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What does victory look like? In a world full of so much defeat, sometimes it’s hard to remember. To most of us, triumph would include public recognition and the kind of attention that is given to stars, athletes, military leaders and, more recently, politicians. Crowds shouting your name, cameras flashing, a full media schedule, and a cohort of body guards, public relations staff, and handlers. These are the trappings of coming out on top, gaining power over an opponent, or accomplishing something that had been thought impossible. One thing is certain: people love a winner.
Large crowds gathered on the Mount of Olives as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They shouted His name, laid down their cloaks, and waved palm branches in the air. He was, after all, a celebrity; so celebrate they did. Coming into the Holy City in peace felt all the world like a moment of victory, not just for him, but for all of them.
But the city who welcomed Christ as King would chew him up and spit him out as well. They would turn against Jesus because he didn’t play the role they cast him in convincingly enough. In the end, he didn’t act much like a king at all, certainly not a king they could rally behind or fight for.
Criminal execution isn’t usually a path to victory. Being flogged, stripped, humiliated, and nailed to a tree isn’t consistent with anyone’s idea of kingly rule. That is why, perhaps, so few of Jesus’ friends stayed with him to the end. They abandoned him, because they could not abandon their preconceived ideas about what his mission was and how he would conduct it.
Things are not always what they appear, however. For while Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had the look and feel of triumph, it was his exit from the city--bound and carrying a cross--that was his real victory, and ours. Surrendering himself not only to sinners, but to the consequences of all sin, Jesus fought and won the greatest battle of human history. Jesus turned the tables on everything. He battled the fires of hell with the flame of His passionate love for humankind. He wielded the weapon of death against death itself, and entered the grave in order to empty it forever.
This year, I’m going to pay special attention to those aspects of the Passion in which Jesus seems the most desperate and defeated. Fixed to a piece of wood, outside the city walls, mocked by foreign soldiers and fellow Jews alike, I am going to ask God to show me the strength that lies hidden in that kind of weakness, and the victory that is won only by that kind of surrender. I’m going to pray for a glimpse of how God sees my struggles and weaknesses.
In the end, the orchestrated triumphs we see on our cultural stage -- as well as those we might be tempted to wish for ourselves -- are perhaps as fleeting as they are false. True victory is never so clean or packaged so neatly. Real triumph isn’t contrived or staged, nor is it cheap. If we want to live as conquerors, we need to be willing to pay the price for it. That is, we need to get down and dirty, join the battle, and follow the example of the King of Kings whose crown was woven from thorns, and whose throne was the cross.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.