Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66
SOME CELEBRANTS are tempted to drop preaching a homily today because of the length of the Gospel, not to mention the blessing of palms and a procession. Yet, as this day is the opening of Holy Week, it is good to say something by way of introduction about the meaning of this climax to Lent and the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the high point of our liturgical year.
The theme of this week and of today’s liturgy is clear. What Jesus experiences for us is a manifestation of God’s overwhelming love for each one of us. Further, by our identifying ourselves with the ‘mystery’ of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection we ourselves experience a great liberation, a ‘passover’ from various forms of sin and enslavement to a life of joy and freedom.
Today’s liturgy combines both a sense of triumph and tragedy. Very importantly, we are reminded at the beginning, that we are about to commemorate the triumph of Christ our King. We do this through the blessing of palms, the procession and the joyful singing. And the celebrant wears red vestments. We need to keep this in mind as we proceed in the second half to hear the long tale of the sufferings and indignities to which Jesus was subjected. So as we listen to the Passion story unfolding let us keep in mind the Hosannas as Jesus our King entered Jerusalem, his city. Very soon it will be difficult to recognize our King in the battered, scourged, crowned-with-thorns, crucified remnant of a human being.
Jesus accepted such a terrible fate basically, because of two reasons. One was political. Jesus had become the object of hate and prejudice by people who saw in him a threat to their religious authority and political standing. Secondly, it was all in accordance with the Father’s will. At the same time, this behaviour was the result of Jesus’ unconditional love for every person he met – including his enemies. And Jesus’ love for everyone was a mirror of the same love of the Father. It was a love so intense that Jesus was ready to sacrifice his own life for it. In doing so, Jesus identified with his Father’s will, namely, that all come to be aware of God’s unconditional love for them. It is St Paul who says that it is not altogether unusual for a person to die for good people. It is altogether unusual for one to give up their life for evildoers.
What we see in today’s readings is God using perfectly human situations in order to convey, in dramatic fashion, his relationship to us. And it is only with genuine faith that we are able to see the work of God in the tragic death of Jesus. As Paul says, for many of the Jews it was a stumbling block and for many non-believers sheer nonsense. Today’s readings also tell us that Jesus suffered. And he really did suffer. There are those who tend to minimise the sufferings of Jesus because “after all, he was the Son of God, he had a ‘Divine Nature’.” This is to deny one of the most central teachings of the New Testament that Jesus was human except for sin and he shared our human experiences in every way.
Jesus suffered obviously in his body and he underwent pain that we associate with the more barbaric forms of torture in our own day. But he must also have suffered psychologically and this pain may have been even more intense. He saw his mission collapse all around him and it seemed a total failure. His disciples to save themselves deserted him and ran away. They had taught worked miracles, fed them with bread. But no one seemed to remember him. Then at this special time of need, he experienced terrible loneliness. His disciples fell asleep in the garden when he especially needed their support. They ran off as soon as people came to arrest Jesus. Those who received healing from him are ready now to crucify him. Even the Father seems to be silent, the Father who could send legions of angels to rescue him – but apparently did nothing. There is the final poignant cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet through it all Jesus’ dignity, power and authority keep shining through, making his captors seem to be the ones on the defensive. After the prayer in the garden, Jesus stands up to face those arresting him full of an inner strength and authority. He stands in silent dignity before his judges, refusing to be intimidated. In the midst of his own pain and indignities, he can continue to think of the needs of others and can, after his own teaching, pray for and forgive his enemies. This was his way of saving the world. He saved us through his suffering and death. His ultimate sacrifice was his own very person. As St Paul says, he “emptied himself” totally and in so doing became filled with the Spirit of his Father. He clung to nothing; he let go of everything. He gave his life on the cross for us. Matthew says he breathed his last breath and died. It is another way of saying that the life, sufferings and death of Jesus, released a power into the world, the power of the Spirit of God, a Spirit with which Jesus himself was filled. Jesus’ followers will soon become filled with that Spirit also.
Jesus’ disciples, filled with the power of their Lord and Master, will go through similar experiences. They, like Jesus in the garden, will be filled with fear but, will be filled with a fearless courage and joy. The death of Jesus, which we commemorate today, was not in the end a sign of failure. It was Jesus’ moment of triumph and victory.
So, as we participate in the liturgy of Holy Week, let us not concentrate only on the sufferings of Jesus. Those sufferings have meaning because they lead to resurrection, new life and new joy. The pain and sufferings of our lives are not the punishments of God. These sufferings, pain, sickness are not in themselves desirable. They become, however, sources of good when they help us to become more mature, more loving, more caring, more sympathetic persons.