A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, April 1, 2012, Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion | Carl E. Olson
• Jn 12:12-16 or Mk 11:1-10
• Is 50:4-7
• Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
• Phil 2:6-11
• Mk 14:1—15:47 or 15:1-39
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is credited with writing that “the line separating good and evil is drawn through the human heart.” That line exists in all of us; it has been within the human heart since the Fall, when Adam and Eve allowed it to be drawn upon their hearts by the Serpent.
It winds through the dramatic story of the Passion, heard at length in today’s Gospel reading, which describes the cosmic clash, the bloody battle, and the inner struggle between good and evil. The Passion took place during the combined feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread, the greatest feast of the Jewish liturgical year. This commemorated the Exodus from Egypt, when the people were freed from centuries of bondage and established as a nation by the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai.
There is much to ponder in St. Mark’s account, but I’ll focus on two disciples—two men who had walked and lived with Jesus for some three years: Judas and Peter.
We are well acquainted with them, but there is, I think, a temptation to take their actions for granted. History and familiarity has a way of dulling our sense of how real and serious were their choices. Put another way: what if Judas had repented of his betrayal of Jesus? What if Peter had not repented of his denial of his Lord? The line between good and evil was drawn through both of their hearts, yet one despaired and committed suicide, while the other was restored and became the first pope.
Jesus chose both men and they spent endless hours and days with him, learning at his feet, seeing his example. What was the difference between them? Pope Benedict XVI, in his October 18, 2006, general audience, reflected on the choice and actions of Judas. He noted reasons related to money and political agendas have been suggested as causes of Judas’s betrayal, but wrote that in the end we must go “beyond historical motivations, explaining what occurred by basing it on Judas' personal responsibility, who yielded miserably to a temptation of the evil one. In any case, Judas' betrayal continues to be a mystery. Jesus treated him as a friend (cf. Matthew 26:50), but in his invitations to follow him on the path of the beatitudes he did not force his will or prevent him from falling into Satan's temptations, respecting human freedom.”
The human heart, the Holy Father reminded us, is capable of heinous and dark perversions. It is easy to think we are incapable of real evil, that only men such as Hitler, serial killers, or terrorists are truly evil. Such thinking can be the first step down the road to evil, for it fails to honestly assess and acknowledge the human condition—our condition. And when we mistakenly think we can keep ourselves from temptation and sin, we go further down the road. That road is usually not steep at first; it is a gentle incline, with little to suggest it might lead to ruin and damnation.
When the line is finally crossed, it can become easy, even commonplace, to give Jesus a kiss while betraying him in our hearts. Receiving Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin is one such betrayal, for doing so publicly declares a loving and loyal communion with the Savior that, in reality, has been severed.
Peter recognized that he had broken communion with Jesus: “He broke down and wept.” But instead of giving in to despair, he gave himself over completely to the Lord. “Jesus waits for us to have the disposition to repent and to be converted,” Pope Benedict said, “he is rich in mercy and forgiveness.”
The Son, the second Person of the Trinity, “humbled himself,” St. Paul wrote, “becoming obedient to the point of death.” As we prepare for the greatest feast of the year, we are called to humility and obedience and trust. It is the only way to keep from crossing the line.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the April 5, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)