What are we about as the Assembly gathers on this Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion? Some approach the worship space as if they were gathering for a passion play, one in which they as the common people are given a cameo role as palm bearers, should they take part in the procession of the palms. The attitude is abetted by the reading of the Passion of the Lord as though it were a one-act play with various people reading various roles. What kind of religious experience can the Assembly derive from shouting Crucify him! Crucify him! And that with gusto.
There can be a mindset that concludes that whenever we listen to the Liturgy of the Word we are hearing past events. We forget that this is the Living Word of God. On this Sunday we can think we are present to something that happened 2000 years ago. Preaching can augment that by challenging the Assembly to look at what your sins have done to Jesus. Is the faith experience meant to be all about guilt?
There is a line in the institution narrative of the Eucharist that follows the showing of the consecrated elements of Bread and Wine to the Assembly. Now, you do this in my memory. It is a directive that, properly understood, challenges us to remember that when the Eucharist is celebrated the whole Christ mystery is present. The action is now. Christ is acting now. The Assembly experiences on-going transformation now. All the Sacraments are like that. Each one is a sign experienced that points to a greater and unseen reality.
God in Christ enters the human experience here and now. The Liturgy of the Word empowered by the Spirit transforms the hearer who dares to stand vulnerably under it, just as the Eucharist transforms those who dare to consume it into the Body of Christ. It is not by accident that we refer to the sharing of the Eucharist as Holy Communion – our common union in Christ.
As you come to the celebration of the Lord’s Passion, think of it as an opportunity to enter into something that is happening now. Where do you find Christ? Is he only in the Tabernacle in the reserved Eucharist? Is his presence confined to the bread consecrated in the course of the Liturgy? If that is the case, then it will be difficult to experience anything but a past event, the Passion that happened so long ago. But if it is the Risen Christ you encounter, who is with us always even to the end of the world, then Jesus enters triumphantly into the Jerusalem that is your parish, your city, and your state. Christ lives in you now and in all who believe. Jesus carries his cross to Calvary in suffering humanity, bearing a share in his passion. Christ dies on Calvary and so continues to defeat death for those believers in his Resurrection.
Root your experience of the Lord’s Passion in the now. Forgive me for sharing some personal reflections that brought that experience home for me. On the last day of a visit to Kenya, I walked with a doctor. We reflected on our experience in the poor village that had hosted us. A young family approached us. A mother. A father. In the arms of the mother, a child visibly disfigured by a cleft pallet. Could the doctor repair the child’s pallet that made it so difficult for him to suckle? The doctor had to say that there was nothing that he could do for them because there were no surgical instruments and no surgical theatre. As we watched the devastated parents walk away, the doctor said that back home in the states the repair would be a pedestrian procedure.
I sat at the bedside of a man in the late stages of a cancer that had begun in his jaw. My stomach had churned at the sickeningly sweet smell of the disease as I came into his presence. How shallow could I breathe through my mouth without fainting, so appalling was the odor? He asked me if I could hold him because he was afraid. Please God, he didn’t see the terror in my eyes in that long moment before I rose and sat on his bed and he leaned into my chest to be embraced. Tears coursed down my cheeks as he sighed.
There is no shortage of images that serve well as icons of the Passion. Not a few people have stopped watching the evening news because nothing good is ever reported. To protect one’s self from the horrors is to deprive the self of the opportunity to recognize Jesus, the Cross he carries, and above all, our reason for not yielding to despair.
Recognize the Suffering Servant in those suffering the abominations of the wars in the East. See him in those in Zambia where filthy water and lack of food are killing so many. See the Lord in those afflicted with Ebola. He is in those unemployed and those suffering foreclosure. He is in those being bullied at school and those suffering racial and sexual-orientation harassment.
But wait a moment. So far we have only looked out there, away from self. It is not solely compassion that Passion Sunday should stir up. The grace is present for those suffering to see their participation in the Passion too. If you are carrying the burden of a broken relationship the Cross is there. If your health is compromised, and there is a less than optimum prognosis, the Cross is there. If you have been defamed or vilified and been helpless to do anything about your situation, the Cross is there. Accepting the Cross is to be renewed in hope. Jesus found the limitless depth of the Father’s love when from the Cross he cried out: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. And so will you.
