The readings for today’s Mass for Palm Sunday, which focus on the Lord’s Passion, were the inspiration for this homily given by Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, a homilist par excellence who teaches Philosophy at Ave Maria University and preaches almost every day to the students and parishioners of Ave Maria:
May I ask you a question? If Hollywood were to make a movie of your life, which actor should play you? I think that if a movie were made of my life, I would like to be portrayed by Robert DeNiro.
But with my luck, Hollywood might select Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis, but I would still hold out for DeNiro. I think he could bring some dignity to the role.
I ask this question about movies and actors playing roles because we just read together the greatest drama of all time. Hollywood knows this too, and has been making movies about the life and death of Jesus ever since Hollywood started making movies.
The limit of those movies, however, is that they always depict the drama as it unfolded in the past. I think that for the account we have just read to come to life, we should not only turn to a movie screen as a window into the past, but we should turn to the biblical text as a window into the present.
Let’s look at the cast of characters. Who could play Pilate today? There are just too many qualified actors to mention here. Any powerful politician without the courage of his convictions and with no passion for principles could play the role of Pilate. I will leave it to you to imagine who might best portray Pilate today.
The Pharisees could be played by self-identified Catholic universities all-too-eager to hand over that troublemaker Jesus over to any Pontius Pilate who is handing out tax dollars thirty pieces of silver at a time.
The brutal Roman soldiers could be played by the police who violently arrested peaceful protesters when President Obama was honored at Notre Dame University.
Could I carry this movie analogy too far? I don’t think so. Even now, Jesus suffers unto death in the members of His Body, the Church. This year, I nominate a Dutch Jesuit, Father Frans van der Lugt for the role of the sacrificial lamb.
For almost 50 years, Father van der Lugt, my Jesuit brother, served the poor and homeless in Syria. Six days ago, after refusing to abandon the people in his care in the Syrian city of Homs, he was dragged into the street, beaten, and shot twice in the head.
I know that Pope Francis publicly lamented the murder of that brave Jesuit. I have so far been unable to find any public remark about this murder from any other national leader, political or religious.
My friends, the point I’m making here is this: Even if history does not repeat itself, we can surely say that it does rhyme very well.
God does not change, and neither does man. In every age, the account we read this morning, the great drama of fidelity and faithlessness, courage and cowardice, sin and salvation, is played out. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of human history and human nature, anyone who has read the gospel and then looked in the mirror, can see this easily enough.
Which brings us to the hard part — which role shall we play? Which role shall you and I play in the enduring drama of the Passion and Death of Our Lord?
I suspect that we want to tell ourselves that we would remain at the foot of the cross, faithful until the end, refusing to abandon Him in His final hours. If we are feeling a bit more humble, we might show Jesus some compassion — discretely of course — after things have settled down, and, like Joseph of Arimathea, offer Him a decent place to be buried, like the Catholic Studies programs at most ordinary Catholic universities.
If we were honest, we might admit that we would likely play only a bit part in this movie. After all, we are busy. But we could easily imagine our role as, say, a member of the fickle crowd, shouting Hosannas at one moment, and calling for blood the next.
If we were more daring, we might wonder whether we have what it takes to play a bigger part, taking on the role of, say, Peter or Judas. Both betrayed Jesus; one repented and one despaired. Which role do you think would come more easily to you?
If we could be fearlessly honest with ourselves, we would admit that any one of us could easily play any one of the villains I’ve described: Pilate, Judas, the Romans, the mob. Can we dare admit that about ourselves? That would take a rare and raw kind of courage. Why do I say that? Well, consider these words from the great Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
He wrote: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
For us here at this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, this is the question we must face today, isn’t it? “…who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” I look at the heart of the crucified Jesus, His heart full of life and love, torn open and poured out.
I see His heart and I know that some part of my heart — the selfish, rebellious, murderous part of my heart—must die! If it does not die, then I will not live!
If we force the sin within us to die with Christ, then we shall rise with Him as saints. That is why this solemn and sober day, Palm Sunday, may be seen to contain within it the seeds of Easter Joy.
So, now what? What shall we do? How shall we live together — together — here, at Ave Maria? What shall we do together here so that the sin within us may die and the saint we could be may live?
I will ask you to pray today, and for each day this week, for three graces, three special blessings. First, pray for open eyes — open eyes to see within us the sinner who ought to die now and the saint who ought to live forever. Second, pray for open ears — open ears to hear the voice of the Lord calling us to watch and pray. Third, pray for open hearts—open hearts that may be emptied of sin and filled with the Shed Blood of Jesus.
Start praying for those graces today, because I am assigning you some homework for Saturday night. I ask you to bring with you to the Easter Vigil Mass a scrap of paper in your pocket.
On that paper should be written one instance when, during Holy Week, your opened your eyes, one instance when you opened your ears, and one instance when you opened your heart.
Let this record of your repentance be a gift to our Crucified and Risen Lord, for love of Him, and in reparation for all the times when we, like Saint Peter, denied Him. If we do that, then we will know that the words of the prophet Isaiah will be true of us: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back”
May God’s Holy Name be praised now and forever.