Sunday, April 17, 2011

Year A Passion Sunday

Readings: Matt. 21:1-11; Isa. 50:4-7; Ps. 22:8-9. 17-20.23-34; Phil. 2:6-11; Matt. 27:11-54

"Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." Sound familiar? Well, it should because we joyfully proclaim this refrain around the altar each time we celebrate Eucharist. We do this to herald the One who truly comes in the name of the Lord, just as the people do in today’s Gospel as Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly, hailing Him as the Messiah, the son of David, their long-awaited king and deliverer. In our sacred liturgy for Passion Sunday, in the short space of maybe twenty minutes, we have moved from rejoicing at the arrival of the Messiah, the son of David, who enters the holy city in triumph, to the end of that week, arriving at the day Jesus is betrayed and handed over to the Romans who judge, mock, strip, beat and then nail Him to the cross, an innocent man unjustly condemned, but who allows Himself to suffer unjustly for you and me.

St. Paul writes about this well in our second reading from his Letter to the Philippians: "he emptied himself; taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:7-8) It is easy to make religion something not very serious, an adornment to our lives, or a superstition in which we wait for God work some little magic on our behalf. I am often asked something along the lines of "Did God have to reconcile and redeem the world in this way?" The answer to this question is simply "No". God being God could have reconciled and redeemed the world in any number of ways. The follow-up question then is inevitable, "Why did God choose to reconcile and redeem the world in this way?" The only convincing answer to this question cannot be philosophical, theological, or in any way a cerebral abstraction. The only credible answer to this question is existential, which is just a philosophical way of saying that it is personal.


How many of us have joyfully welcomed Jesus into our hearts as Savior, Lord, and King shouting "Hosanna, hosanna, blessed is the Lord," only to crucify Him when things don’t go according to our plans, when God doesn’t work the magic we expect of Him, when He refuses to play the role of genie and grant our wishes on command? On this score, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us an important wake-up call by saying that "those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy Spirit and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away" recrucify "the Son of God… holding him up to contempt" yet again (Heb. 6:4-6) Such people, the sacred author continues, are like "[g]round that has absorbed the rain falling upon it repeatedly,” but who only bring forth “thorns and thistles." (Heb. 6:8) Of course, ground covered with thorns and thistles is fit only to be burned. (Heb. 6:8) The good news is that our salvation is not dependent on our faithfulness to Christ, but on His faithfulness to us. We know that God desires to save everyone and bring all to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:4) We must come to see, therefore, that in no way does God lead us to our destiny more than by reaching out to us in our pain, struggles, hardships, and challenges.

You see, my dear friends, there is nothing, I mean absolutely nothing that you experience that Christ did not experience in His own person, this includes, pain- physical, emotional, and psychological- loneliness, rejection, abandonment, loss, betrayal, and even death. As St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great Cappadocian theologians observed centuries ago, by way of affirming Jesus’ full humanity- "That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved," which is only to say that Jesus experienced deeply and atoned for all that needed to be overcome in us, in the world, and throughout the whole cosmos, in order to reconcile all things to the Father. This is why whenever we cry out "My God, my God why have you abandoned me," Jesus hears our cry and answers our call. He does not typically answer our cry by magically making it all disappear, but by accompanying us through it, leading us towards our destiny. This is exactly what St. Paul means when he writes that for our sake Jesus emptied Himself.


What did our Lord empty Himself of? His divinity! This is what we mean when we recite the Creed, which we will do in a few moments, and say that for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man. As we recite these words of the Creed we bow, which is our way of acknowledging and reverencing the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. Immediately after this we say, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” As we approach the Triduum, let’s each of us take some time and reflect on the great mystery of our redemption wrought by no one other than Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Do not recollect in this way to wallow in your sins. Rather, think on this so that you can clearly see what great love, mercy, and tenderness God has for you. I use “you” in the second person singular, not the third person plural, meaning You!

If what I have preached this evening still remains abstract, take a question from a New Yorker cartoon I saw several years ago as your point of departure this Holy Week. In the cartoon two women, standing next to each other, are looking up at a crucifix on the wall. One turns and says to the other, "If I’m okay and you’re okay, what’s he doing up there?" My friends, I’m not okay and you’re not okay. The state of the world and the state of our lives, even the state of the church, are proof enough of this! As the famous convert Malcolm Muggeridge, commenting on what made him turn to Christ in middle age, observed in his old age: original sin is the most empirically verifiable fact the world. Of course, we recapitulate the original sin each time we sin not only by rejecting God, but seeking to be god, that is, deciding for ourselves what is right and what is wrong with no reference to the purpose for which God created, redeemed, and is now sanctifying us. The proof of this is the effect our sinful behavior causes. Our sins are not only personally destructive, but societally and globally destructive as well. St. Paul tells us that God’s great love for us is proven "in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) This, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is good news, indeed!

Prepare ye the way for the Lord. Prepare ye the way for His kingdom

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