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It happened in Mass today.
I was sitting comfortably in the pew taking in the extended reading of Matthew’s Gospel for Palm Sunday and Holy Week when it struck me like a bolt out of the blue.
Everyone missed Christ. Everyone.
Let me explain.
As Jesus Christ’s life came to a catastrophic and horrific end, he was utterly and tragically alone. Oh certainly, God the Father was still united in his inextricably triune fashion with Son and Spirit. But as far as finding company on this dark road to death (even when considering his friends and family), Jesus was all by himself. Though many watched and wailed, lamented and followed, they didn’t – couldn’t – fully understand the drama unfolding before their very eyes. If to sympathize is to feel sorry for someone out of some semblance of understanding, it was impossible sympathize in the purest form. If to empathize is to envision a walk in someone’s shoes, no one could bear this path. Everybody – everybody – misunderstood him. And, thus, he was alone.
Somehow, in spite of best (or worst) intentions, everyone seemed to miss out on who Jesus Christ was and what he was trying to do.
Just consider Holy Week…
As they raised their palms and threw their cloaks on the dusty path ahead of him, some lauded a prophet, others a king, still others shouted for the miracle-worker who had healed a father, mended a grandmother, raised a daughter, cured a friend. But still, they missed who he truly was.
As the disciples shared the somber Passover with him and listened to his strange words mixing the breaking of bread with visions of a broken body and a shared cup of wine with the spilling of innocent blood, they wondered at his message. And when he described his betrayal and dispersion of the disciples, they fumed and fussed and denied and assured. But somehow, they missed what he was saying.
As he asked for his friends to sit vigil in the garden, imploring them, just once, for their strength during his blackest moment of fear and weakness, he found them soundly sleeping as the pall of death encroached upon him. They missed how, in suffering, he ached for their support.
As Judas’ warm kiss pressed upon his cheek, the traitor hoped the silver would enrich their work and the authorities would advance their cause. But as the King of Peace was roughly handled and taken away, Judas missed the kind of king Jesus was called to be.
The Sanhedrin shouting blasphemy, the Roman Governor sneering “What is Truth?”, the bloodthirsty crowds demanding crucifixion, the mocking guards ironically crowning him with thorns, the smug passersby asserting upon his crucifixion, “He could save others; he cannot save himself,” and the thief at his side cursing him for not rescuing them from the jaws of hell. All saw in him what they wanted to see, and missed what he was.
And in the darkest hours of evil’s apparent victory – the death of the man they thought God – the truest believers hid, shuddered and were consumed with terror. “How could this be,” they struggled. “How could this be?”
As I sat there listening to the Gospel relaying one human misunderstanding of Christ after another, it dawned on me that Holy Week (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) is a time when so much was missed by so many in so little time…
And yet it is easy – so easy – for me to sit in my comfortable, suburban twenty-first century pew on a brilliant Sunday morning and wonder how all the friends and enemies of Christ could have missed the unfolding divine narrative of suffering and grace. How could they have missed what he was saying? How could they have missed who he was (and is)?
The answer is quite simple.
In the thick of it, in the midst of the physical, emotional and spiritual drama that serves as the epicenter of all human history: the redemption of humanity through divine sacrifice, how could anyone truly grasp the enormity of what was happening? Just as the disciples and witnesses were wrestling with a blind man regaining sight, a lost friend raised from the dead and a mass of thousands fed with a handful of fish and bread, they next found themselves considering the unparalleled wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer and the correction of haughty, merciless dogma of the Scribes and Pharisees. And that’s not even considering the hundreds of undocumented conversations, parables and miracles that only Christ’s contemporaries were privy to. Finally, to top off the dizzying array of wisdom and works of wonder from the Son of God, he is ruthlessly snatched, tortured, humiliated and executed. When honestly reconsidering what my reaction would be if I were in the disciples’ shoes, I am almost reduced to saying, “Too much. It’s all just too much for me to handle.”
A wise man once said, “Faith means believing in advance what only makes sense in reverse.” And T.S. Eliot, commenting on the arrogance of moderns pronouncing judgement on the naivete of their predecessors, “Someone once said, ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
Today, we are blessed to encounter Christ’s story in reverse. Today, we are gifted with the bold questions and silly squabbles and acts of bravery and moments of cowardice that Christ’s contemporaries engaged in, if only to better learn from them. Christ’s story is still mysterious and extraordinary, but we have the benefit of hindsight (which none of Christ’s contemporaries had, even though they had the teachings and pronouncements of the Prophets including John the Baptist). Today we are encouraged that when we fail, so did Peter…and when we feel beyond redemption, so did Peter. And yet he wasn’t and nor are we. We are reminded that when we feel overconfident in our version of the Truth, so did Pilate…and yet the True Criterion stood before him (and stands before us). We are heartened that, just as flocks of exuberant people with palms and cloaks cheered a gentle man astride a donkey, we don’t need to fully comprehend the sheer magnificence of Christ to love him. We just need to trust and feel the joy in knowing that God is near. And we know that when we are tempted, like one thief, to curse God for not rescuing us from our suffering…we are called to praise God, like the other thief, for the paradise that ultimately awaits us.
Today’s Gospel reading reminded me that these very human people – and all they missed in Christ – have been indispensable guides in my faltering walk of faith. Why? Because, too often, I miss Christ too. Their mistakes are mine. Their oversight is mine. Their confusion and desperation is mine. But thankfully, their penetrating hope, dogged perseverance and humble gratitude for Christ’s Grace is mine too.
This Holy Week let’s not miss Christ. Let’s see him in his raw agony and brilliant glory.
And be eternally grateful.
Photo Credit: The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio found at Wikimedia Commons