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PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION – A – April 13, 2014


From the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 50:4-7

From the Letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians 2:6-11

From the holy Gospel according to Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

 

What is this supposed to be about?  That is not a bad question to ask as we enter Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.  What do you think all this is about?  What are we supposed to feel?  How are we supposed to respond?  Some would have these days be lugubrious, so touching our emotions that we weep with guilt remembering what happened over 2000 years ago.  Remember Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ?  That film was notorious for its intent to draw the viewer into a visceral experience of the horror of the crucifixion, the horror of Jesus’ agony, his scourging, his crucifixion, and his death.  Blood and gore were everywhere.  The horror.  The horror.  The horror.  Mary’s stark and accusing stare that was the final image in the movie gave every viewer ample reason to beat his breast.  Look what your sins have done!  Then there was the question of the film’s anti Semitism to consider.

The truth is that one of the driving forces for us during these days of Lent is supposed to be repentance.  We are supposed to be conscious of the fact that we are sinners seeking to atone for our sins as we look for ways to conform more closely to Jesus, the One in whom we have been baptized.  By the way, that was a powerful image that registered on the masses when Pope Francis was seen in public confessing his sins.  He has been open in his avowal that he is a sinner.  That should take away some of our denial, freeing us to make the same declaration.  In this holy time, to admit to being sinners is to declare, along with Francis, that we are stepping out of the darkness and embracing more fully the light.

All that is well and good.  But we must guard against making our Lenten journey too introverted, with our focus too backward looking.  Were that the case, then no matter how strict our Lenten observance has been, no matter how vivid the image we have of Jesus on the Cross, we will fall short of the transformation that grace empowers during this holy season.

Participation in the Liturgy of Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, is not meant to be attendance at a passion play.  Were You There can be a very moving spiritual, but I don’t appreciate it as a hymn for today’s Liturgy or that of Good Friday.  The hymn is an invitation to indulge in saccharin emotionalism.  Who are the you to whom the Lord possessor is speaking?  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Isn’t Jesus our Lord also?  The experience is not supposed to be about us vs. them.  The Liturgy is about the timelessness of the event and the reality that every person’s suffering can be a share in the Lord’s passion thus removing any hopelessness from it.

Hear Isaiah’s Suffering Servant’s Song in the first reading.  Some of the imagery in the Passion Narrative undoubtedly comes from this text.  Who is the Suffering Servant?  Certainly we see a fulfillment in Jesus.  The Servant is at times an individual.  At other times the Servant is Israel, that is, the whole people who suffer.  As terrible as the sufferings may be, this is the person, this is the people convinced that God is present to the sufferer and ultimately is the deliverer.  An individual who suffers can find consolation in Isaiah.  A people who suffer can, too.  Liturgy invites us to live in hope.

Have you read Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, or seen the film by the same name?  That is not bad reading or viewing for Lent and Holy Week.  There are other similar works that serve as well.  The point?  Is the historical novel an invitation to simply look back at an event of some 70 years ago and remember?  Or is the work meant to stir in us a compassionate response?  If we simply look back and gasp in horror at the evils perpetrated, we can have a satisfying emotional experience.  On the other hand, if we recognize our participation in humanity’s suffering, and like Schindler, are stirred to a compassionate response, the experience can be converting.  The operative word is compassion.  The word means to enter into the sufferings of others, to suffer with.  Dare we do that?  And if we dare, will we ever be the same again?

Remember when we celebrated Christmas a few months ago?  What was that all about?  For some it is another invitation to be sentimental and imagine themselves at a baby’s birth.  That’s fine, I guess, but oh so lacking.  The reality is that we are celebrating the Lord’s Incarnation, the wondrous fact that the Word became flesh and so united the human and the divine forever.  What does that have to do with Passion Sunday, you ask?  God has entered into the human experience and united us.  If we believe in the Incarnation, we cannot look at others as strangers.  We cannot blind ourselves to or stand idly by and watch dispassionately as others suffer.  To do so is to blind ourselves to Jesus’ sufferings, to fail to recognize his presence in others, and to fail to recognize the cross on which he hangs today.

