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PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION – C


Isaiah 50:4-7

Philippians 2:6-11

Luke 22:14-23:56

Celebrating the Liturgy of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is not meant to be akin to attending a Passion Play, much less a viewing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It is not hard to see why some would expect this Sunday’s experience to be like a Passion Play.  After all, the Liturgy begins with a procession of the palms and the members of the assembly carry palms and march along singing Hosanna to the Son of David, all the while imagining what it must have been like the day the triumphal entry into Jerusalem happened.

I saw that a church in the neighborhood advertised a special showing of The Passion of the Christ for this Sunday in place of their regular Sunday service.  Perhaps there is some merit in that, although for the life of me I can’t think what it might be.  The film is meant to serve as a guilt trip for all who see it.  The last image in the film of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is one of a woman glaring accusingly at the audience.  The only thing missing are words to the effect: Now, look what your sins have done.

This Sunday is not meant to be an opportunity for the church to make the people of God more keenly aware of their guilt.  That might be an unfortunate consequence of the reading of the Passion as a dramatic reading with assigned parts going to the priest, the lector, and the assembly.  The assembly invariably winds up shouting at several points during the reading: Crucify him!  Crucify him! Who wouldn’t feel a twinge of guilt shouting those words?

First, I would suggest adopting a different mindset.  As you enter into the Liturgy of the Word this Sunday, do not imagine this as an opportunity to look back and recreate that awful moment – unless you want it to reflect the original meaning of that word.  This is, after all, a moment that should be awe-inspiring, a moment filled with awe.  When we celebrate Liturgy, we are never looking backwards.  Rather we are entering into the now.  It is the Living Word that is proclaimed.  Christ’s actions were not once for all.  They are time-less, actions that continue outside of time until time ends.  Second, place yourself in the Passion narrative and live it as we transition to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Every Eucharist is a renewing of the Lord’s dying and rising.  Perhaps more precisely, we might see the liturgical action as one of reentering that dying and rising as the Body of Christ that we are.  Do you hear that?  Dying and rising. No liturgy, even Passion Sunday’s ends with death.  We celebrate the Lord’s resurrection even on this Sunday.

Paul could not be clearer in this declaration than he is in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians.  The Christ he preaches came as the Son of God, but one who emptied himself of his equality with God.  That means that those who looked on, who heard him teach and saw his actions saw nothing that would indicate anything other than a human being saying and doing these things.  The observers who came to recognize Jesus as Lord had to make a leap of faith – believing in something that they could not see.  For some, the crucifixion would be a scandal, the scandal of the cross.  Paul urges the Philippians and us to see things correctly.  Jesus took on the form of a slave and accepted the full implications of being human.  Every human being at the end of his or her earthly existence dies.  Jesus accepted that as his reality, too, even if his death meant dying on the cross.

Paul says that we should not see Jesus’ crucifixion as a defeat, much less as a sign that God abandoned him.  That’s what the world could see and conclude, but we must see exultation and final triumph because God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him the name Lord. Jesus Christ is Lord.  Accepting and believing in Jesus as Lord gives glory to God.

Those who believe in Jesus Christ know that he has changed the meaning of the cross, transforming it from an instrument of horror to a sign of hope.  Why else do Christians wear crosses around their necks and hang crosses on the walls in their homes?  Why do we begin and end so many important things that we do and say with the sign of the cross?  Because we believe that just as Christ passed through his death on the cross and entered into glory, so also will we, if we are willing to die with him, enter that same glory.

Passion Sunday is not meant to be a depressing experience, one that stirs up guilt and fosters groveling in that guilt.  Rather, this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word proclaims that there is no such thing as a hopeless situation, not if we believe in Christ’s dying and rising.

What do you bring to his Sunday’s Liturgy?  Some will come conscious that they are in frail health, even bearing the death sentence of a terminal illness.  Some will come conscious of their advancing years and increasing infirmity.  Some will come mourning the loss of a spouse, a child, or a friend.  Some will come bearing the burden of mental illness or permanent disability.  Will this proclamation of the Lord’s Passion help them to recognize that their experiences and burdens are in fact shares in the Lord’s passion?  Will they keep these words running through their minds like a mantra?  If we die with Christ we will live with Christ.

Luke’s Passion makes it clear that Jesus is the innocent victim.  Pilot three times voices his opinion that Jesus is innocent of anything that would result in the death penalty.  Herod came to the same conclusion.  Both a Gentile and a Jew proclaimed him guiltless.  At the same time, Jesus is the reconciler and consoler.  Exchanging a kiss, he calls his betrayer, friend. On the way to Calvary, he pauses to console the weeping women.  On the cross he offers hope to the thief who asks to be remembered by Jesus as he enters his kingdom.  Today, you will be with me in Paradise. And, Jesus’ last moment on the cross is a triumph of trust and confidence in the One whose will he always sought to do.  Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

When Luke wrote his Gospel and the Passion in particular, Christians were suffering.  It was against the law to be Christian.  Christians were dying at the hands of the Romans.  Jewish Christians were being expelled from the synagogues.  Innocent ones suffered.  Is Luke’s message to inspire them to take courage in the one in whose name they suffer because if they do they will come to the same end he did and be raised up?  If they die with him they will rise with him.  God will raise them up just as God raised Jesus.

This Passion Sunday, we are mindful of many horrible happenings that defy explanation and could be interpreted as signs of God’s wrath or abandonment.  The suffering in Haiti continues.  The war in Iraq goes on with frequent reports of innocent people dying in the violence.  Consider the carnage in various countries of Africa and add to that the numbers dying from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and sleeping sickness.  In our own country, this past winter was filled with horror stories of the ravages of rains, winds and snows.  People suffered in winter’s fury.  Each of these events affords us the opportunity to wonder why bad things happen to good people.  Some will say the goodness is an illusion, that these terrible events are the result of God’s judgment on a sinful people.

This Sunday will not give us an answer to the question of why good people suffer.  It will, however, give us an opportunity to recognize in those sufferings the ongoing passion of Christ.  When an agnostic asked Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta why she spent herself caring for the sick and the poor in the city, she sat by the bedside of a dying man and said that when she ministered to one like this, she believed she was ministering to Christ in his passion.  The agnostic documented Mother Teresa’s work.  He was struck by what he had seen.  He pondered and found faith.

Passion Sunday tells us that there is no such thing as a hopeless situation.  Christ triumphed over sin, suffering and death and caught us all up in that mystery.  The cross of Christ is our symbol of hope.  He has told us that if we would be his disciples we must take up our cross every day and follow him.  To do that is to have confidence in the face of whatever might threaten to defeat us.  Even if we die, we will live.

So, we celebrate Eucharist this Sunday, renewing the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  We will share in the transformation of the Eucharist becoming more and more the Body of Christ, Christ present in us.  Do we remember that each celebration is our commitment to allow ourselves to be sent to be Christ’s presence in the world and be committed to being bread broken and cup poured out until all have been fed?  Do we understand that this pouring out of self, this doing what Jesus did, this share in Christ’s passion, will result in our sharing with Christ in glory?

That’s really what this Sunday is all about.

Sincerely,

Didymus  

THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – C


Isaiah 43:16-21

Philippians 3:8-14

John 8:1-11

The Fifth Sunday of Lent coincides with the first day of spring this year.  The change of season wrests winter’s grip from major parts of the country.  Days are lengthening.  Trees are budding and some are already in bloom.  Those who thought the dark days of winter would never end have once again been proven wrong.  The time of promise is on the land.

Isaiah, the second prophet of that name, urges the people to remember what God has done for their ancestors and them in the past so that they can hope in the present for a future that through God’s providence is dawning.  Times of disaster can break the spirits of many.  They have been living in exile and in captivity for a long time.  The Jerusalem they loved was in ruins as they were led away.  Over the years, some have given up their heritage and have taken up the practices and ways of the Babylonians, including worshiping their gods and taking part in their sacrifices.  But some have remained faithful, clinging to the hope that one day they would be able to return home again, to their land and to their holy city, Jerusalem.  It is to this remnant of a once proud people that Isaiah addresses his prophecy – words that God wants the people to hear.

It has to do with remembering.  Israel was in dire straits when they were slaves in Egypt.  Who, in their midst thought that they had any reason to hope for deliverance.  Egypt was mighty.  They were weak. Then God sent Moses to unite them and through him worked signs and wonders that convinced Pharaoh to let the people go.  Their exit was through the divided Red Sea and out into the desert on the other side.  Pharaoh’s mighty army pursued them, desiring to recapture their former slaves only to die when the parted waters returned to drown them.

Isaiah says that God wants the people to forget their pasts and those sinful deeds and infidelities that weakened them and subjected them to Babylon’s forces.  I am doing something new! Just as God provided for the Israelites in the desert with water to quench their thirst and manna to feed them, so now God has something new and wonderful in mind for the Israelites when they are delivered from the Babylonians.  It is as though God is saying, trust me.  I am a faithful God who formed you as my own people.  I forgive your sins even before you ask for forgiveness.  And I will lead you home again.  The message comes to them while they are still in captivity.  Remembering what God has done will sustain them as they look forward to God’s acting again in their behalf.

