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Vail Daily column: Roll up life’s red carpet

Jack Van Ens

“Walking the red carpet” functions as the iconic metaphor for achieving success. When a nation’s leader receives dignitaries on official state visits, a red carpet is rolled out. Gleaming black limousines pull up to the carpet, and dignitaries exit. They “walk the red carpet” amid trumpets blaring and unfurled flags marking the way. Guests are escorted on the red carpet to an elegant state dinner where formal toasts are offered.

On the first Palm Sunday, wildly enthusiastic admirers laid a “red carpet” for Jesus, made of coats and palm branches. Many crowd-watchers “spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields” (Mark 11:8).

At first, Jesus’ fans hailed his entrance into Jerusalem. Then the crowd turned on him because he didn’t honor their “red carpet” expectations. He entered the city riding a donkey, not a sleek stallion. No dignitaries offered formal greetings. Instead, Jesus avoided the hype of his arrival. After looking around, he left the city without saying a fitting word and returned to his simple lodging.

During Jesus’ entry, the crowd cried “Hosanna!”— an acclaim that literally means “Save us!” Cheers quickly turned to jeers because he ignored their red carpet dreams. They expected his grand entry to jumpstart his getting the Roman government off their backs. As he had transformed water into wine at Cana’s wedding feast, Jesus’ admirers expected him to turn their coats that paved the parade route into plush carpet leading to the steps of Rome. There Jesus would be crowned king of the world. The crowd wanted him to take their cries for freedom and transform them into revolutionary taunts against Caesar.

Instead, Jesus rolled up their red carpet. By insulting fans, he splintered their hopes.

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Like Jesus, Father Theodore Hesburgh habitually rolled up the red carpet in higher education. Dying on Feb. 26 at 97 years old, he had served as the University of Notre Dame’s president for 35 years. Joining Civil Rights marches in the 1960s, Hesburgh protested against political and educational power blocs that kept a white society of law and order in power.

During the 1990s, this humble helper spent time in Beaver Creek, officiating at masses in the picturesque chapel sitting alongside Centennial ski lift. He didn’t know where Communion chalices were stored, so I unlocked a cabinet for him after officiating at a wedding in the chapel.

We spoke of his struggles in the 1960s. He summarized his work on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement with the Latin motto, opus justitiae pax: “Peace is the work of justice.” Father Hesburgh objected to American society tilted towards the privileged few. “We’ve known 20 percent of the people in the world have 80 percent of the goodies,” he declared, “which means the other 80 percent have to scrape by on 20 percent.”

I asked, “What keeps you going in your ardor to help the helpless?” Father Hesburgh looked through one of the magnificent chapel windows, shimmering with light and shadow. “God begins each day with the sun rising,” he said, “even when the rays are shrouded in clouds.”

Hesburgh rolled up the red carpet by not staying cloistered on campus. His travels irritated adversaries. They wise-cracked that the major difference between God and Hesburgh was that God is ubiquitous, while Hesburgh is everywhere but at Notre Dame. Critics scorned him, saying he should stick to platitudes about God rather than get political and agitate for social change.

Father Hesburgh refused to walk down their red carpet. He pulled it up, just as Jesus did by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, a symbol of peace, not war.

He served as a founding member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1957. He clasped hands with Martin Luther King Jr. at Chicago’s 1964 Civil Rights rally, singing “We shall overcome!” When he challenged President Richard M. Nixon’s law and order rhetoric as a cover for white supremacy, the president fired Hesburgh from the Civil Right Commission in 1972. Nixon had a short fuse for social agitators who didn’t walk his law and order red carpet.

Years later in 2007, Hesburgh showed a witty, unflappable spirit, recounting how Nixon attempted to destroy his reputation by denigrating his mission spirit. “I ended this job the way I began 15 years ago — fired with enthusiasm,” quipped Hesburgh.

He rolled up Nixon’s red carpet, refusing to compromise core Christian convictions. “You don’t make decisions because they are easy,” he declared. “You don’t make them because they are cheap; you don’t make them because they’re popular; you make them because they’re right.”

Daring to pull up the red carpet of conventional piety and politics, Jesus and Father Hesburgh allied themselves with the 19th century American poet James Russell Lowell. He believed God works over the long arc of history in concert with a gallant few whose courageous witness is prophetic: “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side. … Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside till the multitude make virtue of the faith they have denied.”

Christians who press for social fairness are vilified, lose jobs and are denounced by powerful leaders. Some capitulate by walking the red carpet. Though ridiculed, a prophetic few don’t waver from rolling it up.

Why? Because God’s sun rises each morning.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling.


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