Jesus as Tragic Hero

Palm Sunday is here with its beautiful procession and liturgy and its striking contrast from beginning triumph to ending sorrow. This beginning of Holy Week commemorates the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem in preparation for Passover and for his arrest and crucifixion. The scene has Jesus riding on a donkey like one of Israel’s ancient judges, while being hailed as well as the “King who comes in the name of the Lord”. This is a hero’s welcome from a crowd eager for a hero.

But Jesus is not the sort of hero the crowd thinks it needs; he still isn’t. This is not the dashing, white-hatted cowboy swooping in to rescue the tied-up damsel on the railroad tracks. This is not even the quick thinking citizen pushing the little boy out of the way of the speeding truck. Destruction is coming: Jerusalem, Jesus says, is impending disaster and all who have chosen to live by the sword will die by the sword. The train is bearing down and cannot be stopped. The people (like we still are) are stubborn and will not be rescued. What heroic act will Jesus accomplish? He lays himself on the track between the train and those doomed to be run over. He loses his life right along with us.

How does this help anyone? What is the purpose of Jesus’ headlong rush to die if it doesn’t keep anyone else from the things coming at them? Jerusalem, remember, was indeed levelled. Most of Jesus’ own apostles died violent deaths. What was accomplished?

At the heart of this is a mystery well know to the Church: whatever is divorced from God is maligned; whatever is offered freely to God is transformed. Every week we do it with bread and wine. We take these ordinary items to the Altar. We give them to God and call for his blessing. We offer ourselves with them to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit. They are returned to us now as Christ’s Body and Blood, “true spiritual food”. We find in the course of our meal that we have been changed as well. We are his Body too, you see. We believe this mystery about the whole creation. Divorced form God’s love it is depraved and corrupt. Returned to God in Christ it is redeemed and redemptive. What has this to do with Jesus’ death?

With the Incarnation, God received humanity back to himself. It is now being sanctified and restored to divine fellowship. In the death of the Lord Jesus, even death is taken up by God for transformation. Even death is being sanctified. The death with which we have died has been experienced within God’s own self. At the rising again of Jesus we see that death has been cheated of its power. It has not been eradicated, but it has been transformed. Death is, for us, the still-sad, but not overpowering prequel to resurrection. Instead of the end of life it has become the beginning of life eternal, life restored to the love of God.

The terrible heroism of Christ is the drama we live out in him this week. We follow him in his passion, grieving divine Love’s dread cost. We share in his ministry and fellowship Thursday. We weep with his disciples and blessed Mother Friday. We wait Saturday. We do not bypass a moment of this drama. We watch the hero lay down his life extravagantly on our behalf and wait for death to end in new life.

As we follow Jesus this week, let us remember all who suffer throughout our community and in the communities of the world. Let us remember those who live in a state of war and disease and poverty. Surely if Jesus bears upon himself anything, it is everything.


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