Monday, March 23, 2015

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion - March 29, 2015

First Reading Commentary
Certainly Isaiah and all the true prophets of God had well-trained tongues because they were taught by their Creator.  Later, their Teacher would clothe Himself in flesh and become Man to speak the infallible words of everlasting life. 

Prayer in the morning is vital so that we can put on the armor of Christ before we venture off to another day on the battlefield.  Through prayer, ears are opened and prepared to hear the Voice of the Master.  A life without prayer is a life that rebels; a life that turns back.  Pious souls, however, are not exempt from stumbling.  Sin leads to humbling experiences for the devout Christian.  It shows us that we're not always a top-notch player for the team.  Sometimes we are in dire need of other team players to stop us from turning back.  This is the work of the various body parts going to bat for the sake of the entire mystical body. 

Our enemy is a tempter and knows exactly what can take our focus away from God.  Our shame, failures and disappointments, however, can be visualized on a willing Victim in the form of a scourged Back, a Face of spittle, a Head wearing a crown of thorns, Feet and Hands with nails driven through them, and finally death.  And yet "finally" is a bad word choice because, fortunately for our undeserving souls, death is not where it ends – actually, it doesn’t end at all.   

The final verse expresses the suffering Servant's inalterable confidence in God.  That confidence is something that every disciple of Christ strives for. 

Saint Paul teaches us about our different callings and the gifts we possess as individuals (cf. Ephesians 4:11).  Having a "well-trained tongue" does not necessarily mean the tongue as a physical body part.  Certainly for liturgical readers and homilists it could mean the physical tongue; but as Saint Francis of Assisi said to use words if necessary, then certainly tongues can be metaphoric and points to the old adage: Actions speak louder than words.  And for many of us our gifts of service are displayed by our actions and not necessarily our words.  Gifts used in service help to build up the body of Christ.

Second Reading Commentary
The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that by attributing to Jesus the divine title "Lord", the first confessions of the Church's faith affirm from the beginning that the power, honor, and glory due to God the Father are due also to Jesus, because He was in the form of God, and the Father manifested the sovereignty of Jesus by raising Him from the dead and exalting Him into His glory (cf. CCC 449)

Our hearts would implode if we fully understood the love that compels Christ's actions described here in this letter from Saint Paul.  First, consider God as the Creator.  Look all around and see His created beauty.  At night, look at the sky and know that out there is an infinite universe full of countless stars, galaxies and planets.  And yet, the Creator of all that is known and unknown joined the ranks of humanity, mere specs of dust in this vast universe, subjecting Himself to our lower nature and becoming a willing Victim for that fallen nature because He loves us far beyond any love that any human being is capable of expressing.  His Sacrifice for us because of His love for us is summarized here in this Reading; but also contemplate how close our Savior must surely keep us to His own Sacred Heart by reflecting on the fallen angels.  They are often referred to as demons.  Their arrogant ambition to be gods rendered them fallen from grace with an eternity to think about their actions.  In other words, God never became one of them to redeem them.  Unfortunately, our lack of comprehension of God's love for us will for this lifespan make us fall short in expressing our gratitude to God for saving us.  What we can do is strive to follow the example Jesus gives us in the Gospels and remain in a state of grace to partake of His precious Body and Blood which He commands us to do in memory of Him.  And like the example of Jesus depicted in this Reading, follow the exhortations of Saint Paul by placing the interests of others before our own (cf. Philippians 2:3-4)

Gospel Commentary
If approaching this Gospel strictly from a human perspective, then the events of this story are very disturbing.  The man looking in the mirror will see the reflection of the atrocities he is capable of.  But not as man sees does God see (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7).  The horrific things man is capable of were an overwhelmingly incomprehensible spiritual weight added to the physical weight of the Cross carried by Jesus.  The suffering that man receives, the burdens he inflicts, were placed on the shoulders of Jesus Christ.  The wandering sheep were carried by the Shepherd. 

