‘WHAT’S MY THORN?’ (Mt 27:11-54): 16 March 2008 (Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion)
Thirty years ago when I was still a high school student, I stumbled over this novel about a priest gone astray. Hailed as Australia’s version of Gone with the Wind, this bestselling novel written by Colleen McCullough was eventually adapted into a mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward in 1983.
I remember that it was an engaging read, but what’s really amazing is that after 30 years, I still remember the last lines of the book! Not so much the author’s every word on those last pages, of course, but certainly the enduring image she provided and the lingering feeling that it left me with.
Author McCulough ends her epic novel with the legend of the thorn bird, on which the title is based. Here’s how she puts it:
“Long ago, there was a bird who sang just once in its life.
From the moment it left its nest, it searched for a thorn tree.
And it never rested until it found one.
Then it began to sing more sweetly than any other creature
on the face of the earth.
And singing, it impaled its breast on the longest, sharpest thorn.
But as it was dying, it rose above its own agony,
to out-sing the lark and the nightingale.
The thorn bird pays its life for that one song,
and the whole world stills to listen.
And God in His heaven smiles.
As its best was bought only at the cost of great pain.
Driven to the thorn, with no knowledge of the dying to come.
But when we press the thorn to our breast, we know.
And still we do it.”
In today’s lengthy gospel reading of the Lord’s Passion, one of the most distubing scenes among many is the scene of that bloodthirsty mob before Pilate and Jesus. In accordance to the traditional practice on the Feast of the Passover, Pilate offers them a choice: Jesus, whom Pilate regards as just another misguided and innocuous messiah wannabe, or Barabbas, a notorious and dangerous criminal, we are told. He asks the mob: “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” To his surprise, the mob chooses Barabbas. “Then what shall I do with this man?” he asks, probably in a voice as exasperated as it is bewildered. The response: “Crucify him!”
After several back-and-forths, Pilate finally gives up, washes his hands to symbolize his resignation–and surrender. And the people respond with these chilling words: “His blood be upon us and our children.”
This choice of Barabbas for me symbolizes our choice of everything other than Jesus. This choice is the thorn that we impale ourselves with–and as McCullough writes, alas, we do so knowingly. Barabbas, for me, stands for all the created persons or things that we mortals fall in love with, grow enamored with, and get addicted to–and choose in lieu of Christ. Our thorn and our Barabbas–they refer to all our poor substitutes for Christ.
Yes, Christ–he who is truly our heart’s deepest desire, our longest-lasting longing, and our first thirst. Him we so readily replace with “all these other things.” And like the thorn bird, we may think we sing our sweetest songs, but we also impale ourselves with our chosen thorn.
But as the author puts it, the thorn bird harms itself instinctively. Unlike the thorn bird, which doesn’t know better, we know what we’re doing, but still we do it. Still we do it.
However, hidden between the lines of the gospel, there is hope. Biblical scholars tell us that the name “Barabbas” is ironic. “Barabbas” literally means “son of the father.” It is ironic because the mob fails to recognize and choose the true Son of the Father! But I think the name is also significant because the name “Barabbas” can also be a hint that even our sometimes dangerous substitutes for Christ can still, by God’s grace, somehow lead us to the true Son of the Father. Even if we choose our own versions of Barabbas, Christ may still somehow use them to lead us to himself, the true Son of the Father. Even if we opt for our thorn, he may still somehow give us his rose, his crown.
Dearest Lord, sweet Jesus, forgive me for preferring all these other things in the world to you. Forgive me for choosing all these other things even if I know they may harm me. Forgive me for not choosing you even if I believe that it is you who alone will bring me life. It’s so easy to become myopic in this world, to see only what is before me, and to get attached to them–even if I know that they won’t last and will all eventually fade away. Help me to find you even in these choices, to discover your rose in my thorns.
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “What’s your thorn? In other words, what’s your Barabbas? What are the other things that you tend to choose over the Lord, things that serve as thorns you end up impaling yourself with?” To answer the question, look at the actions that you have taken and the decisions that you have made in your life rather than the words you say or the beliefs you espouse. Think about it, and share a thought, a feeling, or a question.
(image: from Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds)