there is a future for us which is ineffable.
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