Why do we so quickly forget that God’s greatest joy is in forgiving?  So often, in the Hebrew Bible, God pleads with the people to be God’s people and let God be their God.  God pours out abundant forgiveness that always exceeds the people’s capacity for repentance.  Even the Commandments were given to the Israelites to be a way of life, signs of a covenant so that the nations would look at the Jews and marvel that no other people has such an intimate relationship with their gods as Israel has with I AM.

At this point in Lent, the Elect among us are champing at the bit, as it were, straining toward the Font, eager for that night to arrive in which God makes all things new.  On that Night, they will enter the Font and the old will be no more as they are born anew in Christ in the waters.  The Penitents should be of a similar mind and will be if they do not become bogged down with memories of past sins, memories that can make them wonder if forgiveness can ever be theirs.  All of us are sinners.  We are journeying through these forty days of repentance and renewal to be strengthened for the rest of the Way.  In most parishes, near the end of Lent and before the Triduum begins, there will be a Communal celebration of Penance as God’s people come together to experience the forgiveness that is theirs in Christ.

Look what is happening in this Sunday’s Gospel.  A woman has been caught in adultery and is dragged before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, by the experts in the Law.  (Curious that the woman alone is accused.  Usually it takes two to commit this sin.)  The Law is clear about the punishment due such an offender.  She should be stoned to death.  That’s what the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus.  Then they ask him what he thinks.  They want to trap Jesus.  They’re pretty sure that he won’t participate in a stoning.  Nothing in his preaching would indicate a willingness to do that.  But, if he denies what the Law requires, they will be able to accuse him of infidelity to God’s Law and therefore of being a false teacher.

See, I am doing something new! What Jesus is about to do in the context of this tense and sordid scene is to teach a truth that will be essential for all his followers.  He gives those gathered around him and the disgraced woman time to reflect and so does not answer them.  He lets them fume while he kneels down and traces his finger in the dirt.  The Gospel doesn’t say what he was writing.  Some have speculated that he was writing the sins of the accusers for all to see.  Not likely.  Doodling would be more apt.  Time passes and the crowd can stand it no longer and press him to make the judgment.

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. And Jesus continues to trace with his finger on the ground.  In the New Way, judging each other will not be allowed because no one knows the inner workings of another.  Christ’s way is a call to compassionate living, a willingness to enter into each other’s sufferings.  If I remember that I am a sinner, albeit, forgiven, I am not in a position to judge another sinner.  It was a scandal when some in the Church recently called for the refusal of Holy Communion for any who advocated for Choice in the abortion controversy.  No one knows another’s conscience.  For that matter, no one is worthy of receiving Communion by his/her own right.  It is the grace of God that makes us so.

The woman stands in silence before her accusers.  Is there an enlightenment of grace that changes the accusers’ hearts?  Perhaps for some.  At least there is sufficient grace for them all to realize that there is something of sin in each one of them.  Therefore no one can throw the stone.  Beginning with the elders, one by one they go away until only the woman is there with Jesus.

The exchange that follows is interesting.  Woman, where are they (who judged you)?  Has no one condemned you? Do you think the woman was sobbing, bereft and broken?  There is no indication of that.  She stands before Jesus.  Neither are there pleas for forgiveness and pledges of repentance.  She says: No one, sir. She calls Jesus sir. That means she is not a disciple.  She may never have seen Jesus before or heard of him.   Jesus says to her: Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on do not sin any more. Jesus is not saying that adultery doesn’t matter or that it is not a sin.  He is respecting her conscience and the possibility that God has begun something new in her, inviting her to live her life differently from here on out.  He invites her to celebrate that.  We’d like to think she became a disciple.  She may have.  But the Gospel doesn’t tell us.

A word about the second reading.  Paul writes to the Philippians from prison.  The time for his execution is drawing near.  What kind of scandal will his death raise in the Christian community?  Will people wonder about faith in Christ if one of the prime teachers of the faith can come to his end beheaded by a sword?  Where is God?  Why didn’t God protect his loyal servant?

