What a jolly pastime – pursuing oxymorons - sounds rather like chasing goofy cattle – doesn’t it!?! There’s something rather gratifying in being able to pin-point what is absurd and who is absurd. All the better if this is flavoured with a with a dash of mockery and scoffery (a word of my own invention).Oxymoron – the coupling of contradictions, such as ‘awfully good’ and ‘terribly nice.’ I ask myself, ‘More awful than good?’ and ‘More terrible than nice?’ Or vice versa? Of course, such oxymorons will not stand up to close scrutiny. They’re really rather vapid, stating no more than that something or someone is exceedingly good or nice.
A very different matter is when the kernel of our Christian Faith is expressed by way of an oxymoron. What are we to make of these two daringly outrageous oxymorons chanted triumphantly at the high-point of the Church’s liturgy – the Easter Vigil?
‘O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!’
‘Necessary sin! Happy fault!’
Only one who is divinely inspired would allow for a sin to be necessary or a fault to be a source of joy. And this is precisely what the Church is doing during Holy Week; what the Church believes has to be done. And this is what Jesus has done in and through the Paschal Mystery of his death and resurrection. He has turned the occasion of man’s defection – the Fall – into the source of redeeming, merciful love gushing from the heart of our Crucified Lord.
The sentiments of that much-loved hymn, ‘the Old Rugged Cross,’ boggle the mind, add to the confusion:
‘In the old rugged Cross, stain'd with blood so divine a wondrous beauty I see’.. and ‘So I'll cherish the old rugged Cross.’ The Cross..A wondrous beauty! .The cherished cross!’
In truth and in fact, the cross to which Jesus was nailed was a hideous instrument of torture so cruel that after hours of agony the one impaled on it eventually died.
No beauty here, no power here, and surely no wisdom. St. Paul recognized that the Christian faith was seen by some to be a mass of contradictions and absurdities.
I Cor. 1.23 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23* but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
While some would say, ’God doesn’t make sense,’ Christians would reply, ‘God doesn’t make nonsense’; what God does is make mystery – its meaning being far too profound for us to be able to grasp.
On Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, we celebrate within a single liturgy the contradiction, the conflict, the oxymoron, bedded into the very fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God, long promised by God, much awaited by the People of God. Acclaimed as a triumphant hero, rejected as a shamed villain.
Firstly, in our Palm Sunday liturgy, we try to catch something of the spirit of his entry into Jerusalem. This was wonderful, exciting, thrilling! And rightly so. Jesus, for this once, was allowing himself to be openly acclaimed with the Messianic title of ‘the King who comes in the name of the Lord.’ In so doing he acknowledged that he was all that God intended him to be; all this crowd made Him out to be. Their hero! They had got it right!
And then, in sharp contrast, in the Passion Narrative of this same liturgy of Palm Sunday we hear that he was treated as a villain, a reject. he was mocked, scourged, vilified, crucified. This was in total contraction of all that the People of God had been led to expect was due to their Messiah.
Such is the supreme oxymoron – the contradiction – literally embodied in Jesus, as pre-determined by his Heavenly Father. … that the Son of God, made man, Jesus, should be both worthy of all praise…as the acclaimed Messiah …sent by God himself, and be adjudged deserving of the ultimate human punishment meted out to criminals, he, Suffering Servant God, the Suffering Servant of mankind …the Redeemer. .
To come terms with these extremes of gladness and of sadness is emotionally, spiritually exhausting…the spirituality of Palm Sunday, an oxymoron, that might well tear us asunder. It must surely have done something like this to Mary, the Mother of Jesus!
Peter Clarke, O.P.