We must enter into that suffering, dare to suffer with, or we miss the door Passion Sunday opens for us.  Dare we enter?  I don’t mean to be dower, but we might not find God unless we so dare.

I remember how moved I was the first time I read a biography of Damien of Molokai.  You remember him, the Belgian who traveled to the Hawaiian Islands to minister to lepers – outcast from society, the untouchables.  Once he encountered that community and became part of it, he too became untouchable lest he contaminate someone else with the dreaded disease.  In order to fulfill his obligation to confess his sins at least once a year, he had to stand on the dock and confess to the priest on the ship in a voice loud enough for all present to hear his sins.  From the day he recognized the signs of leprosy in his own hands he never again referred to his flock as you lepers.  Rather they were fellow lepers.  Compassion: to suffer with.  For us, the invitation is to recognize in those who suffer, the Christ suffering today and to enter into that suffering.

Those who entered Dante’s Inferno read overhead, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.  Hell means to live without love, without hope of loving or being loved forever.  That is the essence of despair.  Suffering leads us to the brink.  Jesus, in the Passion Narrative, cries out, My God, my God, why have you abandoned (forsaken) me?  Some have said that the cry is evidence of Jesus’ despair in the last moments on the cross.  In reality, the words open Psalm 22, the prayer of all suffering people who believe in the God who saves.  Jesus enters into that suffering.  The Psalm is not one of despair.  The final lines affirm belief and trust in the God who saves.  The God who led Israel dry shod through the Red Sea and to the Promised Land will continue to save until time runs its course.  The psalm ends in triumph and thanksgiving because God delivers God’s people in the present just as God delivered in ages long ago.  It is with confidence that Jesus leaps into the void that is death and into the arms of the One he knows will raise him up.

Now celebrate Eucharist.  Remember, the word means Thanksgiving.  We give thanks to God by renewing the dying and rising of God’s Son, Jesus.  In the Institution Narrative, Jesus says to us, Do this in my memory.  The action of Eucharist necessitates our allowing ourselves to be transformed by what we do.  As Jesus uses the word memory, it is better translated and I am with you, the whole mystery, the total of the Jesus experience.  Now.  The Body is broken.  The Cup is poured out.  Our participation makes us the Body of Christ to be sent to do what Jesus does in every age, enter with compassion into the sufferings of others.  Don’t leave others in the abstract.  Give others names and faces and genders and orientations and nationalities and races.  The others are Jesus.  Now, how do you look at the illegal alien?  The Iraqi?  The Muslim?  Jesus suffers in those families in anguish after the loss of the plane in the Indian Ocean, and in the 23 million people suffering with HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere.  And there are other places and people in similar pain.

We bring our own personal sufferings to Eucharist, too.  Is this why Jesus said we must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us?  Could that be why we are supposed to forgive someone seventy-times-seven times?  Is this why, if someone strikes me on one cheek, I am to turn the other for the slap.  Is this why we are silent before our accusers and those who defame us?  It is only then that we will know the transformation Jesus has in mind.

Remember who is your vindicator, who it is who will raise you up.  That is why the Christian cannot end in tragedy.  For the Christian there is no ultimate defeat.  God exalted Jesus following his rejection and defeat.  So will God do for all who hope in God through Jesus, God’s Son.

Now, enter into the celebration of the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and see if you will ever be the same again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – A – April 06, 2014

 From the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 37:12-14

From the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 8:8-11

From the holy Gospel according to John 11:1-45

 

I hadn’t seen or heard from him in several years.  I recognized his voice with the first words that came to me over the telephone.  The hour was well past midnight and I had been in deep sleep when the phone rang.  By the third ring I lifted the receiver and after a cough to clear my throat, said, “Hello.”

“Do you know who this is?” he asked.