Paul is teaching the Philippians and us that to follow Christ is to take up Christ’s cross.  Paul knew what it meant to be a sinner.  He had, after all, been a persecutor of the Christians.  But he also came to know what it meant to be seized by Christ’s grace and forgiven.  In that blinding moment on the road to Damascus began his journey in Christ and over time as a result of his conversion, everything that he had was taken from him.  He was humiliated and abased before others for the Gospel.  He was stoned and beaten and left for dead because he preached Christ and him crucified.  He gladly suffered it all because through his sufferings he grew in his knowledge of Christ and identity with him.  And he believed that continuing on this path, faithful to Christ, Christ would bring him to the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

If we listen to these readings on this Fifth Sunday of Lent there is much to challenge and encourage us as God continues to do something new.  We are challenged to be renewed in faith, encouraged by remembering what God has already done for us in calling us to faith.  We are challenged to be a different kind of people if we remember this people, once sinners, now forgiven, is the Church.  We are encouraged to be proclaimers of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ by inviting all to come and be renewed in the Christ who has died and who is risen.  Come to the Table and give thanks.

Are we sure that is what the stranger experiences when s/he comes into our midst for the first time?  Please, Lord, let it be so.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – C


Joshua 5:9a, 10-12

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

I winced when the preacher opened his homily with the words: You all hang on now.  We’re getting there. But then I thought about it, and while I couldn’t imagine taking that tack, what he said grabbed the attention of the assembly and ultimately made sense.  This Fourth Sunday of Lent in ages passed, i.e., when mass was celebrated in Latin, was called Laetare Sunday.  Laetare was the opening word of the entrance antiphon and means rejoice. Coming at this point in Lent, the word can serve to encourage the faithful who may be growing weary of the Season and wondering if it will ever end.  Things have been somber for so long.  Ah, but today the priest’s vestments are rose colored, not the penitential purple.  The hymns ought to carry out the rejoicing theme.  Maybe the Church is encouraging all of us to hang on because we are getting closer to Easter.  We’re going to make it.

As we sit under the Word this Sunday with hearts and ears open, we will find the real reason for rejoicing.  In the end it is the reason we ought to rejoice every Sunday.  The readings remind us that our God is faithful, merciful, and loves us unconditionally and forever.  And, we are a redeemed people, reconciled to God and each other by the blood of Christ.

The first reading places us at the end of the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the desert following the exodus event.  Those who began the journey disobeyed God’s laws.  Even Moses had offended.  The disobedient ones, including Moses, all have died before Israel reaches the Promised Land.  It is Joshua, the new leader, who leads them into the land of Canaan where they celebrate Passover and eat the produce of the land.  No more manna that had been provided by God each day to keep them from starvation.  Israel is ready to till the rich new land that will yield crops for their sustenance.  God’s promise has been fulfilled.  And the people continue to rejoice in God’s bounty that will come to them in each harvest season.

How often do you remind yourself that it is all grace?  The fact that you are making this journey of faith in this Lenten season, the fact that you believe in Christ and strive to walk in his ways, is all grace, God’s gift working in your life.  You were seized by God and wrapped in God’s love.  Do you have the good fortune to remember your baptism?  Many are baptized in infancy.  The symbol isn’t lost there.  But some of us were baptized when we were old enough to be aware of what was happening to us.  Do you remember being plunged into the water, knowing that the bath symbolized your dying to sin and anything that separated you from the love of God?  Do you remember coming out of the water, to be clothed in your baptismal garment as a reminder that now you are a new creation in Christ?  God effected the change that has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us a new ministry of reconciliation. Isn’t that reason to rejoice?  No wonder the Eucharist, the word means thanksgiving, is at the heart of our worship each Sunday.  We give thanks to God for who and what we are in Christ by renewing Christ’s dying and rising in Bread and Wine.

Did you notice that your baptism also gives you a new ministry of reconciliation?  You are called to serve those who feel estranged and alienated, to reach out to those whom others shun and deem unworthy, and through your loving service help remind them of God’s undying love for them.  Sister Helen Prejean’s ministry to those on death row and her working to end our country’s practice of capital punishment is a case in point.

And so we come to what some have called the greatest parable in all the gospels, the Prodigal Son.  Place yourself in the parable.  It could change your life.  First, though, notice what occasions the parable, who they are making up the audience to whom Jesus tells this tale.  Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. This has become the great scandal in Jesus’ ministry, the company he keeps, and those with whom he practices table fellowship.  The tax collectors were among the most hated people in Israel.  They were collaborators with the Roman oppressors and added to the tax bills to make their living.  Then there were the generic sinners, those the establishment looked down upon and deemed beyond the pale of salvation.  Jesus seemed comfortable with these people, welcoming them to his table, waiting on them, and breaking bread and sharing a cup with them.  The parable is addressed to the ones who were outraged by his table companions.

