We encounter the world, perhaps more explicitly now than ever, as a field of useful objects. We don’t even think twice about the most everyday of them: the remote control for the TV, the doorframe of the door we walk through each morning, the stove or refrigerator. Gestures, too, are often unthinking, whether it be brushing back a stray piece of hair, pulling on a shirt, or brushing one’s teeth. The strange thing is, though, that tons of things in the (natural) world are use-less: flowers and, indeed, most kinds of plants and animals, the ocean, most rocks or mountains, and so on. What do we do with things which do not serve any higher end?

To simplify an observation of Martin Heidegger in Being and Time, things become conspicuous only when they cease to be useful. The stove, for instance, is rarely an object of attention or contemplation beyond its use to cook things, but when the stove breaks, it suddenly breaks into the forefront of our attention. The tires on a car could serve as another example.

In a way, things and gestures must be useless to be conspicuous: a catcher in baseball could never make adjusting his glove a signal for a curveball, because he adjusts his glove regularly; it isn’t conspicuous. But pulling his ear and holding up three fingers is not useful in the slightest – it thus stands out from the fabric of the everyday world and, since the gesture has no reason to exist, it can be used as a sign for something like ‘curveball.’


Would a charismatic leader who served as a figurehead for an oppressed people and led them in rebellion stand out? Surely he would as a sign for power, and for bucking a yoke of injustice, and for liberation – the same way a catcher’s adjusting his glove could signify, ‘I’m about to need to catch a fast pitch, and I need my glove in a better position to do that.’ Both actions, the rebellion and the glove, are intelligible within the daily, worldly structures of living. But the sign must be without such use to indicate something beyond itself.

Jesus eschewed the world of use altogether: he neither multiplied nor subdued the earth (Gen 1:28), his one professional skill (carpentry) goes unmentioned for all his adult life, and he simply did not do in the way that you and I normally do. When he did healings, he asked his patients to tell no one; he taught so that people “may indeed listen, but not understand” (Mk 4:12), and when asked for advice on how to live one’s life, he recommended entering back into the womb and being born again (or ‘from above’, anothen, each equally impossible). Christ was, knowingly and deliberately, perhaps the least useful person to ever become famous.

Yet that very uselessness is what makes him conspicuous. A magnificent war-horse is a conspicuous thing, but when a king processes into a city amidst loud cheers and acclaim, he would stand out far more if he were riding a donkey. His muddled teachings, impractical ethics, and hidden miracles create the greatest possible dissimilitude between himself and the normal ways of going about business in the day-to-day world. Like someone paid to catch fastballs holding up the number three with his fingers during a game, Christ’s actions and gestures and very figure are absurd, out of place, and useless – but this endows them with an outsize potential to signify.

Heidegger wrote that “The narrowness of intelligibility and use corresponds to the breadth of what can be indicated in such signs.” Christ’s utterly alien way of going about things could only lead to two interpretations: the worldly criteria, characterized by disappointment and contempt, or the criterion of faith, which recognized an otherworldly manifestation breaking into the calcified matrix of the human world.

Christ was a figure who destroyed, or at the least called into serious question, our normal ways of doing things. Dostoevsky, in his “Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov, masterfully saw that the temptations were not temptations toward manifest evil, but more toward human conceptions of good – food for the hungry, universal religion – which were marked with evil by the method of attaining them through power. Our preoccupation with using power to further even good ends covers over the dissimilar truth of God’s world: thus those on the walk to Emmaus, blinded by their hope that Jesus would “set Israel free” from pagan Rome, could not see the identity of the one in front of them.

Jesus takes something away, and on Palm Sunday, we remember those human aspirations toward power, identifying them, liturgically, with the mob’s response of “crucify him!” Barabbas was a common rabble-rouser whom the mob chose in part because he was predictable, a known quantity who would continue to fight for the people’s hope of liberty. Jesus was a disappointment, a frustration of the grandest hopes, a true traitor – not to the Romans, but to the hopes, religious and otherwise, of a people (us) bent on managing their own world, securing their own destiny.

It is only through the massive disappointment in human expectations that Jesus becomes conspicuous, someone without use. The cross makes this inefficacy complete, but it stands too as a symbol for… something. Following the signs of the muddled teaching, the meager donkey, and the non-resistance to his arrest, we could first say it stands as a sign for resignation of power. When Christ remains silent in Pilate’s questionings, he is giving up on justifying himself, and giving up on innocence.

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What this indicates for our lives is another question, but uselessness and boredom – the quality of someone with no pressing tasks, with nothing useful to do – could be rediscovered. The Christian in today’s productivity and outputs-oriented culture, were he confronted with a banal and surreptitious martyrdom, might well choose to opt out, knowing that his gifts could do decades of good in the world, while a quiet martyrdom accomplishes nothing. But these very gifts are things to be renounced, and the quality of uselessness stands so powerfully against the rest of the world; it becomes utterly conspicuous.

In short, the witness of the Church consists largely in marshaling arguments, in giving clear teaching and executable moral instruction, in equipping the believer to be a more effective person. Those things may be all well and good in their own sphere, but they do not stand out against a world concerned with different goals, but parallel methods.

Palm Sunday stands always as a warning against conquering, against capability, and against optimism, and most of all against conflating these things with who Christ is and what Christ represents. Once these things are cleared away by the cross, and once we can no longer focus our attention upon the things which promote our mastery of the world or self-advancement or sense of purpose, we are left with boredom and what is, in worldly terms, useless.

But it is there, in that which falls so far outside of what we value day in and day out, so far outside of even our religious aspirations, that God’s purpose and God’s work might be found – a vision of God over the breaking of bread, the redemption of a betrayer over breakfast on the beach. Palm Sunday begins a stark contrast between even our spirituality and that which God values, works in, and uses; the ludicrousness of praising with palm fronds a bedraggled king on a donkey.

Holy Week invites us, gradually, to read the signs which the mob could not, to turn toward the other side of things, the one made conspicuous by its seeming insignificance, the place that smacks of defeat and futility and suffering and humiliation, the side of life where Christ dwelled, and where we may – just may – find a genuine sense of God at work.