Have you ever noticed how many images can flood your mind in a moment of surprise?  I saw him sitting across from me in the prison visiting room.  He sat hunched forward with his hands clutched between his knees.  Occasionally he looked at me but for the most part he stared at the floor while he talked.  Because of his soft voice many times I had to strain to hear what he was saying.  When I was first getting to know him I had thought the softness was because he did not want to be overheard.  I came to believe that the softness of his voice grew out of the gentle spirit that was at his core.

He talked about his ethnicity with the pride of a Native American.  I don’t remember his tribe, but his surname was Eaglefeather.  His heart, he said, could soar like an eagle even when he was behind prison walls.  There was no doubt that he was a criminal and that his crimes were the result of alcohol consumed.  Now in sobriety and serving the time for which he was sentenced, he said he was embarrassed to think of what wine had driven him to do.

During those first sessions he told me about his childhood and the poverty from which he came.  He talked about the difficulty of living on the reservation and about the alcoholism that plagued his family.  As a child he had vowed never to let alcohol dominate his life.  He watched his father die and two of his siblings, all while they were still comparatively young, none of them reaching fifty.

He became oblivious of his surroundings when he sketched.  From an early age he had wanted to be an artist.  I thumbed through books filled with his work.  Granted his drawings in the beginning were crude, but even the earliest line drawings gave evidence of the talent he possessed.  As he refined his skills, he filled pages with details – leaves, flowers, profiles, hands, ears, and eyes.  And there were portraits of Jesus.  Some were obvious imitations of romantic religious art.  But they evolved as his Jesus took on features of people Eaglefeather or imagined, all of them suffering.  His Jesus was masculine.  Sometimes he sat against a wall with a cup outstretched, begging.  Sometimes Jesus cowered before those berating him.  Or, he sat whittling, telling stories to a child at his feet.

Eaglefeather had a deep spirituality.  He told me that he prayed often, especially when he was drawing.

“I see Jesus in people, especially in the poor and the desperate.  I don’t know why it is so obvious to me.  When I was on the outside, I couldn’t pass by a beggar without giving something, even if it was the last dime I had.  If someone was crying I felt like crying too.  I shared their suffering until drink deadened my spirit and dulled me to the pain that was all around me.”

During the last visit we had in the prison room, Eaglefeather talked about his faith and how he envied my being a priest.  “You get to do the holy things.  You help us to pray.  You tell us that God loves us.  You get to touch the Holy, the Bread and the Wine.  Do you know what I have always wished I could do?”

“Tell me,” I said.

“I’ve always wished I could look into the chalice as you say the words so I could see the wine change.  Do you ever get used to that?”

“The look of the wine doesn’t change anymore than its taste does.  Faith tells us it is different, not our eyes.  The people you see, how do they change when you see Jesus in them?  Aren’t they the same before and after?  Does anyone else see the difference you do?  It’s not your eyes that see the difference.  It’s your faith that makes it so.”

A few days later in the mail I received an Eaglefeather sketch.  Two hands held a cup.  The contents of the cup were shadowed.  Just beyond the table, his eyes covered by a cloth that was knotted at the back of his head, and clad in period-less garb, a man sat in rags.  He leaned forward, supporting himself with one arm while his other open hand he held outstretched toward the cup.

* * *

“Do you know who this is?”

“Is that you, Lazarus?  It has been a long time.”

“I’ve called to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye?  What do you mean?”

“I’m tired and I have decided I can’t do this anymore.  It’s been a long struggle.  You never knew about this, did you?  A short time after I got out of prison, my kidneys failed.  It was in part because of my drinking, but it was also genetic and had to do with my high blood pressure.  I tried raging at God for a while which as always proved pointless.  Doctors told me that the only hope would be a transplant.  In the meantime I would have to be on dialysis.

“Do you know what that means?”

I told him that I knew what dialysis was, but I had never death with anyone using it.  He described how for four hours a day, three times a week, he was attached to the dialysis machine, a line from one of his arms going into the machine and another coming out of the machine and feeding into his arm.  Four hours he lay there while his blood was being purified of the toxins that, if allowed to build up in him, would kill him.  He told me about the exhaustion he felt as he began the process and his fatigue at its end.  The only day he felt normal and had any energy was the day after the treatment.

