Last week, the NCAA men’s and woman’s basketball tournament — March Madness — came to an end. And this year – like every year – I was waiting to see who would be the Cinderella Team. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, the ‘Cinderella team’ is usually a pretty low seed that defeats a strong favorite. And maybe just keeps going. Butler University, George Mason University, NC State in 1983 with Jimmy V, Florida Gulf Coast… there’s something about an underdog that everyone loves.
You know the feeling. Like the time when no one had any expectations of what you could do, and then you surprised them all. Maybe in sports. Your high school softball team, 8th grade basketball team. Or maybe bidding on a contract at work, appointed to a city position. Or, overcoming a serious medical diagnosis.
On our Lenten journey, we now arrive at the wild celebration of an underdog making his way to big game. We call it Palm Sunday. Jesus has been giving sight to the blind, allowing the deaf to hear, raising people from the dead, turning water into wine. He’s been all over Galilee, and now is making his way into Jerusalem. People have heard about all the good He has done. So, they jump on the bandwagon. He’s the Cinderella story in their midst.
But that’s not what happened. Our Gospel today recounts the passion of our Lord, just five days later. That initial burst of acceptance, of good vibes, of happiness will turn into screams of condemnation.
How could Jesus, the Cinderella story up to this point, be turned upon, rejected, hated… so quickly? Have you ever wondered why we receive palms today at the start of Mass, only to read this Gospel? What happened?
Jesus did not turn out to be what people expected. Just look at our readings. In out 1st reading, Isaiah gives himself up willingly to be scorned and tortured, foreshadowing Christ. In our 2nd reading, St Paul challenges the Philippians to set the example of selflessness, don’t focus on you. Don’t worry about winning the tournament; do something for all those who left off of the bracket. Empty yourselves for others – ‘kenosis’ – just like Christ.
It seems Jesus has everything going for him, and yet, when the nervous authorities decide to end it, He doesn’t fight back. It’s like your #1 pick, who could have won it all so easily, but decided not to play by the their rules. This is completely unexpected. This is madness. He loses on purpose.
So, they abandon him. Who wants to be on the side of a loser? In fact, many of these same people are going to want him executed on Friday. They are on the ‘band wagon.’ They are the worst kind of fair-weather fans.
Today, on Palm Sunday, we are all called to consider what kind of follower we are of Jesus. Are we going to follow Him, no matter what? Are we ‘fair weather’ fans?
You know, come to think of it… I don’t know how NC State did this season. Or, Butler’s basketball record. Likewise, am I cheering Jesus today because my life is going well? What happens when things don’t go well? Am I going to abandon Him for a few weeks, like I’ve done before, until I feel like being a disciple again?
Today we remember the story of our Cinderella story, who – in the eyes of those holding palm branches — is going to fail in the worst way possible.
And we have to ask, as we take home our palms today… Are we going to stay by His side, this week, this month, this year? Or, are we going to abandoned Him as well?