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You hear it all the time, from left and right: We feel like we are victims of forces that are lined up against our freedoms, using whatever is at hand — notably, the COVID-19 pandemic — to force us to comply. Call it a “conspiracy” if you must. It is real, it is total, and it has targeted each of us as a victim.
The Gospel for Sunday, Passion Sunday Year B, proves it, and tells us exactly how we need to act when we are victims of a conspiracy.
The reading of the Passion in Mark starts with a clear description of the conspiracy against Jesus.
“The chief priests and the scribes were seeking a way to arrest him by treachery and put him to death,” says the Gospel. They even strategize, saying, “Not during the festival, for fear that there may be a riot among the people.” Soon, the Romans and the common people get involved.
How does Jesus act against such a conspiracy? The Second Reading tells us: He took “the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus’s response to the conspiracy against him was to walk forward despite the power of the world and the suffering of his flesh, to destroy the principality of the devil out of obedience to the Father.
He is meant to be an example to us as we face the real conspiracy that has always lined up against the Church, and which we promise to oppose in our baptismal promises: the conspiracy of the world, the flesh and the devil.
Take the disordered love of the world first.
Is it really a conspiracy? Absolutely. The world crushes the faith whenever it can. Our schools counter the truths of the faith and of the human person; our universities embrace pseudo-scientific ideologies that oppose the family and the Church; and our media spends its time turning those ideologies into intriguing narratives to convince anyone who watches.
What to do about it? The same thing the woman at the beginning of the Gospel did.
When Jesus was reclining at table, “a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.”
She was pouring out herself — and the equivalent of a year’s income — not for the things the world values, but for Jesus Christ. And what did the worldly types looking on think? “There were some who were indignant,” says the Gospel. “They were infuriated with her.” They asked: “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?”
On the contrary Jesus says that it is worth it to “waste” everything you have on him. “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her,” he says, because “She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.”
In Lenten almsgiving we were meant to do what she did. Here’s an even better way: Lavish attention on Jesus Christ himself. Put Jesus Christ first in our children’s education, in our pastimes, in our decisions about personal relationships, and in our life. Waste everything on him. Radical Christ-centeredness is the only way to disrupt the conspiracy we face in the world.
Our flesh is weak, though, so we are too often willing victims of the conspiracy.
Online retailers are actively banning the truths of our faith; we know we should avoid using them, but we are weak, and keep using them anyway. Social media is designed to hook us and change us; we post on it anyway, and hope for likes. Online entertainment providers have an agenda that suppresses religious films and promotes anti-religious ideologies. We watch anyway, on our smartphone, while our family is right outside our door.
The Garden of Gethsemane should look familiar to us. “Sit here while I pray,” Jesus told the Apostles. “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch,” he told Peter, James and John, then begged the Father to spare himself and his followers the passion — adding, “but not what I will but what you will.”
When he returned he found his friends asleep and said, “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
That is his message for us: Pray for the strength to overcome the weakness of the flesh. Our spirit is willing; our flesh is weak. We have been fasting throughout Lent to strengthen our will to resist the disordered appetites of the flesh; now, having seen how weak we remain, we ask Father, Son and Spirit to give us their strength, instead.
Then there is the conspirator who no one wants to talk about but who is absolutely at work today: the devil.
I love the way the movie The Passion of the Christ illustrates each of these powers. We see “the world” in the serious but self-obsessed Pilate, “the flesh” in the court of the decadent Herod, and we see the devil for what he is: the humorless, energy-draining antagonist lurking in the shadows.
In the passion reading the soldiers are caught up in the spirit of the antichrist as they “began to spit on him,” and “blindfolded him and struck him and said to him, ‘Prophesy!’”
The crowd, captured by the same spirit, knows what to do with Jesus: “Crucify him!” and when asked “Why? What evil has he done?” they answer again, with the logic of the Independence Day alien, which is the logic of Satan: “Crucify him!”
The diabolic spirit leads Judas to betray him, Peter to deny him, his apostles to flee him, and onlookers to triumph over him as he dies.
Jesus answers by crying out to his Father from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we are to understand that he is referencing the entire Psalm we pray at Mass Sunday, including this: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you: ‘You who fear the LORD, praise him!’”
This is what we should do in the face of any conspiracy against Jesus.
Pray honestly and insistently to God. Cry out to him, “Why?” And then give him the “sacrifice of praise.” Stand before the forces that are lined up against us and be not afraid; fear and praise God, instead.
Are the governments’ mask mandates really a soft preparation for tyranny? Maybe. Are governments that are soft on COVID appealing to an irresponsible populism that values power over public health? Maybe.
Regardless which is right, though, our job is to preach Jesus Christ, and him crucified. He conquered the world, the flesh and the devil with his cross, and two millennia of conspiracies against him haven’t defeated him yet:
“At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”