The Liturgy of the Word for Passion Sunday puts the horror before us and challenges us to remember not with the purpose to leave us on the brink of despair, but to strengthen our conviction that in Christ, we are loved by the Father and darkness will never defeat us.
Listen to Paul as he writes to the Church at Philippi. Jesus, embracing the full implications of the humanity he had assumed in his incarnation and emptying himself of divine powers, humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death on a cross. Because of this God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name. Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In the Crucifixion we see the ultimate in terms of the affliction of suffering and its culmination in death. But the Passion Narrative is part of the Good News. It is Gospel. Why? The Passion is Death’s defeat. Christ conquers sin. Christ conquers suffering. Christ conquers death. For those who believe there is no final defeat. No death is forever.
How are you doing on your Lenten journey this year? Does the season seem to be dragging on too long, wearing out its welcome, so to speak? By now it may be hard to remember the tracing of the ashes on your forehead that started it all. For some, Lent is a negative time, a prolonged gloomy trek. That is especially true if as the ashes made their mark on your forehead you heard: Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return. It isn’t that that isn’t true; it is that Lent bears a more positive message of hope. Turn away from sin and believe the Good News (Gospel) invites us to make Lent a time to become revitalized as we remember the death we died in Baptism, and the life we began to live united with Christ as we emerged from the waters. We died then never to die again.
So, don’t give up on Lent. We are almost there. Next Sunday is Passion Sunday. And then it will be Easter.
Hear Jeremiah in today’s first reading. Often characterized as being negative, an announcer of doom and gloom, Jeremiah’s prophecy this week is amazing. He announces the coming of a new Covenant God will make with the people. The old one, the one that began when God led Israel out of Egypt, the one made with Moses through the stone tablets of the Law, has been broken. The result has been the collapse of the people and their return to slavery in the Babylonian Captivity. Jeremiah proclaims that Slavery will not be a permanent condition. After the exile is over a new Covenant will begin when God’s law will be etched in the human heart. No one will have to teach the law because the people will know God as God forgives their sins to remember them no more.
Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. That is what Lent pleads with us to remember. We believe in the mystery of the Incarnation. We believe that the Word became flesh, that Jesus was born. The Incarnation proclaims that God took on flesh when Jesus was born and in so doing, God took on humanity’s flesh. The chasm that separated the divine and the human has been bridged, healed in a way no mortal could have dreamed or imagined. God dwells in the human heart. We see more clearly now what God had in mind in the early in Genesis when God sets about making the Earthling in God’s image and likeness.
When we are baptized we die in the Waters of the Font, die to sin and all that would separate us from God. As we emerge from the Waters, we are clothed in Christ, united in Christ, identified with Christ, and so are loved by God with the same love God has for Christ. In the course of Baptism, the Church anoints with oil and seals the baptized in the Spirit. Jeremiah’s prophecy comes to pass in the baptized. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts. Lent is the time observed to recommit us to the reality.
Our life’s journey is a faith walk accomplished in union with Jesus, doing what Jesus does. When Jesus calls people to discipleship, the invitation is always hedged with the command to take up the Cross daily and follow. Jesus is the example, as we hear in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.
I am unnerved when I hear Fundamentalist Evangelists invite people to come to Jesus and in so doing to find prosperity. That is a message I have never found in the Gospel. That is not the Good News as Jesus announced it. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus pleads with the Father to save him from death. The reading from Hebrews tells us that son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and was made perfect. In this context, the word perfect might not mean what you think. In the original language it is the word used when a person became a priest in the temple. When Jesus became Priest, he offered the sacrifice and was the sacrifice and so is our salvation. Think of the phrase: By his stripes we were healed. That is the reality that we will celebrate on Good Friday.
