Are you a bandwagon Christian?

Mark 14:1 - 15:47 (Palm Sunday, year B)

In the world of sports, there seems to be no worse name that you can be called by another fan than “bandwagon jumper”. As I understand it, this is someone who only supports a team when they are winning. When all is going well, they claim to be the team’s greatest fan. As soon as the team starts losing, however, they distance themselves from the team, claiming they never supported them in the first place.

In the readings for Palm Sunday we find many followers of Jesus who are bandwagon jumpers. At the start of Mass we heard the account of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. Jesus had many fans them. He was greeted by a jubilant crowd who acclaimed Him as their king and Messiah. If we fast forward to the Gospel reading of the Passion account from Mark, however, we find these same people calling for the death of Jesus. They beg Pilate to spare the murderer Barabbas rather than Jesus. Jesus’ inner circle - supposedly  his most die-hard fans - is also full of bandwagon jumpers. While in the garden with Jesus, Peter, James and John fell asleep when asked by Jesus to stay up and pray. Judas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, betrayed Him to the authorities. Peter, previously chosen by Christ to be leader of the apostles, denies three times that he even knew Him. When Jesus is apprehended, the authorities grab hold of the garments of one young man who leaves his clothes behind, choosing to run away naked rather than be arrested along with Jesus. He is a symbol for all the disciples of Jesus who became bandwagon jumpers at the start of His Passion. Those who once left all to follow Christ leave everything behind in order to flee from Him.

Why did Jesus’ supporters, both the casual and hardcore ones, turn into bandwagon jumpers, leaving His side when He became unpopular? Simply put, Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that they were hoping for. The crowds who greeted Jesus when He entered Jerusalem were expecting someone who could liberate the people of Israel from the tyranny of the Roman Empire. For those expecting this kind of savior, Jesus’ death at the hands of Romans meant He lost. He had no political or military might. He was a suffering servant who came to liberate us from sin, hatred, greed and ultimately death. This was not the kind of Messiah that most of Jesus’ followers expected or wanted. As a result, they deserted Him when they perceived He was defeated.

If I am honest with myself, I must admit that when it comes to following Jesus I can be a bandwagon jumper or fairweather fan. I suspect I am not the only one. It is fitting that in the liturgy for Palm Sunday, we begin by waving palms, acclaiming Jesus as king and finish by shouting for Him to be crucified during the Gospel. At times we wear the label “Christian” or “Catholic” as a badge of honor. When things get difficult, however, we can desert Jesus. We are bandwagon jumpers when:
  • We conveniently ignore certain teachings of Jesus, like substantially sharing our money and goods with the poor
  • Pretend that hard commandments like forgiving those who harm us and loving our enemy are more like suggestions
  • Expect Jesus to be the kind of Messiah who removes all difficulties and pain from our life
  • We stop praying or going to Mass when life becomes too busy

Though the readings are full of people who desert Jesus, we also find incredible examples of fidelity. We hear about the woman who anoints Jesus with oil from an alabaster jar in spite of being ridiculed by those around her. We find a group of women who watched the crucifixion from a distance: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They could not comprehend the tragedy they witnessed, yet they stood watch and prayed when Christ’s victory seemed impossible.

In our lives too, though we can turn our backs on Jesus, there are many other times that we are faithful. We struggle to pray when situations in our lives seem hopeless. We try to cope with suffering, trusting that Jesus walks with us. We continue struggling to overcome sinful habits even after many setbacks. We keep the faith, pray and go to Mass in a culture which is complacent at best and hostile at worst towards religion.

Palm Sunday is a time to honestly assess our situation. As followers of Jesus, none of us are diehard fans. At the same time, none of us are purely bandwagon jumpers. The most important message of Palm Sunday is that Jesus does not call us by any of these labels. Christ went to die on the Cross for love of those who denied Him and for love of those who remained faithful. He calls us all beloved. He calls us all friend. Above all, He calls each and everyone of us to greater fidelity.

The Cross is Communication

John 12:20-33 (5th Sunday of Lent, year b)

Why did Jesus need to die on the Cross? I know… Jesus had to do it to save us from our sins. But, couldn't God have done this in some other way? Could God not just offer us His grace and forgiveness in some other, less brutal fashion, and we could just accept it and be saved? The Gospel today is taken from a turning point in the Gospel of John. Jesus has finished His preaching and working of miracles and is about to enter into His Passion. In the Gospel Jesus Himself states that it is necessary for the Son of God to suffer and die in order to give us new life: “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Could there not have been some of other way? Why did God need to send His Son to die a terrible death on the Cross in order to save us from our sins?

