In Agony Until the End of the World
Gospel Commentary for March 16, 2008
Palm Sunday (A)
By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap
ROME, MARCH 14, 2008 (www.Zenit.org) - In the course of the entire liturgical year, Palm Sunday is the only occasion, besides Good Friday, in which the Gospel of Christ's Passion is read. Not being able to comment on the whole long narrative, we will consider two episodes: Gethsemane and Calvary.
It is written of Jesus on the Mount of Olives that he began "to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.'" This is an unrecognizable Jesus! He who commanded the winds and the seas and they obeyed him, who told everyone not to fear, is now prey to sadness and anxiety. What is the reason? It is all contained in one word, the chalice: "My Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from me!"
The chalice indicates the whole mass of suffering that is about to come crashing down upon him. But not only this. It indicates above all the measure of divine justice that corresponds to men's sins and transgressions. It is "the sin of the world" that he has taken upon himself and that weighs on his heart like a boulder.
The philosopher Pascal said that "Christ is in agony on the Mount of Olives until the end of the world. He should not be abandoned during this whole time."
He is in agony wherever there is a human being that struggles with sadness, fear, anxiety, in a situation where there is no way out, as he was that day. We can do nothing for the Jesus who was suffering then but we can do something for the Jesus who is in agony today. Every day we hear of tragedies that occur, sometimes in our own building, in the apartment across the hall, without anyone being aware of it.
How many Mount of Olives, how many Gethsemanes in the heart of our cities! Let us not abandon those who are there within.
Let us now take ourselves to Calvary. "Jesus cried out in a loud voice: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' And Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit."
I am now about to pronounce a blasphemy, but then I will explain. Jesus on the cross has become an atheist, one without God. There are two forms of atheism: the active or voluntary atheism of those who reject God, and the passive or suffered atheism of those who are rejected (or feel rejected) by God. In both forms there are those who are "without God." The former is an atheism of fault, and the latter is an atheism of suffering and expiation. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, about whom there was much discussion when her personal writings were published, belongs to this latter category.
On the cross Jesus expiated in anticipation all the atheism that exists in the world, not only that of declared atheists, but also that of practical atheists, the atheism of those who live "as if God did not exist," relegating him to the last place in their life. It is "our" atheism, because, in this sense, we are all atheists -- some more, some less -- those who do not care about God. God too is one of the "marginalized" today; he has been pushed to the margins of the lives of the majority of men.
Here too it is necessary to say: "Jesus is on the cross until the end of the world." He is in all the innocent who suffer. He is nailed to the cross of the gravely ill. The nails that hold him fast on the cross are the injustices that are committed against the poor. In a Nazi concentration camp a man was hung. Someone, pointing at the victim, angrily asked a believer who was standing next to him: "Where is your God now?" "Do you not see him?" he answered. "He is there hanging from the gallows."
In all of the depictions of the "deposition from the cross," the figure of Joseph of Arimathea always stands out. He represents all of those who, even today, challenge the regime or public opinion, to draw near to the condemned, the excluded, those sick with AIDS, and who are occupied with helping some of them to descend from the cross. For some those who are "crucified" today, the designated and awaited "Joseph of Arimathea" could very well be I or you.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66.