Sunday, April 13, 2014

Turn again, and strengthen your brethren—Palm Sunday—Cycle A

Every year during Lent, my wife and I watch the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of Christ. Sometimes having the visual reminder of Christ’s passion helps us to get in the right penitential mindset. I don’t think you can watch that depiction of the events of the Passion and remain unmoved.
At one point in the movie, when the Sanhedrin have brought Jesus in front of Pilate to request that he be condemned, Pilate says something that does not appear in scripture but is certainly a pertinent question: “Isn’t he the prophet you welcomed into Jerusalem only five days ago? And now you want him dead? Can any of you explain this madness to me?”
Some of the controversies of today merit the same response: when people are run out of jobs for holding positions that were not even controversial 10 years ago, like the Mozilla founder and inventor of JavaScript who was pushed out of his new job as CEO last week because of his support for traditional marriage. Can you explain why something considered the norm for most of human history is now considered bigotry? Can you explain why good people are being dragged through the mud simply to sate the appetites of the intolerantly tolerant?
It’s the same illness as always. It’s that fatal flaw in us—that weakness we have for seeking not the highest good but the good that we can grasp right now, or more often, whatever feels good whether it’s truly good or not. That is the essence of the Tyranny of Relativism that our Pope Emeritus Benedict once spoke about, and Pope Francis also just this Friday commented on this dictatorship of thought that drives factions to kill the prophets of today.
In our two gospel readings, we get this same juxtaposition: the welcoming of the prophet followed within a week by his condemnation. Today we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but we also read of His Passion and death. The first reading from Isaiah presents the same contrast: the prophet with the well-trained tongue, who does not rebel against his vocation but is open to it, even thought his obedience is rewarded with buffeting and spitting. Isaiah’s suffering servant is fascinating enough, as it seems to portray so clearly a savior who is rejected and condemned some 800 years prior to our Savior’s death. In the responsorial Psalm today, we heard Psalm 22, which is the cry of one who even in death trusts the Lord. Jesus himself cries out the opening lines of this Psalm in the Passion narrative, and even the mockery he receives in the narrative points back to this Psalm written several hundreds of years before Jesus’ death.
Our scripture has this incredible quality where passages written during the time of the Israelites point forward to Jesus, and the gospels point back to those earlier writings. St. Augustine noted this when he said that the New Testament is hidden in the old, and the old is plainly visible in the new. And we see it most clearly right here in the passion narrative we read today. And this makes perfect sense because all of scripture, all of the Word of God, is about the Logos, the Word made Flesh—Jesus our savior.
I know that I would like to be brave like the prophet Isaiah, or to face threats to my life with Jesus’ resolve. I’m sure all of us would like to believe that we have it in us. Would we have followed Our Lord with courage like St. Thomas in last week’s reading, or would we be the ones asking at the Last Supper, “Surely, it is not I, Lord?” How many of us are, like Peter, so sure of our steadfast faith when words are easy, but so ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble? Will we have the courage of our convictions when we face persecution? Will we stand firm with our unpopular convictions when the costs are great? Maybe so, maybe not. If it happened to Peter, it could happen to me.
In Luke’s version of the passion, Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail: and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” Jesus knew Peter would fail, but He still trusted that Peter would return to Him. Contrast this with Judas, who betrays Jesus, then despairs. Both of them are there at the Last Supper, but only one remains, turns back, becomes the Rock on which the Church is built.
We will all fall and have all fallen. But what we do after that is what matters. Will we repent? Will we seek to be reconciled, or will we double down on our error? Will we despair and give in to the voices of the secular world, or will we bow our heads and say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”? We turn back not only for ourselves but to strengthen each other.

We have four more days of Lent, and then we celebrate the Easter Triduum—the holiest days of our liturgical year. If you’ve had difficulty this Lent, there’s still time to put yourself in the spirit of this penitential season. Watch The Passion of Christ. Read the gospels. Spend some time in adoration or contemplating the crucifix. Pray the Stations of the Cross. And if you haven’t done so already, go to reconciliation. Reflect on the fact that Jesus did not turn away from this cup… but drank until it was finished. We can be sifted like wheat, or we can turn again, and strengthen our brethren.
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