This has been a difficult year for despots and tyrants. First the long-time oppressive president Ben Ali of Tunisia stepped down in the face of peaceful but persistent protests. Then, the totalitarian rule of President Mubarak of Egypt came to an end after 35 years of total control. Last week, President Gbagbo of Ivory Coast, was arrested after attempting to steal the election and will of his people, trying to cling to the power that had corrupted him by any means possible, including placing his nation at risk of civil war. Of course, the story of the springtime of freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere is far from over. Muammar Gaddafi still clings to power by brute force against his people and the ruling regimes of Syria, Bahrain and Zimbabwe have all used violence against peaceful protesters in order to remain in power. And, it is sad to say, that even if – or more correctly when – those earthly tyrants fall from power, there will no doubt be others to take their place somewhere in the world.
Throughout human history, such examples of tyranny, or of the corruption of any political or business or even religious leader, have been the source of suffering for many. Those who cling to power or prestige or position exploit the talents and labor of others; they hoard to themselves the material wealth of nations; they promote violence, torture and war; they suppress the demands of justice; they stifle free expression and impose ignorance and illiteracy, and they ignore or deny the basic human dignity of their brothers and sisters.
But lest we become too focused on the massive misdeeds of those who commit such crimes of pathological insecurity on the world stage, we also should remember how each of us must struggle with similar temptations to assert ourselves or to maintain the illusion of power at the cost of others. Yes, in humility, we must admit that each of us in our own way can become tyrants in our attitudes and behaviors toward others if we find our sense of meaning and purpose and security in the passing goods and values of the age of materialism in which we live rather than in the eternal good that is God’s Word.
It is with this knowledge that we can most fully appreciate the great mystery of salvation that we celebrate in a solemn way during this Holy Week. Today, with this Palm Sunday commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, we recall once again the rule and the power of the true king, Jesus Christ. In doing so, we are called to see that the Lord Jesus is the antithesis of all tyrants great and small, and as such he brings about not only his own salvation and exultation, but also the salvation and exultation of us all.
The ancient hymn quoted by St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, which we heard as our second reading today, summarizes this attitude of Jesus Christ that brought about the redemption of the world. Unlike the failed human logic that would cling to position, cling to status, and cling to power no matter what it might cost others, Jesus freely lets go of and surrenders even the divine dignity that is his legitimate place. Even though he is God from all eternity, he did not cling to that dignity, but in a supreme act of love emptied himself of all that was rightfully his in order to accomplish the Father’s will that all be saved. Embracing the way of humility as the only path to salvation, Jesus confronted the tyranny of sinful pride that is the source of all misery and death. In doing so, he did not strike back in revenge at the “buffets and spitting” of manipulated crowds and the compromises of political expediency or injustice. Rather, he steadfastly gave to the weary a word to rouse them with hope, and he found his own sense of purpose and confidence and security in the loving promises of God the Father of all. Even when he sensed that he would have to endure the most heinous cruelties imaginable, he did not cling to power or self-preservation, but remained steadfast in his desire to accomplish the will of the Father and the salvation of all.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, today we have sung hosanna to welcome the True King into the City of Peace and into our lives. We have also heard the account of the ways in which those surrounding Jesus in various ways gave into the temptation to save themselves through intolerance, spiritual blindness, betrayal, false testimony, political expedience or the senseless shouts of a mob mentality. In doing so, we might recognize how we ourselves can easily join in with the voices and allow the tyranny of sin one more victory in our lives.
And yet, we are also called today and in this Holy Week to remember with gratitude the fact that we have been touched by the victory of Jesus Christ, who was not conquered by sin and death but rather overcame their tyranny through the complete gift of himself in love. In baptism, we have been called to follow him in the path of humility and self-giving love to bring about more completely his triumph over the tyranny of sin and death. We have been filled with his life and grace that we might give witness to the truth of his Kingdom. In this Eucharist we continue to receive the saving gift of his broken body and his life-giving blood. With these precious gifts that he shared with us as an everlasting covenant of love, may we continue our journey with hope, imitating the humility of Jesus Christ, knowing that with God’s help we “shall not be put to shame.”