There is no creature on earth which compares to the Philadelphia sports fan. This town has a mania for our local pro athletic teams which rivals the fervor of an ISIS jihadist. Everywhere you go in Philly you'll see sports logos. Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers banners are like religious icons—and, I suspect, actually represent the religious zeal of the city. I've had parishioners wear their Eagles jerseys to mass on the days of home games, begging me to make sure church doesn't last too long so they could get home and prepare snacks before the kickoff. I'd be willing to bet that if the Eagles played Dallas in a televised home game on Christmas Eve, the churches would be deserted!
BUT...Just let one of our teams have a poor season, and love turns to hate pretty quickly around here. We curse the coaching staffs and denounce the over-the-hill players who should have retired or been traded long ago. Such is the fickleness of fans. I guess it's like this in all walks of life. We build them up to tear them down. A pop star may be smiling at the Grammys one day and be the butt of Jimmy Fallon's joke the next.
The adoring crowd we read about in the Palm Sunday gospel (Mark 11:1-11) is no different. They cry, “Hosanna!” on Sunday only to turn and scream “Crucify him!” on Friday. And that's why we enter into this gospel story with a sense of dread—we know what's coming, and it isn't pretty. In spite of all the love showered on Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, the inconstancy of shallow hearts will shortly call for his death.
I always think it's a good idea when we read the gospel stories to see who we are in the narrative. Here's a hint: we're not Jesus. Rather, I think we might profit by seeing ourselves as this giddy crowd greeting the Savior as he comes to town.
Here comes the long-expected Jesus, indulging in a little bit of street theater. He's chosen to enter the city looking ridiculous—riding on the least majestic or threatening critter he can find. He's on the back of a very young (and small, no doubt) donkey (or young horse or nursing mother donkey, depending on which gospel you read). He's absurd when compared to the way the conqueror should appear. He's not on a powerful steed surrounded by a military retinue and flanked by glorious banners. He's on an animal which can just barely support his weight, flanked by illiterate fishermen and the ragged clothing and palm branches waved by his fellow peasants. It's a pretty pathetic sight, but they do seem to love him.
Why, we ask? What are they expecting to get from him? It's pretty obvious when we translate the word, “Hosanna.” The word derives from a plea meaning “Help! Save us! Rescue us!” It's really an SOS call, but those who are calling don't understand what rescue really means. They are looking for the coming of the kingdom of their ancestor David. They think that somehow Jesus is going to solve all their problems by overthrowing their enemies and giving them a sense of being conquerors and restoring their tribal pride (sort of the way Philadelphians feel when we sing, “Fly, Eagles, Fly!”).
But they don't get the joke. Jesus' silly little parade is an assault on pride. Because when there's no pride, there's no competition. No fear of the “other.” No anxiety about winning and losing. And that will open the door to the freedom to love selflessly. Maybe Jesus' undignified entrance was too subtle. It would take his undignified crucifixion to drive the point home.
So what do we expect from Jesus? I doubt any of us are still expecting a warlike victor who will conquer the world, but we might appreciate a comforter and heavenly therapist who will make us feel better when our lives get tough—provided he doesn't ask for too much in return.
But what we get in Jesus is someone who teaches us love of enemies, compassion for the poor and sick, who advocates for justice, who forgives all, and who calls for sacrifice—which, in turn, calls for real faith.
In times of trouble we may cry “Hosanna!” Save us. But have we cried, Teach us? Transform us? Lead us? To be led means to follow, and to follow Jesus is to take up his cross for the healing of the world. But should that prove inconvenient, we slink away like that fickle crowd on that first Palm Sunday.
The challenge of this lesson is to ask ourselves if we are Jesus disciples or only his fans.
A blessed Holy Week to you, my dears. I am grateful that you stopped by.