No, not the March for Our Lives that riveted the nation’s and much of the world’s attention on March 24th. The Children’s Crusade was a legendary movement of thousands of young people and adults across Europe in 1212 following the disaster of the Fourth Crusade and a few years before the similar failure of Fifth Crusade. Their intent was the peaceful conversion of Muslims and the liberation of the Holy Land.
It seems that teenage visionaries from France and Germany initiated separate pilgrimages that converged on Genoa and Marseilles in hopes of setting out for Palestine, some apparently predicting that the sea would part to permit their passage. Neither company reached their goal. Thousands perished while crossing the Alps or attempting to return home. Others were betrayed, kidnapped, and according to some sources sold into slavery.
Late last week, led by American teenagers inspired by a vision of a more peaceful, safer world, hundreds of thousands of young people and adult associates converged on Washington, D.C. and other cities in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Their intent was to bring sanity and justice to a situation long out of control, the worship of the false and dangerous idol of unlimited gun ownership despite the slaughter of innocents it has engendered. Initiated and led by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, it was a thrilling and remarkably joyous pilgrimage, a peaceful celebration of youthful outrage, hope and idealism.
There was, of course, opposition. Based on a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Second Amendment to the U.S., Constitution, opponents of reasonable gun control such as banning civilian ownership of military-grade assault weapons even many police forces do not possess and the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and implementing more strict enforcement of background checks have succeeded in largely blocking significant legislation. Well funded by weapons industries and the National Rifle Association, they may do so again. In today’s political arena, money talks louder than anything else. Despite promises to back such reforms, the president has already been brought to heel by the NRA and there is little support for such legislation in either chamber of Congress.
So will the March for Our Lives change things? The first Children’s Crusade came to grief because of misdirection, false hope, and ultimate betrayal by their elders. We can only pray and work to prevent history from repeating itself. According to Matthew’s Gospel, it was on what we now call Palm Sunday, when Jesus was scolded for allowing children to shout “Hosanna” on his behalf, that he cited scripture to silence their critics, tweaking Psalm 8:2:
“Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
We hear more than infants and nursing babies here. We hear the articulate protest of the next generation. It would do well for presidents, senators, and representatives to pay close attention.
Years ago, on Passion Sunday (now combined with Palm Sunday) the statues in Catholic churches were draped with violet. Sometimes even the figure of Jesus on the cross was draped, but in white. Flowers were banished. Bells were silenced, their joyful sound replaced by the sharp crack of a wooden clapper. Musical instruments were stored away. It was a solemn, quiet time. In more recent times Catholics learned to appreciate the lesson found in the first Preface of Lent, that this is a joyful season, not one of forced gravity and sadness. We are an Easter people, and that great feast casts not a shadow, but a golden light over our remembrance of the Passion of the Christ.
We remember. We do not repeat. And we look ahead.
But perhaps being a Christian today in the affluent areas of the world became too easy as the more demanding observances of the past were progressively relaxed. It may be a coincidence that over the last fifty years there has been a significant decline in Church membership particularly in wealthier nations. I read recently that among teenagers in England and France, church membership is at an all-time low. In the U.S., fewer and fewer young people seem attracted to Christianity, even though some churches, mainly more fundamentalist and evangelical groups, continue to draw adherents. In much of the world, however, this is not a comfortable time to be a Christian for entirely different reasons. Attacks on churches and persons in Egypt, Nigeria, India, Iraq, and elsewhere in the less-affluent world are especially worrisome, although in troubled lands Christians have largely remained faithful to their beliefs. Many others have migrated to safer areas.
Challenges tend to strengthen faith, or should. Confronted by an increasingly disbelieving world, Christians can ignore insults,
persecution, and disparagement, deny them, or try to resist them. The greatest danger is that they might passively allow them to weaken or destroy their faith, already under constant assault by the false values and cynicism of the age. That is the dilemma Christians have in some sense always faced. Keeping faith in the face of uncertainly and derision is also a choice and often a hard one, as both Judas and Peter discovered in today’s long reading of St. Mark’s Passion.
The redeeming death of Jesus has never been easy to fathom — to understand how he accepted suffering and death but thus reconciled the human race to God, overcoming the terrible division caused by the whole history of sin, estrangement, and despair.
Our first two readings, carefully chosen from the Book of Isaiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Caesarea Philippi, highlight the profound meaning of what happened beginning on this day nearly 2,000 years ago. They prepare us to grasp, not with our minds so much as with our hearts, what we will remember during Holy Week, coming to a great climax on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In particular, the account of the Passion according to Mark recounts the mystery of God’s love, a love made real, visible, and effective in the trial and death of Jesus. All God asks of us here and now is to listen — carefully and with love.
