Sunday, March 25, 2012

Year B Fifth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Jer. 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4. 12-15.; Heb. 5:7-9; John 12:20-33

In our first reading today God, through the prophet Jeremiah, promises to make a new covenant with His people, Israel (Jer. 31:31b). This new covenant will not be like the old covenant that Israel consistently ignored and violated. This new covenant consists of God forgiving their evildoing and remembering their sins no more (Jer. 31:34c). In a word, this new covenant is best described as mercy.

Mercy does not “work” for the one who is not contrite, that is, the one who does not recognize her/his need for mercy, his/her need to be forgiven, which means recognizing and acknowledging our evildoing and sinfulness. After all, mercy has no value if we don’t think we need it; this is as true of the do-gooder, who is convinced of her/his own goodness, as it is of the hardened sinner, who makes no pretense of being good. In this dichotomy, the hardened sinner is dealing more in reality than the do-gooder, which is why Jesus spoke of prostitutes and tax collectors being closer to the kingdom of God than those convinced of their own righteousness (Matt. 21:31b).

It bears noting again that God has only ever sought to establish one covenant with humankind, the content of which is given us completely in our reading from Jeremiah today, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33c).

Our Psalm today is Psalm 51, known for centuries by its first word in Latin as the Miserere. Miserere means to feel, or to take pity. The Latin root of miserere is miser, meaning wretched. In and through Christ, God looks with pity on our wretchedness, our nothingness, our evildoing, our refusal to love, our many infidelities. For Christians Friday has always been a day of penance, just as Sunday is always a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Each Friday, the Miserere, that is, Psalm 51, is the first Psalm of Morning Prayer, or Lauds, regardless of which of the four weeks of the Psalter we are praying. So, we pray: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin” (verses 3-4).

We begin each Mass with the penitential rite. It is right and good that in the new translation of the Roman Missal we ritually beat our breasts three times as we acknowledge that we have sinned in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and failed to do, through our own grievous fault- mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa- “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” By doing this I acknowledge that my failure to love is the result of conscious choices I deliberately make. Being an “urgy,” liturgy is something that we do, not merely something we think and so stands in contrast to an “ology,” which can easily remain abstract. Liturgy is where we give objective and real, as opposed to ideal, form to what we believe. Hence, liturgy is the prime way we engage reality, which is why the Eucharistic liturgy is theologia prima, or first theology, where faith begins to understand.

To bring this point home, what would Jesus’ assurances that He loves us mean if He had not gone to the Cross? What do our assurances to others that we love them mean if our assurances do not translate into selflessness, costing us not only something, not merely a lot, but everything? What did Jesus hold back? Nothing!

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, tells us, perhaps a little surprisingly, that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8b). The lesson here is not that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered and so should we. Such an exegesis is arrogant, not to mention Pelagian, meaning that to read this passage in that way there was no need for God to establish the new covenant he announced through Jeremiah. Let’s be clear, only Jesus obeys the Father. Jesus accomplished in His own person what Israel was unable to accomplish, namely complete fidelity to God’s covenant, exemplified through adherence to the Law. This is no cause to be smug because the Church is no more capable of fidelity than was ancient Israel. If the Church is Christ’s Bride, then we are a frequently unfaithful wife, but one who is not put away because of Her frequent adulteries. Because of Christ’s obedience to the Father “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9b). There is no greater deception, no bigger evasion of reality, than to believe you can save yourself by being “a good person.” Your goodness is only relative to that of other people and so is nothing compared to the holiness of God.

St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, wrote: “I … consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).

Obedience to Christ is the obedience of faith, not of works. This was brought home clearly in last week’s Gospel when we heard Jesus tell Nicodemus, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). In today’s Gospel as the crowd is listening to Jesus a voice is heard from the heavens, some hear only thunder, others hear something they interpret as the voice of an angel speaking to Jesus. In reference to God’s holy name, the voice says, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again” (John 12:28). Jesus tells them all, ‘This voice did not come for my sake but for yours. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’ He said this indicating the kind of death he would die” (John 12:30-33).

The kind of death Jesus died was a terrible, bloody, sweaty, lonely, painful, agonizing death. He died it for you, because He loves you, even more than you love yourself. He willingly died this death to draw you to Himself, to show you that Divine Mercy sets a limit to evil and sin in the world, and in your heart. Far from a sign of humility, believing that your sins are greater than God’s mercy is satanic arrogance. Our salvation, our redemption is no mere “ology,” a topic only to be pondered, kicked around, argued about, dissected either in a classroom or a coffee shop, it is an “urgy,” it is not something Jesus said, but what He did, specifically what He did on the Cross, the altar on which He was sacrificed, which had to happen before He could be resurrected.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is the great Paschal Mystery that Christ seeks to draw us more deeply into through this Eucharist, through our Lenten disciplines, through our relationships, our work, as well as through our sufferings. Our participation is no mere “ology,” even a theology; it is an “urgy,” something we live out day-by-day. Yesterday we marked the thirty-second anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who by his life and death concretely demonstrated just what I am trying to get across. In 1977, the year he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, Romero observed: “How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work, that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench, and each metalworker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office! How many cabdrivers, I know, listen to this message there in their cabs, you are a priest at the wheel, my friend.” The same is true of you when you are sent forth today at the end of this Mass.

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