There is a touching moment in Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, during a conversation between St. Thomas More, the Chancellor of England who sits in prison awaiting death, and his daughter Margaret. They discuss the demands of virtue in a fallen world.
If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that abhorrence, anger, pride, and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice, and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little — even at the risk of being heroes…” (Margaret More:) But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want? (Sir Thomas More:) …Well, finally… it isn’t a matter of reason. Finally, it’s a matter of love.
The ways of love and grace are always counterintuitive because they cost us…everything.
The Church thus enters Holy Week today. This week’s artwork is the “Entry into Jerusalem” (1640) by the Spanish painter Pedro Orrente, a student of El Greco. David Clayton calls his style “baroque classicism,” one that emphasizes color, clarity, and a somewhat mannered (posed) composition. You’ll notice that, unlike everyone else in the scene, there is a member of the crowd, a young man dressed in “modern” (17th-century) clothing, holding both olive and palm branches, and looking directly at the viewer. Could he be a stand-in for the artist himself? The figure welcomes us into the scene. As with the Stations of the Cross, the Christian’s task is to accompany Our Lord at the most important moments of his life. Pope Benedict points out that Jesus, who acts like a king by requisitioning a colt, now sits on the humble beast as a king reigns upon a throne, while his fellow pilgrims place cloaks and branches along his route and children shout “Hosanna.” These are all the earmarks of Israel’s expectation of the Messiah. Yet despite the dynamic character of the occasion, it is as though the artist bids us stop, drink in the moment of (passing) glory, and savor it. All the better to appreciate the complete abandonment of Jesus who dies in agony and ignominy just days later.
This is one of those events that are best captured, not by the intellect through words, but by the heart through the senses. One of the key themes of St. Mark’s Gospel is that one discovers the truth about Jesus, not in the glory of the world—fleeting as it is—but in the utter disgrace and rejection of the cross. Indeed, it is the most unlikely of characters—the centurion—who declares “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Conventional wisdom is turned on its head, and the disciple learns to peer more deeply into the mystery of Christ to behold, with the eyes of faith, what no human intellect can grasp without God’s grace. The “law of the Cross” (lex crucis) is the divine power that reaches into the heart of evil and subverts it, thereby making right our relationship with God once marred by sin.
The attitude of the Catholic during Holy Week is one of wonder: not merely thinking about an event that happened long ago and far away, but being open to a divine reality that presents itself right now, on its own terms. Worldly knowledge is only of use in this life, but love, the fruit of wonder, extends even to the next life, where God will be all in all. Let us take those first steps with Christ into Jerusalem, and then…into glory.