A TALE OF TWO MOUNTAINS
[Palm Sunday Reflection]
In the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ famous novel "A Tale of Two Cities" (1859), he writes:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us,we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Dickens was describing the parallel situation of two cities – Paris and London – before and during the French Revolution. Two cities but identical complex conditions; two locations made one by the same characters who connect them.
In Palm Sunday’s readings, two gospel narratives are read – one at the blessing of the palms and the other at the celebration of the Mass.
Two main events happened in two mountains – the triumphant entry to Jerusalem in the Mount of Olives and the cruel crucifixion in Mount Calvary: the best of times, the worst of times; the season of light, the season of darkness; the spring of hope, the season of despair.
Mount of Olives is a place where Jesus happily frequented himself when he was around the city of Jerusalem. The village of Bethany where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived is on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. There Jesus rests, relaxes with friends and enjoyed their loving company (John 12: 1-8). It was also in the Mount of Olives that Jesus told his disciples about the end times not in frightening apocalyptic language but on the need for eager everyday watchfulness, faithful living out of one’s capacities, and compassionate service to the excluded in the peripheries: the lesson of the fig tree, the thief coming in the night, the ten bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, the judgment of the nations (Mt. 24:1 – 25:46).
And in today’s first gospel, the slopes of Mount of Olives is where people spread their cloaks and leafy branches on the road, singing Hosanna as Jesus rides a colt in triumphal entry to the Holy City (Mark 11:1-10).
Mount Calvary is a totally different place. The Latin "calvaria", the Aramaic "golgotha" or the Greek "kranion" means “the place of the skull”. It is equated with the mount of execution where perhaps dead bodies of criminals were left unburied, birds of prey abounded and mangled flesh and bones scattered.
Today’s gospel describes this place vividly. There the soldiers crucified him with two thieves, divided his garments, gave him wine drugged with myrrh, reviled and mocked him until his last cry and left him there until some kind soul volunteered to hurl him down and laid him to rest (Mark 15: 22-47). It is a place of death, of loss, of defeat.
But where is Calvary? Traditionally, it is said to be located on the present Church of the Holy Sepulchre – a favorite pilgrimage site of Catholics and Orthodox alike in our times.
The Church was built by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, in the 4th century AD, inside the old city walls after having “discovered” the cross of Jesus in that site more than three centuries after his death. There is a whole library of legends about this “discovery” –now popularly dramatized for the Filipino consciousness around the Santacruzan. But in fact has little basis in extant historical records.
Some recent scholarship, however, tells us that Jesus’ crucifixion happened not on the site specified by St. Helena but on the Mount of Olives (e.g., Ernest Martin, The Place of Christ’s Crucifixion: Its Discovery and Significance,1984).
The historian Josephus and other extra-biblical records also point to this location. The book of the Hebrews already told us: “the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Heb 13: 11-13).
Like the sacrificial animals, Jesus was also crucified east of the city, “outside the city gate” and “before the city wall”, the only possible location of which is the Mount of Olives. And on the week that Jesus and other criminals were crucified, the thousands of visitors in Jerusalem and all passers-by could see the events from afar provoking terror on those who are tempted to follow their lead.
The two mountains we identified from the start are in fact one. And the two events of the Holy Week were enacted in the same single location – the Mount of Olives. Jesus died on this mountain overlooking the city of Jerusalem over whom he wept weeks earlier (Luke 19:41-44).
Ironically, the very same terrains where his donkey trod as the Jews triumphantly welcomed him as their Messiah were the same grounds where they scorned and mocked him as the vilest criminal of all. The road where they spread their cloaks to welcome him as King is the same path where they jeered at the criminal saying, “You saved others; why can’t you not save yourself!” All these in less than one week!
On the one hand, it was in Gethsemane – a garden at the foot of Mount of Olives – where he sweated “blood” in fear and trembling as he bargained with his Abba while his closest friends dozed off (Luke 22: 39-46). On the other hand, it was also in the Mount of Olives where he was gloriously taken up to the clouds after sending off his fired up disciples to the whole world (Acts 1:9-11).
Looking at this from the perspective of our election time in the Philippines, we see the same two directions.
On the one hand, we see powerful politicians with overflowing money using social media to systematically tell lies, to curse people, to spread hatred, to maliciously destroy other's names and to manipulate the poor. And more money is coming right before the election day. On the other hand, we also see young people—digging from their own pockets or their parents'—proclaiming truth and hope with arts and memes, with music and dance, with pure creativity, overflowing energy and joy.
On the one hand, we see the oligarchs, the corrupt, the powerful and the plunderers coming together in one Party. They control all the political machinery from top to bottom. On the other hand, we also see poor people, ordinary citizens, rising up to express their moral outrage and shout their hopes for a better society by thronging to rallies or doing house to house campaign—rain or shine
On the one hand, we see people choose Barrabas. Again.
On the other hand, simple women and ordinary disciples, who after three days, run to the tomb, and see the resurrection. Once more.
Back to Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period…”
The first paschal sacrifice of Jesus – both hope and despair, light and darkness, dying and rising – continues to be reenacted and relived not in the past or future but in the present, not in two mountains but one, not somewhere else but here, not only in others’ lives but also in mine.
The choice is actually ours. The presence of Jesus during the Holy Week is a challenge for us to choose. Between lies and truth. Between corruption and accountability. Between destructive hate and radical love. Between paralyzing despair and undying hope. Between death and life.
Have a meaningful Holy Week everyone!
And come May 9, choose TRUTH, choose LOVE, choose HOPE and choose LIFE!
Daniel Franklin Pilario, CM
Vincentian Chair for Social Justice
St. John's University - New York