Let’s look at the word prodigal for a moment.  It actually has two nearly opposite meanings.  First, prodigal means wasteful.  Second, the word means recklessly extravagant.  We’ll see that both definitions apply.  Then you decide which character the parable of the Prodigal is about.

You probably know the main outline of the story.  A man had two sons… So it begins with the younger son demanding his share of the inheritance now, not wanting to wait for his father’s death for that transition to happen.  The father does as the son requests only to watch the rash one leave the household and head off for a foreign land.  The son is giving up his religious heritage and will take up residence among Gentiles and seem to follow their ways.  How else could you explain the fact that after the son has squandered his fortune and fallen on desperate times, he finds himself tending pigs and longing to stave off starvation by eating some of the pigs’ slop?  That is the epitome of desperation.  And it is only then, as a last resort, that the son remembers his father and how well the hired hands that work for his father are treated.   He decides to go home again.

Repentance.  The son rehearses what he will say when he comes back into his fathers presence.  Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers. When he has the speech down, he sets off on his journey.

The scene shifts to the father’s perspective.  It would seem that every evening the father goes to the brow of the hill and looks down the winding road with the hope of catching sight of his son returning in the light of sunset.  This evening, wonder of wonders, he glimpses a figure heading in his direction.  How long did he have to stare at the approaching one before he knew it was his son?  Regardless, what is clear is that he did not cross his arms and stomp his foot in the dirt of the road to wait until he got his hands on the boy to throttle him as he may well have deserved.  No, in a gesture that may well have looked foolish to his neighbors, the father ran down the road to meet his son to embrace him, kiss him, and welcome him home.

The son starts his rehearsed lines, but before he can get to the part where he would ask to be treated like a hired hand, the father, who doesn’t seem to care where the son has been or what he has done that resulted in his present sorry state, calls those hired hands to prepare a bath for the boy, dress him like a prince, and kill the fatted calf for a feast for him and his friends because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again, was lost and is found. And the feast began.

Now the elder son, coming in from a day’s labor, balks when he is told that the music and laughter he hears are from a lavish party his father is giving for his long lost brother.  He doesn’t in the least seem happy that his brother has returned alive from his foray into foreign lands and refuses to go to the table.

The father comes out to plead with his son to come in and join the celebration.  The older son will have nothing to do with it.  It is clear that this man has been laboring for his father begrudgingly.  He wonders why he has never been able to have a party with his friends.  Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. Then the most telling lines of all are spoken: But when this son of yours returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf. He does not say, my brother, but this son of yours.  He doesn’t seem interested in effecting reconciliation, does he?

Is the older son a stand-in for the Pharisees and scribes?  Does he represent those who think that it is too easy for sinners to return to the life of the church?  Is he of one mind with those who find it easy to enumerate those who will be going to hell when their life is over because of their deplorable actions?  Is he akin to those who think that surely, since they have done everything right, surely they will have a higher place in the Kingdom?  You may not remember that there was considerable voiced resentment when the news of the late Frank Sinatra’s reconciliation with, and marriage in the church made it into the press.  What do you think of deathbed conversions?

The point of the parable is not that sin doesn’t matter.  Right and wrong remain.  The Commandments still apply.  But the parable is warning against judging another, deeming anyone beyond grace’s reach.  No one can comprehend the breadth and depth, the all-embracing love that is realized in God’s desire to forgive and reconcile.  Our resenting the prodigality of God’s love may exclude us from the table.  Unless we desire to gather with all we oughtn’t to gather at all.

The Gospel for this Laetare Sunday challenges us to keep a proper perspective.  Jesus wants us to recognize ourselves in each of the three characters in the parable of the Prodigal.  We have to know what it means to be a sinner, to have erred in our ways, to rejoice with what it means to be forgiven.  If we do go to the Table, we must rejoice when we see new members added to the number, and rejoice when those who have been away for a time repent and return.  And we must be willing to do our part to be God’s reconcilers in Christ, embracing all who enter, welcoming all who wish to come to the table.  We must be prodigal with the love we have received until all are embraced and welcomed home.

How do you think the story ends?  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  We have to decide for ourselves whether the older son joins his younger brother at the table.  What do you think?  How does the story end for you?

Laetare Sunday.  Rejoice.  You all hang on now.  We’re getting there.  It won’t be long now until we hear Alleluia again and know what redemption means.

Sincerely,

Didymus