Friday, May 29, 2009

3-16-2008: Palm Sunday (A)

Matthew 21:1-11/Isaiah 50:4-7/Psalm 22/Philippians 2:6-11/Matthew 26:14-27:66
Palm Sunday begins Holy Week. And Holy Week can’t help but be overdone: too many symbols – too little time. Temperament, as William James observed, has a lot to do with religious expression. Some more maudlin Christians over-emphasize Good Friday and Christ’s suffering with almost orgiastic delight, mortifying themselves both figuratively and literally -- they’re the ones who find Easter blandly anti-climactic. Others fast forward to Easter Sunday and, like frenzied Pentecostals, sway to the Pollyanna chirps of an alleluia people – all year long. The less religiously-inclined buy a new hat and walk up Fifth Avenue.

Perhaps I betray my own temperament by admitting my prejudice for the theologian von Balthasar who aligned himself neither with the suffering of Good Friday nor the ecstasy of Easter but with the in-between – Holy Saturday: the day devotion is absent, the sacraments forbidden, churches empty of the Real Presence – God gone. And the curse, usually shouted as metaphor, becomes literally true: Jesus go(es) to hell!

Holy Saturday, the descent into hell, represents Jesus’ complete identification with man in his sinfulness – dead, helpless, cut off from God – Jesus, in the words of St. Paul himself, is made sin. Holy Saturday reminds us of those feelings of abandonment, our god-forsakenness. Such a theology suggests each of us will know this experience no matter how sinful or holy we may be. Just ask the alcoholic who’s hit bottom, or someone diagnosed with a terminal disease, or the parent who’s lost a child. Religion, as human invention or, in Freud’s evaluation, as illusion, usually seeks to protect us from the darkness of such feelings; but, at it’s core, deep in the throes of holy week, Holy Saturday beckons us to face the reality of a hell not filled with burning flame or numbing ice, but with… emptiness.

In the liturgical calendar Easter will be celebrated straight away -- not even twenty-four hours will pass. It seems the human mind can’t bear that kind of hell -- even for a day. And then, with relief, we will no doubt resume our allegiance to suffering or joy, whatever may be our dominant temperament. But, if Christianity be true, there will always lurk just beneath the surface of every joy and sorrow, the faint hint of a holy saturday. It will cause guidance counselors to diagnose ADD and psychiatrists to prescribe Prozac. It will make some self-medicate with drugs or drink, while others will turn to religion to assuage their discomfort. But, ultimately, nothing can explain or solve what the creed mysteriously describes as Jesus’ descent into hell – a mandatory port-of-call on everyman’s journey to heaven.

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