“I have a love/hate relationship with that machine.  I love it because it is a lifeline for me.  I hate it because I am enslaved to it and would die without it.

“I’ve tried to stay away, to quit.  I tell myself it’s not worth it.  But always before I have gone crawling back, limp, spent, and barely able to stand.  They hitch me up again.  The process starts all over.  I have done that five times now.  It’s over.  I have decided I’m not going back this time.  Not ever.”

I heard the determination in his voice and the resignation.  After a pause that became awkward, my voice faltered as I said, “Lazarus…. Lazarus, is there anything I can do?”

“You’re doing it,” he said.  “You’re listening to me.  I won’t tell you where I am so that you can’t dome after me.  You won’t know where I am so you can’t send help to rescue me.  No one will find me until it is over.”

I felt my throat constrict and tears well in my eyes.  I prayed for the right words, but no words came.  I stood at the window of my bedroom and looked out into the night and the city lights.  I wondered if he could be in one of those windows looking out in my direction.  It was clear that he was along at a time when no one should have to be.

“I want to ask you something,” he said.  “Do you think dying is the worst thing?”

“The worst thing?  I don’t know.  I do know that it is the one experience we will never understand until we go through it.  We can be with others as they die.  We can watch the last breath and see the palpable change as life leaves the body.  But we can’t know death until we die.  I do believe there is more to come.  But that is not because of what I have seen.  It is because of what I believe.”

You told me once that we believe in the resurrection of the body because Jesus rose.  I’ve thought about that.  Will my body be broken when it rises again?  Will my kidneys still not work?  Will I still be plagued with desires and feel the loneliness of my isolation?”

Oh, Lazarus, I don’t think so.  We are not talking about resuscitation.  We’re talking about resurrection.  The resurrected body has changed and all the weaknesses are gone.  I don’t know what that all means.  We’re talking about mystery.  One thing is for sure, though.  Your resurrected body will lack nothing.  Your kidneys will work very well, if they have to.  Even the feminine part of you will be as complete as the masculine.  You are made in God’s image, after all, just like the Earthling before the fall.  You will know love, the inexhaustible love that is God.”

I’m blathering, I thought.  I felt desperate to find words that would soothe and comfort him.  I wanted to find a way to encourage him to try again, to continue with the dialysis process that he loved and hated.  But that was not what he was seeking from me.  He said he wanted me to listen.  I think he wanted me to support him and assure him that everything would be resolved in God’s love.

“Lazarus, I want you to feel my arms around you.  In the strength of that embrace, relax and rest your head on my shoulder.  I am with you.  I will be with you to this journey’s end.  I promise you that.  God loves you and so do I.  That’s all I can say.  That’s all I can do.  I’ll pray.”

I listened to the silence.  Then I heard a sob and a strangled voice cry out, “Oh, God!  Father, will Jesus be there?”

My tears flowed now.  I remember that my voice was clear and that I spoke with ease.  “Do you remember when you told me how you could see Jesus in all the people you met, especially in the poor and the suffering people?  God sees that way, too.  God is looking at you now and in your suffering he recognizes Jesus in his passion.  God loves you with the same love God has for Jesus.  Through your Baptism, you are identified with Christ.  God is with you.  Nothing will separate you from that love.  God will take you by the hand and call you forth from the grave.  God will embrace you and lift you up.  God will wipe away your tears and put fine clothes on you and prepare the Feast….”

Is that where I stopped?  I don’t remember.  How did we say, “Good bye?”  Could I have gone back to my bed and slept?  Or did I spend the night staring into the darkness yearning for the first signs of dawn?

I read the story in the newspaper.  They had found Lazarus Eaglefeather in a campground on the other side of the mountains.  He was seated on a blanket on the ground, cross-legged and facing the east.

Sincerely,

Didymus