The answer: it’s a mystery. Years ago when I was a student, nothing would get me more frustrated than when I would ask a question about our faith and the response I would get was “it’s a mystery”. I always saw this as shorthand for “I don’t know”. At times I am convinced it was. Now I see the concept of mystery somewhat differently. Some questions, like how to get from A to B, are problems. There is a definitive answer. Other questions, any which involve God, are mysteries. Mysteries are like spirals of infinite depth. We can go deeper and deeper in trying to answer the question and yet we can never answer if fully. We can, however, say much that is true about the topic under investigation. We just cannot fully or definitively answer the question.

The question “why did Jesus die on the Cross?” is a mystery. There are many angles from which we can approach this question. I would like to answer this problem by approaching it through the perspective of communication.

When we communicate with someone, we want to do two things: 1) transmit a message and 2) have the person we are communicating with act in response to the message. The degree to which we are successful in attaining these ends depends in large part on how we communicate the message. For example, if we want to warn someone who is about to walk into oncoming traffic, we shout “stop” loudly and forcefully in the hope that they will freeze in their tracks. Saying “stop” in a mellow, sing-song voice would probably not produce the desired effect. If, on the other hand, you wanted to tell your significant other how much they mean to you with the hope of eliciting the same feeling in them, you might say “I love you” in a kind voice, while gazing into their eyes and perhaps even handing them a gift. Shouting “I love you” at the person while throwing a glass of cold water in their face would be a less effective means of communication in this circumstance.

Throughout history, God the Father has been seeking to communicate to humanity. He wants to both tell us a message and have us act in response to the message. The message God wants to communicate is simple. He is an infinitely loving and merciful Father. He desires to be in relationship with us now and for eternity. Sin is a terrible, destructive thing. It hurts us and damages our relationship with God. In His great love and mercy, He has forgiven our sins, repaired the damage it has done and prepared a path for us back to Him. In response to this message, God desires that we all take one action: turn from sin and return to Him. This is what God has been trying to communicate all throughout human history.

Because of sin, we are have a predisposition not to listen to what God is saying and resist taking action in response to His message. Sin has given us a misguided understanding of God. We can think God is a vindictive tyrant or, on the other extreme, a permissive, non-demanding deity. We can fool ourselves into thinking that there is no such thing as sin, thinking “I’m okay - you’re okay”, to borrow a phrase from a famous self-help book. Sin makes us mistrustful, suspicious and even aggressive towards God. Even if we hear something of His message, our will is frozen and enslaved by sin. We avoid doing what we know is right.

In communicating His message, mere words are not enough to break through our sin-induced deafness. It takes more than a moral exhortation and Divine offer of grace to convert us. We saw this in history. God sent prophets to teach the people that He is a loving Father and to call them away from sin and back to Himself. All the prophets were rejected, their message largely ignored. Even the preaching and miracles worked by Jesus were not enough. All it served to do was unmask and provoke evil. Words were not a sufficient medium for God to communicate His message to us.

In order for us to truly hear God’s message and to respond to it, we needed tangible and convincing evidence to prove His message: the Cross. The Passion and death of Jesus is the only successful form of communication. It alone breaks through our deafness so we can hear clearly God’s message. On the Cross, God proves the infinite depths of His love and mercy. God became a man and took upon Himself and suffered all the effects of our sinfulness: hatred, violence, and ultimately death. He proved Himself beyond doubt to be a compassionate God. Every drop of blood shed by Jesus on the Cross screams to us how much He loves us. The Cross also tells us the severity of sin. Our sins did this to Him. Not only does the Cross allow us to appreciate God’s message, it alone is forceful enough to shake us loose from our fiercely defended idols and dislodge our chained will from slavery. When we look at the Cross it compels us to turn from sin and return back to our loving Father.

Why did Jesus have to die on the Cross in order to save us? Because it was the only way we would finally hear the message of how loving and merciful our Heavenly Father is and choose to leave sin behind and enter into a relationship with Him. The Cross is the ultimate means of Divine Communication. Each year during Lent we are given the opportunity to make sure we have heard the message and respond more fully to it.

Les Misérables, God's Mercy and Me

John 3:14-21 (4th Sunday of Advent, year b)

Les Misérables, the famous novel written by Victor Hugo, is a work soaked in the Christian theme of mercy. Mercy is particularly at work in the life of one of the main characters, Jean Valjean. His story can help us better understand the conversation about mercy we find in today’s Gospel between Jesus and Nicodemus. In this, Jesus explains how the Father has sent His Son to save us through the free gift of His life, rather than punish us for our sins. In His great mercy, God is not only patient with us sinners, waiting for us to convert, but seeks us out, always making the first move. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, three aspects of God’s mercy stand out.
  1. By it’s very nature mercy is a freely given gift, something we cannot earn.
  2. Mercy is a gift that, once accepted, is meant to change us.
  3. Surprisingly, some people choose to refuse the gift of God’s mercy.
Looking more closely at the life of Jean Valjean helps us better appreciate these three aspects of God’s mercy.