Prosperity may come to some believers, but that does not make it a Gospel promise. We have been with Jesus in the desert these past several weeks, contemplating with him and making comparisons between our lives as we live them and our lives as Jesus challenges us to live them. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. That glorification happens on the cross when Jesus accepts death, confident of God’s love for him. Life is not something to be clung to for its own sake. Were that so, it would end in itself. The promise is that if we pour ourselves out the way Jesus did, accept death, even death on a cross, eternal life will follow and our share in Jesus’s glory.
I remember sitting at my mother’s bedside during her final hours on this earth. I watched the struggle, the shortening breaths, and heard the sighs that occasionally escaped. I prayed the Why prayer. Why did she have to suffer like this? Why did it have to go on so long? Then words failed. My prayer was silent except for a please now and then. In a moment she opened her eyes and her right hand rose from the bed. I thought she wanted something and so I stood, leaned over her and asked what I could do for her. She wasn’t seeing me. It was something beyond me. Then I heard her last word. Yes. Her arm came to rest at her side. Within the hour she breathed for the last time. The life she had lived suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
We do not spend our Lent learning how to die. These forty days are to be spent learning how to live as disciples. The questions we ask ourselves ought to be about how we have imitated Jesus in loving – loving God, loving our sisters and brothers in the human family, and loving ourselves. The Church is blessed in these days by the example and proclamations of Pope Francis. He is about service, ministry to the poor. His challenge is for a poorer Church to serve the needs of the poor. It is no longer about power and splendor. It is about imitating Jesus.
Let the Spirit that was poured out on you in Baptism take the lead in your life, taking you perhaps where you otherwise would not go. Someone asked me recently how I respond to all the misery of our times. What am I doing about it? I thought for a moment and then replied: I pray. I write. I seek to serve where I am needed.
After my friend left, I continued to think about the question and wondered if it hadn’t been Jesus who asked. There is grace in the moment. For some time now I have been privileged to serve Hospice patients, to support the patients in their dying process and their families in their caregiving. It was a tangible grace when I was invited to minister to Jesus in the dying.
Listen for those moments and when you are asked to serve in a new way, let the Spirit prompt you to say, Yes!
In the meantime, continue to gather with the Assembly. Give thanks to God as you continue to renew Christ’s dying and rising, as you continue to experience transformation, and as you continue to be sent to be Bread broken and Cup poured out.
Remember, there is work to be done until Jesus comes again to catch us up in glory.
Why is it only hindsight that is 20-20? Why does it have to be only at the end and with final gasps that one comes to see in a different and clear light? Of course deathbed conversions point to final grace; but why doesn’t this happen more often earlier?
We have a lot to think about as we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Lent. You may not think so, but the season is flying by. Some might think these forty days are interminable; but when you think about the formation and transformation happening in our community we call Church, no wonder it takes time. We are being molded and sculpted. We are marble being chiseled into something new. God does it if we let God do it.
In the first reading from the second Book of Chronicles we hear that it took the fall of Jerusalem and the exile for the Israelites to come to their senses. Prior to being led off into slavery Israel had fallen into disrepute. Remember all those laws we heard about last week as signs of the Jews covenanted relationship with God? Many came to ignore the Law and had taken up pagan ways. Not only common people but also the princes and leaders of Judah took up the worship of idols and eating food sacrificed to idols along with immoral practices. There was little difference between the pagan and the Jew. Along the way Israel failed to notice their weakened condition and how vulnerable they were to outside forces.
If they cried out to God in the midst of the rubble of their city, if they shook their fists at the heavens as they were being led off, if in the depths of their despair they listened to the Prophets in their midst they would have heard God say: I tried to warn you. Remember the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah? They spoke for me to alert you to what was happening. They tried to call you back, but you ignored them. I constantly reached out to you and told you of my love for you and my desire to be your God and for you to be my people.
This was a people whose strength came from their fidelity to God and God’s ways, the Law. Weakness followed on their corrupt ways.
Do not stop listening to the reading because the tale of woes seems unbearable. The beauty of the reading is the proclamation of God’s faithfulness to the promise and the love that is eternal and unconditional. I will bring you back and restore you. Jeremiah prophesied that. No one could have dreamed how the prophecy would be fulfilled. Who could have imagined that God would inspire Cyrus, the Persian king, their captor, to have a change of heart and release the people, allowing them to return to their holy city and there to rebuild the Temple? Isaiah called Cyrus God’s anointed one, a messiah. Did Cyrus even know God’s name?
