On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, during a long break in a class I was teaching, students watched, on the “edge of their seats,” the live, televised papal election of Cardinal Bergoglio, presented as “Pope Francis.” They cheered and screamed exuberantly. In the excitement of the moment, I reminded them that, when the world views him more critically—when the pope’s preaching and living the Gospel evokes anger and hatred among those “of the world”—then they must continue passionately supporting and encouraging our Holy Father. Not so easy, though, when popular culture castigates the Church’s stance “in truth” as an outmoded and bigoted vestige of dark ages in humanity’s past.
We may view Pope Francis’s exceptional popularity—a huge boost for Catholic counter-culture and waning Church attendance—as a timely but provisional blessing from God. As we know, popularity comes and goes. Jesus’ sobering words clarify our focus on realistic discipleship: “…because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:19-20)
Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, on which we recount Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem during his earthly ministry. Just prior to this entry, descending the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, Jesus’ multitude of disciples accompany and receive him. They lay down cloaks and leafy branches on the road before him and proclaim Jesus of Nazareth the “son of David,” the “king.” This alludes to and fulfills Psalm 118:25-27: “Lord [actually, YHWH], grant salvation! [in Hebrew, Hosanna!]…Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…The Lord is God and has given us light. Join in procession with leafy branches…!” Jesus’ extolled, messianic procession also fulfills prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 and alludes to Isaiah 40:9 and 62:11. Concerning Jesus’ approach toward Jerusalem, the intertextuality between each Gospel and the Old Testament is significant and intricate in messianic contour.
Jesus’ peak of popularity, and the renown proper to him as the true Messiah and world Redeemer, are quite transitory. Shortly following his climactic reception on Palm Sunday (as we call it), the religious leaders of Jerusalem—at risk of suffering the fate of the unrepentant sinners of Zion, of those consumed among unquenchable flames (Isaiah 1:27-31)—falsely arrest, torture, and crucify the Christ.
Jesus, undaunted by the esteem of men or their status (Matthew 22:16, John 5:41), boldly speaks the truth: “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus’ mission of testifying to the truth corresponds to his identity, Truth itself (John 14:6). If our discipleship of Christ is genuine, we must be faithful to his word. Can we withstand the pressure to conform to “the world?” By what we say and do, and even at times by our silence or act of omission, do we fail to courageously, faithfully embrace all of Jesus’ teachings? Out of fear of social reprisal, do we slight duty and devotion to Sunday Eucharist and holy days of obligation, patience and kindness toward all, chastity and the sanctity of real marriage, material solidarity with the poor, etc.? When we conform to our fallen nature, we deny our divine image, as well as Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). In our denial, we are saying about the Christ, in effect, “I do not know this man!”
In contrast, by the amazing grace God lavishly bestows on us, along with our freely-chosen resolve, we each can stand by Christ in courage, saying, “I can do all things through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13).
Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.