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This Sunday (Passion Sunday, Year A) we hear the story of how a great king dies.
Jesus is treated as a king from the very beginning of Mass today, in the processional reading.
Matthew tells us that in Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, the prophecy is fulfilled: “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on a donkey.”
The crowd sees him as a king.
“The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,” says Matthew. This is a sign of homage due to royalty. They cry out, saying, “Hosanna,” which means “Save us!” They call him “the Son of David,” the great king, and say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
So from the start, Jesus is a great king entering into Jerusalem in a regal way. Things will change quickly once he gets there, as we know. But his demeanor won’t change.
Jesus dies with great presence and dignity.
He is deliberate. He knows that a lot of attention will be paid to the way he dies, so he is careful with what he does and with what he says. Every movement and every word matters.
The night before he dies, he institutes the Eucharist. This “Last Supper” with his apostles is reminiscent of the feasting of a Knight before he goes to battle. But it is very different in the case of Christ the King. He makes the meal something that will endure in his kingdom.
He is forthright as he prepares his followers. Jesus doesn’t mince words. He warns them that he will be betrayed. He tells them they will be scattered. And he doesn’t let his “captain,” Peter, be less than forthright, either. Now is not the time for bravado or wishful thinking – it is the time to face the truth, and the truth is that Peter will fail.
In the Agony in the Garden, Jesus shows his state of mind. He is courageous enough to die, but honest enough to request that, if it’s possible, he might be spared that.
When he is betrayed and put on trial, he stands up to his accusers with dignity. He doesn’t beg for mercy or loudly protest his innocence. He refuses to answer dishonest questions but freely shares the truth about himself.
Finally, he goes to his final end the way a king does: on his own two feet, by his own power, not being dragged kicking and screaming. The people misunderstand and insult him; that’s okay. He is confident about who he is. The bad attitudes of the weak don’t affect him.
But he is more than just a great king, of course. In today’s second reading, St. Paul said Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”
In the Passion we find out what that meant. Jesus shows that he holds to no royal privilege. He won’t spare himself debasement necessary in service of his people.
For Catholics, fortitude is more than courage. It is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we receive at Baptism. And what it means is not simply that we face fears — and temptations and obstacles — but that we face them with God.
Watching Jesus mount the throne of the cross, we can read in his actions his words “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
And, since we follow such a king, when we face difficulties in our life, we can pray with Isaiah, in our first reading: “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”
Because ultimately the greatest attribute this king has is love.
Photo: St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas