Palm Sunday as Anti-Tragedy

The greatest ironies of the Christian faith do not start in Holy Thursday. The radical nature of Christianity that will unravel in the Paschal Triduum begins with Palm Sunday and the ironic nature of its celebration.

At the start of the mass, the congregation heads outside of the church each one holding a branch of Palm that the priest blesses; after which, the celebrant reads the gospel depicting the entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem and welcomed with palm branches laid before his feet. This scene is then counteracted by the gospel reading during the mass proper, when the same congregation is tasked to read the parts of the High Priest and crowd that demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. While this scene is dogmatically meant to represent the guilt of men, these set of readings should not be read in such naive manner. Rather, is not the whole set of readings from the blessing of the palms to the reading of the passion of Christ according to Matthew a parody of a Greek tragedy?

The readings take us on the typical flow of a Greek tragedy. The fateful hero enters the city in triumph and welcomed by the people as the savior or the destined king of the city. However, this same person, by a twist of fate, does not live on to the expectation of the crowd and is denounced by the city’s ecclesiastico-political authorities for violating the fundamental traditions of the nation and sentenced to death not just physically but is removed from the community, a double death. However, a Greek tragedy employs a fundamental dramaturgic tool, the chorus, that completely separates the crowd and at the same time fully immerses them into the cathartic aspect of the play. While the chorus responds to what the crowd should feel in the performance, it, at the same time, separates them from the story by providing a fetishistic disavowed relation with the play.

If the narrative of the passion, read during Palm Sunday, were to be a tragedy, it fully parodies the flow and the ideal behind tragedy. While the message of tragedy is the inevitability of fate in the course of human and divine life, the message of the gospel tragedy is that at the beginning the fateful hero’s triumph and fall is downplayed. In the gospel, there is no fate that will devastate the characters and show his triumphant will. Here, we only have triumphant will without the fate; fate, as a series of strings that weaved together the series of events to its inevitable end, does not exist in the gospel. When Jesus dies on the cross and shouts “Father, Father why have you forsaken me”, Žižek is right to indicate that Jesus signaled the death of God as the transcendent God that sustains the fabric of our reality. In addition, he also dismantles the idea that the world is bound by an order that unfolds a singular narrative bound by love. When Jesus died, it did not end in a carnival of love, where people just loved each other and stopped judging, but signaled a constant state of emergency among his believers, carving the boundaries between believer and foe.

Hence, the ideal of palm Sunday: the palm branch has always been a political symbol, a sign of victory and conquest. Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus is symbolized by the palm tree at the temple of Nike and togas with palm ornaments are worn only by military leaders who have previous military victories under their command. It is easy to assume that the triumphant entry of Jesus in Jerusalem symbolizes a misinterpretation of his ideals that the Jews simply saw Jesus as the second Judas Maccabeus who will lead the rebellion against the Empire. This very conservative interpretation (which I first heard in a sermon when I was a devout conservative evangelical) fully separates the political from the religious that the Christian message is radically different from socio-political struggles. Here, the passion is simply read as an act of disgruntled people who did not expect Jesus to be the man for the job.

The separation however is more radical than the political/religious difference. Rather, what the Jews and other Christian readers have missed is that the triumphant entry of Jesus should be read as the initial dismantling of the ideal of fate and God’s role in actively weaving it to one piece. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, it already indicates that Jesus did not come to be the nationalist political savior nor simply the scapegoat for all our sins, but indicates that God is already empty and that fate does not exist until the people weaved it to be so.

Hence, the obscene implication of the last words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is the complete reversal of the heroic tragic ideal. The city is left to its own devices and the community of believers is left to its indelible bond of Christian love. Love, here, is not the common sense notion of love as an emotion, i.e. an eros, but the tension between philand agape, expressed by the discourse between Jesus and Peter in John 21: 15-18. Here, agape does not supercede philo, but the interaction between Peter and Jesus (i.e. between ἀγαπᾷς με and ὅτι φιλῶ σε) culminates between the common expression of φιλεῖς με used by both interlocutors. Hence, agape is not the precondition for Christian love, but a product that emerges in the gap between it and philo that exists only within the boundaries of philein, i.e. of the gathering of human beings as a community of believers from where agape is produced in solidarity. That is the implication of the whole passion narrative initiated by the narrative of Palm Sunday liturgy.

Love, as presented in Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, along with all its new age-ish message of everything is connected by a thread, interconnecting people of different times and context should be rejected as a complete reactionary message. Your Name presents relations and conflicts as inevitable entanglements within the the same thread of fate that can be entangled but never separate always connected. The disaster serves as one of the entanglements that will sustain the connection of the whole and the proper place of each people within the weaved fabric of time. Each human being and nature in general moved in relation to its harmonious relation within the whole. This soft fascist vision, wherein Japanese Imperialism (as sustained by both paganism and Zen Buddhism) can be simply read as a an entanglement in the nation’s fabric, is counteracted by Christian universality and the tension between philein and agape. Solidarity breaks fate altogether and dismantles class; for this reason, Shiro Amakusa, a Christian who rejected his being part of the samurai class and organized the oppressed Christian peasants, is such a threat to the tightly knit social system and such rebellion can only be sustained by the ideals presented by Christian love. When liberals want to obfuscate class struggle to emphasize the common bond that binds humans together, a genuine response is always a resounding Christian “no”.

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Palm Sunday as Anti-Tragedy

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