Matthew 21:1-11, Palm Sunday
I’ve had asthma since I was born and hypertension since I was 23. So, when experts said that people with comorbidity had less chances of surviving Covid-19, that nailed me. And I felt nailed almost every day in the first two weeks of lockdown; nailed on fear, nailed on anxiety, nailed on guilt. I mean, didn’t you feel something similar? That despite your relatively healthy body, death is literally “just around the corner”? And because of this, while a thousand thoughts and feelings raged within you, and even when you were rushing about, the likelihood of death around the corner just nailed you.
A beloved friend of mine told me on Viber, “Gerry and I already agreed that whoever gets the virus would drive alone to the hospital, to save the rest of the family.” Another dear friend, a lawyer, said that some of his clients had started asking him to draft their last will and testament, to secure their families in case the virus got them. I myself contemplated that I’d leave on my desk a piece of paper with all my passwords: to my phone—so my rector could call my family in Davao; to my Gmail—so my brothers can email my dearest friends and tell them how much I love them; to my laptop—so they could print the rest of my homilies, produce another book, and help the Arrupe scholarship fund. But I’d be lying to you, sisters and brothers, if I said that I contemplated all this in splendid equanimity. No. I was terrified of dying. I still am. And you know, I also feel guilty that I’m terrified.
When Jesus increasingly felt that he could actually die very soon in the hands of his foes, I wonder how he handled the waves of emotions. He was human, after all, so, surely, he must’ve felt his head and his heart wage war: should he lock the door when death came knocking, or unlock it and stare death the hell down? Did he consider fleeing elsewhere safer? He could be of greater service if he stayed alive. Did he also go through some form of paranoia, suspecting anyone and everyone to be the spy who would turn him in? Did he also feel a wave of recklessness? Patay na kung patay, bahala na! And did our Lord wish for a quick, even if painful, death? Or did he wish he’d just die of exhaustion, or go in his sleep?
Western painting and movies often show a very serene, very unfazed Jesus in the last hours of his life. But I bet Jesus felt waves of anxiety and fear. Didn’t he beg his Father, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me?” It sounds more compelling in Tagalog, “Ama, puwede po bang ‘wag na lang ako mamatay?” And in Luke, he says this twice. But only to take it back and say, “yet, not as I will, but as you will.” See, that push and pull of fearfulness and fearlessness, that toss and turn in self-preservation and self-surrender…. I firmly believe that Jesus was, and still is, deeply human as divine. So, I wouldn’t put it past him to have been terrified of dying…and dying too soon…especially when he knew he could still do so much more healing and forgiving and raising the dead for as long as there was breath in him.
So, why did Jesus give himself up? I mean, wasn’t that what he did? He gave himself up. He could’ve just bolted the place, let things cool down a little bit in Jerusalem, and just kept doing what he did elsewhere, for the meantime. But he gave himself up. He didn’t give up. He gave himself up.
However we read the Gospels, sisters and brothers, forwards and backwards, top to bottom, and back again, it’s unmistakable: Jesus had a very strong conviction that his death was going to be salvific. How? Well, to this day, nobody, not even the brightest scholar or the holiest saint, knows the exact algebra behind the Lord’s conviction that his dying would be world-saving. Oh, we have theories, which we call the atonement theory, ransom theory, satisfaction theory, all dating back from the 2nd century onwards. Each tried to reason and solve the math behind Jesus’ “saving death,” for us to understand it today. Still, no theory could fully explain why Jesus was so convinced that his death would save the world, let alone how.
In my amateurish, ramshackle, dalawa-singko theology, I hazard a guess. Maybe Jesus thought that if he died because of loving people by healing them, because of loving people by forgiving them, and loving people by comforting them and raising their dead, then maybe, that love would endure, that love would survive even the most loveless death…and it would keep going and going and going in some way, shape, and form…long after he himself was gone. Maybe Jesus thought that even if they nailed him fixed and dead on a cross, they’d never be able to nail down his loving, because that love would have had a life of its own, a Spirit, and it would have already “infected” everyone he loved, so that they’d pass it on and on and on like a divine pandemic. And maybe, that was reason enough to give himself up, reason enough to die. In the meantime, when death was just around the corner, loving was reason enough to fear less. At nakita ko po ito sa maraming tao nitong nagdaang mga linggo. ‘Yung mga marunong pong magmahal nang malalim, opo, natatakot sila—pero hindi sila napapako ng takot. Alam nila, na dahil sa hinayupak ng virus na ito, maaaring magkasakit sila—pero hindi sila titigil sa kapipila sa grocery, botika, barangay para sa kanilang mga pamilya. Maaaring mahawa sila—pero ‘di kailanman nila makuhang mag-distancing sa anak nilang nag-positive. Maaaring ikamatay nila ang sumpang ito—pero sumumpa silang pumirmi sa ospital bilang duktor at nars. Those who truly know how to love deeply, sisters and brothers, they must be terrified, sure, I mean, who isn’t? But fear does not nail them down, not from loving, it doesn’t.
Don’t you find it interesting, sisters and brothers, that the Passion is awfully reflective of where we are today? Jesus of Nazareth was condemned as a man who went around infecting other people, making them impure. At a time he needed them most, his friends wanted nothing to do with him. Where did they go? They quarantined themselves away. His family was forced into distancing, as well. So, Jesus died of asphyxiation from afar. He couldn’t breathe. Finally, his body had to be hastily buried lest his corpse infect the Passover of the living.
But after three days, his Father proved his Son true: deep loving couldn’t be nailed down even by the most loveless, most solitary death. True love raises people back to life.
What stirs you deeply these days, sisters and brothers? Do you wish to save people you love by keeping yourself alive? Or do you wish to save people even by dying? Whichever it is, whether we prefer to self-preserve at all cost, or want to self-surrender whatever the cost, may the Lord’s Passion be our beacon. That is, may deep, abiding love for other people be our sure foundation for whatever desire that stirs us deeply. Love, not fearful paranoia, not angry recklessness; love that gives others life and has them live that life to the full. That way, whether we live or die, our love, like the Lord’s, will have been truly saving.
*sculpture by Robert Indiana; image from the Internet