Sunday, March 20, 2016

Year C Passion Sunday

Readings: Luke 19:28-40; Isa 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-8.17-20.23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Very often we expend a lot of words attempting explain the mystery of faith. But the mystery of faith is really quite simple to articulate: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Today on Passion Sunday we not only contemplate, but seek to enter more deeply into one aspect of the mysterium tremendum, namely Christ’s sorrowful passion and death. Today we not only commemorate Christ’s passion and death, we also observe Holy Week in a very compressed form.

Compression is the force used by nature to create diamonds. Hence, we should pray that our compressed observance of Holy Week today will crystallize and turn our observance of the sacred Triduum, which begins at sundown on Thursday with our celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, into something truly beautiful for God, an observance through which our lives will be transformed thus, by the Holy Spirit's power, conforming us more to the image of Christ by our full, active, and conscious participation in the mystery of our redemption.

What is the image of Christ to which we are to be conformed? St. Paul, in our reading today from his Letter to the Philippians, gave us a deep insight into the person of Jesus Christ, who did not deem equality with God something to be held onto, but something to be let go of. I believe our New Testament reading today holds the interpretive key to our lengthy Gospels. Last Sunday the adult elect of our parish, along with our candidate, all of whom will be fully incorporated into the body of Christ at the great Paschal Vigil next Saturday, were presented with the Nicene Creed. This presentation preceded a discussion of the Creed, the symbol of our faith. It only takes reading through the Nicene Creed once to see that it is what we might call asymmetrical.

The only thing we say about God, the Father, that is not in relation to the Son and/or the Holy Spirit is very brief: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”

Jumping ahead in the Creed, we profess belief in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” And we end the Creed by making a very condensed profession: “I believe one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Between what we profess about God, the Father in and of himself and what we profess about the Holy Spirit, we find the vast majority of the Creed, which is all about Jesus, without whom we could not call God “Father” or have the Holy Spirit. Pope St. John Paul II began his very first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, with these words: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history” (par 1). From the beginning Christ, the only and eternally begotten Son of the Father, who is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God” is, was, and always will be the center of universe. Perhaps a better translation of the sixth verse of the second chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians than what we usually encounter goes something like this: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” Jesus is divine.

As St. Paul also noted in our New Testament reading, it was only by becoming human that Jesus became the center of history. Christ the Lord did not deem equality with God something to be held onto, but something to be let go of for us and for our salvation. Rather than cling to his divinity, Christ emptied himself of it, “taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance” (Phil 2:7). Furthermore, he “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

The Greek word for “emptied” in our reading from Philippians is a form of the verb kenosis, but can also mean “to make of no reputation,” or, more to the point, to reduce to nothing. Why does this parsing of words matter? It matters because Jesus not only emptied himself of his divinity for love of you, for you and for your salvation he not only condescended by becoming human, he allowed himself to be humiliated on your behalf, to the point of suffering a degrading and unjust death on the cross.

In the verse immediately preceding our reading from Philippians the apostle exhorted the church in Philippi to “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), before going on to quote what most New Testament scholars believe to be an ancient Christian hymn: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself…” (Phil 2:6-7). My dear sisters and brothers, this is the attitude we are to have among ourselves. It’s the only way others will know we are Christians. It is Christ who brings us together week after week, month after month, year after year. Jesus Christ is the reason, the point and purpose, of St. Olaf Parish.

If the Eucharistic liturgy is truly the theologia prima, that is, prime, or first, theology, then it is during Holy Week, especially the Triduum, which are our high holy days - the Easter Vigil being the main liturgy of the entire year - that we see the words that comprise the Creed are an -urgy, not an -ology. The word “urge,” from which we derive the suffix -urgy, means to do, to act, or, in the case of the liturgy, to enact- it refers to something concrete. By contrast, an -ology is abstract. In English we usually define -ology as “the study of” something, as in biology, theology, psychology, etc. Without a doubt, following Christ is an -urgy, not an -ology, just as loving your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your fellow parishioners, the poor, the outcast is judged by what you do, or don’t do, not by what you say, let alone by what you intend or think.

Above all, I humbly pray that on this Passion Sunday, in preparation for our celebration of the Paschal Vigil, this man of no reputation, who for our sake let himself be reduced nothing and who, in the words of Rick Elias, “loves us all with relentless affection,” will, by his passion and cross, heal our hearts of darkness, our hearts of stone (song “Man of No Reputation”).

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