We have two readings from Mark's gospel, and each describes a crowd. There is the enthusiastic crowd of people who cheer Jesus when he enters Jerusalem on the back of the donkey, and there is the mob that jeers at him on the cross. To which one would we have belonged? Possibly both.
Crowds are notoriously unstable. A group of football fans that is at one moment enjoying a match with relaxed cheerfulness can easily become a threatening mob. To be in a big group of people can feel like belonging to a community, and may be so. But you can be sucked up into a gang in which one loses one's individuality and consents to terrible deeds. Think of the Nazi rallies, sweeping people up into a hatred that one day many of them would find puzzling.
Today we begin Holy Week, and we are invited to become holy. Holy people grow into an independence of mind and heart which protect them from the seductions of the mob. A saint is someone who, by the grace of God, is becoming the person whom God created them to be.
Often we succumb to off-the-peg identities, and try to find ourselves in the role models of our society. Celebrities attract vast adulation, and thousands wish to belong to their 'community' through Twitter or Facebook. By associating with them, wearing their clothes, supporting their team, bearing their brand, we may hope to find ourselves. But the saints take the risk of being themselves, the unique friend of God that they are. They are non-conformist.
The crowd that cheers Jesus as he enters Jerusalem is drawn by his power. He comes as the promised King, the descendant of 'our father David.' They sing 'Hosanna', which means 'Save us'. They gather around him and escort him into the city. But the crowd that mocks him, many of whom were probably the same people, coheres against him, taunting him with his powerlessness.
The powerful attract us. We hope that by being with them, we may catch some of their vigour and stave off the dread that we are worth nothing. The powerless can also evoke strong reactions, like barracudas attracted to a wounded animal. When celebrities fall, the media smell blood.
So as we begin Holy Week, it is worth asking how we respond to power and its loss. Do we home in on the strong people, even the bullies, shedding our convictions in the hope of a share in a bit of their strength? Do we distance ourselves from the weak and despised? Or do we dare to follow the King who 'being found in human form humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross' (Philippians 2.8)?
He gathers around himself a community on Easter Sunday, in which we find a multitude of brothers and sisters, but in which we can also dare to be ourselves, each individually caught up in God's universal friendship.
Timothy Radcliffe O.P. is a priest who belongs to the English province of the Dominican order. See: Torch