When we first meet Valjean, he is recently released after spending 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed a hungry child. His heart is hardened. Because of his past, Valjean is rejected wherever he goes; he cannot find decent work or a place to live. One day, an elderly Bishop warmly welcomes Valjean into his home, giving him food and a place to sleep. In return for this hospitality, Valjean robbed the Bishop of his silverware in the middle of the night. In the morning, Valjean was arrested and brought before the Bishop by the authorities. They explained that Valjean claimed the Bishop gave him the silverware. Because this is his second offence, Valjean certainly faces life imprisonment with no hope of parole. He is despondent. The Bishop then does something totally unexpected. He tells the guards to release Valjean, explaining that he told them the truth. The silverware was in fact a gift. More than this, he begins scolding Valjean for not taking the valuable silver candlesticks as well. Valjean is shocked and cannot comprehend the Bishop’s behaviour. When they are alone, the Bishop tells Valjean to go and make a new life for himself. He tells him that with these silver candlesticks he has ransomed his soul for God. He is to no longer to live in darkness but the light.

What the Bishop did for Valjean was a totally gratuitous act. It was in no way motivated by self interest. Valjean did nothing to deserve it. It was an act of pure mercy. The Bishop’s gesture is a reflection of what God has done for us. In His mercy, Jesus ransomed us from death to life by giving up His life. It is a total gift. We cannot earn it, only accept it. When we accept God’s mercy it changes our life.

This is exactly what happened to Valjean. He left the Bishop a changed man. After some time he became the mayor of a small town. He was renowned for his generosity to the poor. His self-sacrificing love is most evident when he adopts, at great risk and cost to himself, Cosette, the daughter of one of his workers who has died. During the course of Les Misérables we discover how the Bishop’s selfless act of love and mercy to Valjean transformed him to become someone who is also selfless, generous and loving. In the end, he becomes like the saintly Bishop.

The transformation of Valjean is a model for how we all should be transformed when we accept God’s mercy. God gives us His mercy freely so that in accepting it we become channels of love and mercy to those around use. This is the principle shown in the Gospel and mirrored in Les Misérables. Imagine for a moment if God’s love and mercy were not free, if we really thought that we had somehow earned it. If this were the case, then we would not show love and mercy freely to others. We would make them earn it from us. Jesus came into the world freely to give His life for us and save us. Jesus made Himself a gift for us, so that in accepting Him we would choose to make ourselves a gift for others. St. Athanasius explained it this way: “He became what we are, so that he might make us what He is". We know we have truly accepted God’s mercy for us when we become more merciful and loving to those around us.

It is difficult to appreciate how anyone could refuse God’s free gift of eternal life. Yet Jesus in the Gospel tells us that people will. The life of Valjean offers us a glimpse as to how this could be so. After Valjean has begun his new life, he is constantly pursued and harassed by his former jailor, Javert.  Javert is a man who lives by the letter of the law. In his world, even the slightest infraction must be punished to the full. He understands nothing of mercy. At a crucial moment in the story, Valjean is given the opportunity to kill Javert and be free of him forever. Instead, Valjean spares his life, expecting nothing in return. Valjean does for Javert what the Bishop did for him years ago. He shows him mercy. Now Javert has the chance to become a channel of grace and mercy himself. But this act of love breaks Javert. He cannot understand and appreciate Valjean’s action. He has never shown mercy to anyone in his life and now he refuses to accept it for himself. In the end he chooses to throw himself off a bridge into the river because he cannot live in a world where mercy and love can triumph over the law. Javert shows us what damnation means. People who go to Hell choose to go there because they refuse, until the end, to accept God’s free offer of mercy. Even now, we make life hell for ourselves and others when we refuse to show mercy to those around us.

Recently Pope Francis made a very unexpected announcement. He declared that the coming year would be an Extraordinary Jubilee Year. These holy years are special moments in the Church when we are encouraged in a particular way to grow closer to God. The last Jubilee Year was 2000. Pope Francis announced that this coming Jubilee Year would a Holy Year celebrating the Mercy of God.  During this year, Pope Francis calls all of us to a greater appreciation and acceptance of God’s mercy in our own life. More importantly, he wants to ensure that the Church and each one more fully become channels of mercy to those around us. As we prepare to start this year, we can ask ourselves a simple question: who am I more like, Jean Valjean or Javert?