Populism is on the rise – at least, that’s what the mainstream media want us to believe. The latest sign of its growing popularity seems to be the result of the recent general election in Italy. However, with a bit of knowledge about Italian politics – and I really do mean just ‘a bit’ – there’s nothing unusual with the fragmentation of the current Italian political scene. It’s been more or less like this since the end of World War II. Similarly, I don’t believe there’s more populism in politics now than there used to be. The very word ‘populism’ was coined in the USA as a by-product of the expansion of voting rights. Prospective politicians had to appeal to the ever-growing mass of voters who were always happy to hear promises of a better future and prosperity. The famous phrase of President John F. Kennedy: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’ was uttered in his inaugural speech after he had been elected. Offering voters the prospect of austerity and sacrifice is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas: it never works.
Jesus’ spectacular entry into Jerusalem was deliberately theatrical. He took care of the fine details of the event, as we heard in the gospel reading at the very beginning of Mass. By riding into the City of David on a donkey, accompanied by specific shouts and symbols, Jesus evoked the royal processions of the glorious but distant past. His majestic entry also tapped into the hotly-anticipated arrival of the Messiah, the all-powerful political liberator, believed by many to be imminent. As expected, the event caused a significant stir among the residents of Jerusalem and pilgrims alike, so much so that some of the Pharisees in the crowd asked Jesus: ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ (Luke 19:39-40)
What outwardly might have looked like a populist happening was in fact a deliberate declaration of intent made by Jesus in visual, tangible and symbolic terms. With such a powerful display, with its meaning obvious to his contemporaries in Jerusalem, Jesus declared himself to be the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Liberator. By stirring up such enthusiasm, he made people listen to him. And the trouble was that most of them wouldn’t like what they were about to hear.
Jesus’ version of liberation didn’t meet with their expectations or dreams. Instead of being the anticipated political or military leader who would lead the fight against the well-defined enemy of the Roman Empire, Jesus offered a much more difficult struggle against people’s own shortcomings, broadly classified as ‘sin’. He offered them internal freedom, but that wasn’t something they recognised as a problem relevant to them. So, the crowds’ initial enthusiasm turned sour and very soon they successfully demanded his execution. Only those few who stood by Jesus throughout his torture and death – even if they did so unconvincingly – would eventually experience such internal freedom as he had offered.
Today we carry palm crosses. On the one hand, palms are symbols of Jesus’ royal rank. But on the other hand, as those palms are in the shape of a cross, they remind us that the power of his reign isn’t about temporal power, but it is a gentle invitation to sharing in his Passion in order to be set free of sin. Those who are free in that way can never be enslaved.