1995 April 9 – Palm Sun (Prison Writings)
” The greatness of Christianity lies in its being hated by the world, not in its being convincing to it.” Ignatius of Antioch
This weekend’s Liturgy of the Word begins with a reading of St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphful entry into Jerusalem. It ends with the Gospel reading of St. Luke’s Passion account, two bookend readings bracketing the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.
One of the things that would seem obvious yet is often overlooked about Jesus’ public life was the political nature of his actions and witness. For all the cosmic and spiritual importance we claim for Jesus’ mission, the arena in which he played out his salvation drama was the social/political arena. This was especially true of his last days on earth. Starting with this weekend’s Palm Sunday procession at the beginning of Mass, we are reminded that Jesus and his followers staged a major street demonstration in their capital city of Jerusalem just 5 days before his death. This was by all accounts a politically charged event.
The Jewish people were celebrating the feast of the Passover. This is the feast in which the Jews remember and relive the liberation experience of being set free from Egypt’s slavery. Each year during Jesus’ lifetime, the Jews who gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover used the occasion to also demonstrate their own desire and hope of being free from the dreaded Roman occupation. Every Jew, regardless of their political leanings, longed for the day in which they could once again be a free and independent nation with their own king to rule over them. Many were actively looking for the promised Messiah to fulfill this dream.
All of these political expectations surrounding the Passover were not lost on the Romans. Historians tell us that every year at this time extra Roman soldiers were sent to Jerusalem to help secure the city. The Romans wanted to make sure to put down even the hint of Jewish unrest, stopping any rebellion before it got started. The slightest provocation would unleash a violent Roman military reprisal. There were numerous accounts of such Jewish acts of unrest and Roman reprisals throughout this historical period. The most significant rebellion taking place in the late 60’s ending with the Roman legions completely destroying the city of Jerusalem and leveling the Temple in 70 A.D.
So when Jesus and his disciples staged and led their Palm Sunday street demonstration through the streets of Jerusalem, encouraging the crowds to hail Jesus their King and Messiah, the political impact of this event was obvious for all to see. That is why in today’s text from Luke the Pharisees in the crowd sensing the dangerous political implications told Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” (Lk.19:40) The Pharisees warning was not heeded for in Matthew’s version it says, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.” (Matt. 21:10)
Immediately after his Palm Sunday street demonstration, according to Matthew and Luke and a day after, according to Mark, Jesus went to the Temple and cleared out the moneychangers. This too was a public and political witness of major significance. By today’s standards Jesus’ Temple Cleansing witness was an act of direct non-violent civil disobedience. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus is in trouble with the Temple authorities much sooner in his public ministry. John has Jesus doing his Temple Cleansing witness in the 2nd Chapter.
In all four Gospels the Temple Cleansing witness basically serves the same purpose. It is Jesus’ most militant symbolic direct action against the central most powerful religious/political institution in all of Israel. It was an exercise in speaking His Father’s truth to “the powers that be”. And it came at a very high price.
Scripture scholars tell us it was based on these two events, the Palm Sunday demonstration and the Temple Cleansing witness, that the Jewish authorities decided to set in motion the plan to have Jesus arrested, tried and convicted of sedition and sentenced to death. Caiaphas, the High Priest at the time, summed up the Jewish authorities reasoning for moving on Jesus when he said to the gathered Sanhedrin, “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” (Jn. 11:50) It was not uncommon during this era of Roman rule to be crucified for far less.
Yet the Gospels claim that Jesus was completely innocent. How can this be true? Jesus’ innocence did not depend on his not being a lawbreaker. For clearly, Jesus broke all kinds of man-made laws throughout his entire public life. His innocence rests upon the Divine Truth that he embodied and proclaimed. This Divine Truth naturally exposed the lies and falsehoods upon which the legitimate social/political/religious structures and institutions of Jesus’ day rest. God’s saving truth exposes all lies, those private and public, personal and social from the highest to the lowest of places. Neither the Temple hierarchy nor the Roman Empire were prepared to accept the Divine Truth Jesus was offering and conspired to do away with him.
