When the young man had finished his mock confession, there was a moment of silence, then the priest reached for a piece of paper, wrote something on it, folded it, then slipped it through the grill to the young man. He directed the young man to go out to a large crucifix enshrined in a nearby alcove, and there to read what was on the piece of paper. Taken a bit unawares, but willing to go along with the charade, the young man agreed to do so. As he looked up at the figure of Jesus on the Cross, he slowly unfolded the paper on which the priest had written: “He died for you...and you don’t even give a damn!”
The archbishop concluded his story to the seminary class by saying: “I was that young man.”
Many of us wonder at times about the whole “Jesus thing”. We wonder what it’s all really about, particularly as it applies to us. Perhaps at those times we would do well to look at a crucifix or a picture of the Crucified Christ. As we stand at the beginning of the holiest week in the Church’s year on this Palm Sunday, we might also do well to stand, at least in spirit, in front of a Cross, look at it, let the reality of it sink into our minds and hearts, and then ask ourselves: “Do you even give a damn?”
The events of this Holy Week which we’re about to recall and celebrate were destined to change the entire course of human history. It began on a note of triumph, or so it must have seemed to the crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem like some conquering hero returning to free his people from oppression. Freedom was on Jesus‘ mind, for sure, but freedom of a different kind: a freedom of heart and spirit. Just where and when and how Jesus had come to realize his calling isn’t very clear. We’d suspect that Jesus had at least thought about some of Isaiah’s visions, particularly regarding the Suffering Servant. Also, as a Jew, he surely couldn’t have been unaware of the super-zealous urgings of some of the citizens, who also hailed his coming into the Holy City, to perhaps take the opportunity to overthrow Pontius Pilate. Pilate was surely aware of the threat. It didn’t take long to see that Jesus would, indeed, confront both Pilate and Herod, though quite differently, as he would and does confront all those who wield power that is merely of this world. Jesus‘ power was different: it was the power of self-giving love, encompassing, sacrificing, enduring, like that of the All Holy.
That’s the power of love, hanging on the Cross, upon which you and I gaze at the beginning of this Holy Week. But there’s a caution. As often as we hear the story of Jesus’ passion and death, as we will several times this week, as often as we find ourselves in the place of the centurion at the foot of the Cross, the Crucified One has a way of working his spirit into our hearts and minds and lives. If we really don’t want our life changed, if we’re afraid of his presence, if we don’t want to be refashioned as a new people, to be made more aware of our injustice and inhumanity to one another, then you and I should be somewhere else than in church during this coming week.
Because Jesus befriended the poor, you and I can be enabled to see them with new eyes. Because Jesus reached out to the sick and suffering, you and I can learn how to empathize with others in their pain. Because Jesus loved all human beings so much that he actually died, even death, the inner, daily dying, and our eventual physical dying, can now be seen from a new perspective.
Sacrifice and surrender, clearly, aren’t the only truths of Christianity, as this week will show us. Nevertheless, we all have hard choices to make in daily living. In this “experience of salvation”, as Frederick Buechner calls its, two things happen. First, we lose ourselves; and secondly, in so doing, we discover that we’re more fully ourselves than ever before. The losing of ourselves is a dying, no question, and despite the promise of death and resurrection, symbolized in our Baptism, it’s still hard for us to understand how there can really be life beyond this “death”. Even worse, we’re not always sure that we want to be born to new life, if being re-born means we have to change.
“He died for you...and you don’t even give a damn!” True or false?? Only you and I, standing before the Cross, know what the answer is as it applies to us. However weak-kneed we may feel about the journey ahead of us this Holy Week, and the rest of our lives, however afraid we might be to allow God to touch us, one thing is for sure. It’s hard to stand before Jesus on the Cross and not sense that, as at the foot of that Cross on the hill of Golgotha, there is here also the sure ground of God’s presence and unconditional acceptance.
In Jesus’ Cross we learn the truth that religion has infinitely more to do with the amazing grace and love of God than it has to do with any unworthiness or success of our own; infinitely more to do with God’s purposes than with fearful and corrupt governors and religious leaders. The story of Holy Week is the story of Jesus’ giving of himself for others: a story so incredible and overwhelming, yet so real and true, that we find it reviving our faith, reborning our hope, and deepening our love.
Because, as we stand at the Cross, looking up at that tortured, dying man, we come to know that, without a doubt, he gave and gives a damn...even for you, even for me, even for every one of us!