So as we commemorate this day on which Jesus entered Jerusalem towards the end of his life to encounter his destiny, we are invited to prepare for the coming week, the one we call Holy, in which we are called to accompany Jesus on his way to the cross. But to do that, as he warned us, we have to shoulder our own cross. We must never forget, however, that Resurrection lies ahead. So let’s get on with it.
This month marks the fifteenth year after the war on Iraq began and supposedly ended. As the war in Afghanistan continues into its seventeenth year and the Syrian conflict its eighth, and as we ponder the awful wave of shootings in our country and violence in Syria, Yemen, and so many other places, we are reminded in the liturgy and especially today’s Scripture readings of the importance of remembering God’s faithful pursuit of humankind despite all our cruelty, forgetfulness, and spite. It is important to bear in mind that when we remember, as the liturgy urges us, we are not retrieving the past, but enlarging the present, increasing our consciousness of the presence of God and our presence before God that stretches all the way back.
Today’s liturgy especially focuses on the covenants God made with our ancestors and with us. Carefully so. A covenant is a bond or pledge of fidelity, like
a testament, which is a binding legal declaration, often a disposition of property. As early as the third century Christians began referring to the Hebrew scriptures as the “Old” Testament or Covenant and the Christian scriptures as the “New” Testament. Recently, Christians have begun to pay attention to the complaint from Jews (and many Christians) that this way of referring to the Bible is misleading.
Calling it the “Old” Testament is often assumed to mean that the Ancient Covenant has been superseded, outmoded, or abrogated by a different arrangement. But Jesus himself insisted that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them [Matt. 5:17] — to complete the Ancient Covenant by renewing it absolutely. He did that by the shedding of his blood for the life of the world, just as the original covenant was sealed with the blood of sacrifice.
Actually, there was not simply one ancient covenant, but a whole series of them — from Adam to Noah to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who also hears God promise a new and everlasting covenant of peace [Ezekiel 37:26]. All these covenants were renewed, each in turn, as men and women broke faith with God over and over again. But God renewed and always enlarged that serial covenant, overcoming the estrangement people produced by breaking the more ancient covenants. Ultimately, as God promised Ezekiel, God did establish a new and eternal covenant, not with the blood of lambs or cattle or other animals, but with the blood of Jesus. Listen to the words of consecration and you will hear what Jesus himself said: “This chalice holds my blood, the blood of a new and eternal covenant. It will be shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.” Don’t forget that the term “the many” meant “everyone” in Jewish use, as opposed to “a few.”
It is this renewed and eternal covenant that Jeremiah promises in today’s first reading, reminding us of all those ancient pacts and pointing ahead to their fulfillment. “This is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel… I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” What Jeremiah did not know was that he was pointing ahead to the cross.
It is also the cross that the great letter to the Hebrews points to as the instrument enacting this new covenant. This long, profound mediation explains how Jesus achieves this renewed and now completed relationship between God and the human race, one that includes all the others. In today’s reading we hear how God ratified and blessed that sacrifice, Jesus’ own willingness to die in testimony to God’s faithfulness, by raising Jesus from death to eternal life. As Risen Lord, Jesus is the pledge and warrant of God’s absolute commitment to humanity, the savior of the world. That is the New Covenant, or better, the eternally Renewed Covenant.
In John’s gospel, we find Jesus saying the same thing — not that God would save him from the hour of his passion and death, but that God would be glorified in that willing self-offering. He speaks of a grain of wheat which, if it could somehow save itself from its small death, falling into the ground and changing into something totally new and different, the way a human being resists death and even the thought of dying, it would never become anything other than a solitary speck of plant tissue. It is by undergoing the transformation, replacing its identity with a whole new way of being, that the single grain becomes a field of living wheat. That, I am sure, will be the legacy of the new martyrs of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and so many other victims of human folly and hatred.
Jesus applies that lesson first to his followers — follow me, take up your cross, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke have it, and come where I am. Then he applies it to himself: should I ask God to save me from this hour? No, this is why I am here. This is what I have come to do. It all gets down to this:
“Now has decision come upon the world. Now will evil be overthrown. Now will I draw all men and women to me.” And that, ultimately, is where our Lenten pilgrimage brings us on this fifth Sunday. It’s especially a good day to think seriously about mending our own broken relationships. Next week, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, which celebrates the climax and fulfillment of the Ancient Covenant, the pledge of an eternal Easter and for our Jewish sisters and brothers, Passover. So let us pray in this time of war and remembrance that we will come to know fully the forgiveness and renewal God offers, so that we will experience the end of the reign of sin and death in our own lives and that of the whole world.