Fr Conor McDonough
There’s a strange paradox at the heart of modern celebrity culture. On the one hand, thanks to Instagram, celebrities are the object of unprecedented interest, love, envy and devotion. Pop stars and influencers all have their ‘fandoms’, hordes of utterly devoted fans who spend large parts of their free time posting, tweeting, and dreaming about their celebrity of choice. The language and emotions involved often approach those of religious worship: “You inspire me”, “Your music is life”, “I’ve loved you from the beginning”.
On the other hand, the very celebrities we lift up in worship almost invariably end up miserable. Recent weeks have seen a spate of reports of suicide and depression among reality TV stars and musicians, and it’s curious that we often follow celebrities’ breakdowns with as much interest, and even glee, as when we charted their rise. Likewise, if a musician or actor commits a major faux pas the public reaction on social media is often swift, damning, and violent.
To borrow an analogy from the Roman world, we make celebrities into gods and gladiators all at once. The very men and women who are raised up in an apotheosis of public acclaim find themselves very quickly in the arena, suffering for the entertainment of the crowd. The up-and-down trajectory of so many in the public eye reveals the awful fickleness of the modern mob. And as we see these scenes played out so often before our eyes our own anxiety and insecurity is increased: “It happened to her, it could happen to me. But I’m safe if I stay in the heart of the mob.”
None of this is new. We see the very same phenomenon in the readings on Palm Sunday. At first, we see the crowd acclaim Jesus. They know there’s something special about him, and they’re happy to do what contemporary fans do. They raise him up, lay their clothes in his path for him, and chant his superiority: “Blessed be the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We know how right they were to worship Jesus, but given how quickly their devotion fades, it seems that the acclamation of the crowd in Jerusalem is every bit as shallow as a fickle fandom. Days later, the same crowd is shouting very different words: “Crucify him, crucify him!” The one who was adored is now tortured, spat on, beaten and nailed to a tree: the same up-and-down trajectory so familiar to us.
Well, not quite the same. Not the same at all, in fact. There’s something utterly unique about Jesus. Unlike mere humans, he’s not carried along by the acclamation of the crowd, and he’s not crushed by their rejection. Throughout the Holy Week events he is calm, determined, his face set like flint. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
He submits to the up-and-down trajectory imposed on him by our volatile hearts, but this trajectory does not define him. He’s on a larger journey: down and up. Down: he is true God, the glorious Creator, who took flesh, was born in a dirty stable, laboured, hungered, thirsted, wept, felt sorrow, was killed, and descended to the dead. Up: with invincible love he conquered death, he rose from the dead, and he ascended into the glory of heaven.
This down-and-up journey of the Word of God changes everything. When Jesus met his anxious, insecure disciples after the Resurrection the first words he spoke to them were, ‘Peace be with you’. Peace: an end to anxiety, an end to scapegoating, an end to violence. To all those brought low by the violence of mobs of any kind, to you, to me, the risen Jesus was saying: “You belong somewhere higher. Come up. Come home.”
I attended last week a theological conference in Toruń, Poland, and got hopelessly lost one night, and found myself on Henryk Sienkiewicz Street. Sienkiewicz was the author of Quo Vadis (‘Where are you going?’) – an appropriate title given my predicament at the time.
Quo Vadis is a wonderful epic story of romance and faith, set among the earliest Christians in Rome (St Peter is one of the characters). It was made popular in the West by a 1951 Hollywood movie of the same name: perfect family viewing for Easter Sunday afternoon!