A lot of people would just as soon not deal with the social/political content of Jesus’ message, much ” less entertain the thought that the Church ought to encourage the same non-violent direct confrontational style that Jesus used in exposing the worldly lies of his day. It would be much easier to keep religion out of politics all together and make it a solely personal “me and God” kind of thing. But that would be doing a great disservice to our Christian vocation.
The Gospels make clear that the whole of Jesus’ adult life was a series of very public and political acts culminating in Jerusalem during the last days of his life. Throughout this period Jesus was at odds with the rich and powerful in his society, standing against the defenders of the status quo on every level. Given the state of our world today and how far we are off the mark in living, as Jesus would have us live, there is no real evidence that our relationship to the world in a public and political sense should be any different than Jesus. It strikes me that there continues to be much truth in the above quote by Ignatius of Antioch, “the greatness of Christianity lies in its being hated by the world, not in its being convincing to it.”
95 04 09
THE SHORT TIMERS BLUES
I’m well into the ‘short timer’s blues’ stage of my imprisonment. It happens during the last weeks of incarceration. The days and nights seem to drag on and on at a snail’s pace. I’ve lost much of my energy to get anything done. I find it hard to write. I’m tired of reading. It is difficult to keep my daily regime of work, exercise and prayer going. I’ve started to spend lots of time in the TV rooms. The Spring-like weather is not helping me keep my concentration. The good thing about the short timer’s blues stage is that it can’t last forever, even though it feels like it is.
This is also a transitional period for me. I am putting closure to this part of my life’s journey. I’m starting to say my goodbyes to some of the friends I’ve made while being here. I will let Rev. Jerry Bailey and Fr. Leonard Kaysar know how much I appreciated their friendship and support for me during this time. I’m finding that my mind is wandering more and more off the Camp site and back into the world I will soon be re-entering. This adds to my excitement and anxiety.
I’m really looking forward to returning to Council Bluffs and the folks at St. Patrick’s. The first weekend I’m back at St. Patrick’s will be a First Holy Communion weekend. Some of the First Holy Communion recipients will be from the First Grade Class at St. Albert’s that I taught last school year. I can’t wait to celebrate my first weekend Eucharist in our newly remodeled Church sanctuary. Mostly though I am excited about getting back and being with all the folks I left behind, my family, friends and supporters, and all the good people of St. Patrick Faith Community.
I’m also anxious about where I will be assigned in July. I’m up for a move and nothing has been decided about my placement in the diocese. This of course is a point of concern and high anxiety for me, something every priest experiences routinely in his priestly career.
There are many folks I need to thank for all the support and love I received while in prison. On the top of my list is Msgr. Ed Pfeffer, without whose support and belief in me, this effort would not have been possible. Thanks Ed for measuring the pluses over the negatives in my going to jail and your willingness to make up the difference in my absence. Big thanks to Kathryn Epperson who served as my personal banker, bill payer, prison fund manager, and overall main counsel. This was Kathryn’s fourth time as my main support person and we get better at this process each time. Special mention goes to Jim and Mary Mason who organized my St. Pat’s Support group who did all the folding, stapling, labeling, and sorting to get our newsletter THE INSIDE WORD mailed. Big thanks to Mike Sprong and Beth Preheim for editing and laying out THE INSIDE WORD and for being my local support folks here at Yankton. And a big thank you to the folks at the Des Moines Catholic Worker. When I left for prison they inherited my TV and VCR plus I entrusted my car and computer into their safekeeping. They kept my mailing list up to date and made sure Jim and Mary had the list of labels for each mailing. I’m hoping to retrieve my car and computer on my return.
My biggest thanks go to the folks at St. Patrick’s, especially those who let me know in so many ways of their support and prayers for me. Close to one-half of all my correspondence came from people from Council Bluffs and a good share of my visitors were St. Patrick’s folks. And a very special prayerful thank you to the 8 a.m. Monday Communion Service crew who prayed for me each week in my absence. We will soon be back together again in the fullest Eucharistic sense.
Easter week is a great time to be released from captivity. Being set free from prison fits well into the Easter season’s theme of new life and resurrection. And since the Easter season lasts all the way to Pentecost, I’m planning on celebrating my ‘mini’ resurrection from prison throughout the whole season of Easter – right up to Pentecost. Let the good times roll…
Fr. Frank Cordaro