Be careful how you hear this reading. Do not hear a sin-punishment theme of God sending the wrath of Babylonians on Israel because of their sins. What emerges from this reading is that that is not how God acts. God loves. God forgives. God restores.
Paul underscores this as he writes to the Church in Ephesus. God acts even before we get around to repenting. I presume to say we because I pray we recognize ourselves and our inclinations in Israel’s story. Recognize also our potential for grace and change in the stories of the early Christian communities. God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ. This remarkable passage, written early in the Christian era, tells us that it is all God’s doing. Through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, grace is poured out on us, whether we are aware of it or not. We do not earn it. We do not merit it. God loves in the beginning and wants only our love in return – love that is evidenced by our loving others the way we are loved. No specifics here. Each life is unique and so is each one’s response.
The clear evidence for this mystery is told in our litany of saints. Read the lives of the saints. Notice that no two are alike. No two stories are the same. How can that be since the only way to become a saint is to imitate Christ? Each saint imitated Christ to heroic degrees. Since no two are alike, you and I can imitate Christ in our unique ways and fulfill the promise in our times of those who will love others so that they too can experience God’s love and so come to know Christ. The possibilities for imitation will never be exhausted. Amazing.
Love changes everything. Things that once inspired horror and dread can become signs of love and grace. Despair can yield to hope. Look at the two symbols put before us in the Gospel. Moses fashioned a serpent of bronze, mounted it on a pole, and all those bitten by the venomous reptile that looked on the image were healed. Now that seraph serpent is a universally recognized symbol of the medical profession. Isn’t that amazing? If you are not amazed it is because you are used to the sign and it cannot shock.
The same is true of our most reassured icon of faith. The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. The cross in Jesus’ time inspired horror in all who beheld it. The Jews were used to seeing the condemned writhing on crosses lining the roadway and hearing them cry out in agony. Death for the crucified was slow in coming and excruciating in its torture. How then came we to hang crosses around our necks, top church spires with the cross, and always celebrate Eucharist in the presence of the cross? How did the cross become a symbol of hope? Because the Son of Man was lifted up twice – once in crucifixion and once in resurrection. The resurrection transformed the meaning of the Cross forever. In the Cross is our hope.
And so the theme repeats. God wills the salvation of all people. Hear that. God does not want to condemn. Jesus comes into the world to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness. The proclamation far exceeds the sinner’s awareness of sin, much less contrition.
Here is an interesting exercise. Go through the Scriptures and see how often God’s forgiveness precedes even the sorrow for sin. Repentance comes in response to the recognition of God’s love. Certainly it is possible to turn one’s back on or be deaf to God’s call. But all who recognize the love and change their lives embrace the light that is Christ and rejoice at God’s action in their lives. Is there anyone you think is beyond that pale? Be careful how you answer that. The Gospel says that everyone who believes in Christ will not perish but will have eternal life. Everyone.
Augustine is the great saint of repentance. But so are Ignatius of Loyola and Camillus and Magdalene and the Samaritan Woman. So is Thomas More. Some in the Church cannot see Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton as saints. Obviously they do not believe in the grace of repentance and conversion. If you read carefully, all the saints recognized that lack of proportion between who and what they were and how great is the love of God in Christ that empowered them. All those who live the truth come to the light, so that their works may be clearly seen as done in God.
Pope Francis says that we must reach out, embracing all, seeing the good in all. Forgiveness must be proclaimed and no one seen as being beyond the pale of forgiveness. In addition to forgiveness, the dominant proclamation of each gathering of the church must be: All are welcome here!
That is why the central action of our worship is Thanksgiving. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. We constantly give thanks to God as we renew Christ’s dying and rising in Bread and wine. As a forgiven people we share the meal, and having been transformed by what we do, we are sent to be Christ in the world until he comes again in Glory.
We remember. We celebrate. We believe. Continue on this journey that is Lent. If you do, you will never be the same if you let God’s grace have its way with you.