As we begin, spikenard was poured on the Head of Jesus.  Spikenard is a perfume extracted from a plant known as nard.  It was most often used as it is used in this Gospel: it was poured on the head of honorable guests.  Interiorly, how do we make preparations to receive the Paschal Lamb?  The spikenard poured on the Head by the woman is an intense personal encounter with Jesus Christ.  Notice the contrast: the woman who desires this encounter, versus the objections of others, a vivid depiction of our own desire to be close to Jesus, but being weakened by the war within.  Our Lord’s handling of this with the words: “Let her alone” demonstrates Jesus’ dominion over all obstacles when a soul has completely surrendered to Him, our Savior’s desire for us to be intimately close to Him.  This is prayer, this is how we prepare to eat the Paschal Lamb; this is how we furnish and make ready our upper room, that is, our soul. 

There are a couple of things we can reflect on in the betrayal of Judas: First it is our own betrayal, our own sinfulness; and we can extend that to the liturgy when we receive Holy Communion but are not in a state of grace.  Secondly, Judas is among the ordained priesthood; therefore, we must ask ourselves why Jesus, who knows the hearts of all, would call Judas to the priesthood.  Everything that God calls us to is subject to our fallen nature.  Thus Jesus may have presented Judas to us to show us that not every priest would be faithful.  But Judas is only one of Twelve, and while our secular media would like to escalate the Church’s scandals, the truth is it is a minority; the majority of our ordained are very faithful. 

The words, “Surely it is not I?” delineates man’s desire to avoid an examination of conscience which has helped lead our culture to a New Age notion that there is no such thing as sin; or moral relativity which suggests that truth is not absolute, that what is true for one may not be true for another -- we get to be our own god, our own pope.  Jesus proclaimed Himself as the Truth; therefore truth is absolute. 

Next comes that moment we hear at every Mass: “This is My Body” – “This is My Blood.”  What do these words mean?  They are perhaps the most mysterious words in the universe, not necessarily by definition but more so by how it is possible.  Officially, these words define the Eucharist, one of the seven Sacraments of the Church and perhaps the most crucial Sacrament to Christocentric living.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Eucharist as the "Sacrament of sacraments" (cf. CCC 1211).  Jeremiah prophesied about a new covenant: "Behold the days shall come, says the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31).  The Eucharist frees us from bondage because the Eucharist is the Bondsman.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a contemporary of some of the apostles, defined the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death, by which we always live in Christ. 

In the encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" Saint John Paul II wrote the following words about the Eucharist: "It unites heaven and earth.  It embraces and permeates all creation.  The Son of God became Man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One Who made it from nothing.  He, the Eternal High Priest Who by the Blood of His Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father, all creation redeemed.  He does so through the priestly ministry of the Church, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity.  Truly this is the mysterium fidei [mystery of faith] which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the Hands of God the Creator, now returns to Him redeemed by Christ.  The Eucharist, as Christ's saving Presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual Food, is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history." 

The Church celebrates the mystery of her Lord until He comes when God will be everything to everyone.  The liturgy thus shares in Jesus’ desire: ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you’ until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God (cf. CCC 1130).  Jesus is following the Jewish custom of the Passover whereby the father or leader at the table pours wine into a glass or cup, blesses the wine and passes it around the table for the family and guests.  Jesus said: “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God”; whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist she remembers this promise and turns her gaze to Him Who is to come (cf. CCC 1403).

Sadly, not everyone believes what we Catholics believe about the Eucharist.  For scholarly unbelievers, the one verse in scripture that is usually avoided like the plague is found in Saint John's Gospel when Jesus says: "My Flesh is real Food and My Blood is real Drink" (John 6:55).  The word "real" is translated from the Greek word "alethos" which means, "truly" or "in reality" or "most certainly" or "literally".  There's just no convincing means to explain away, water down, or bend and twist "alethos" to make our Lord's Body and Blood appear to have a symbolic application.  The Council of Trent stated: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly His Body that He was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the Body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of His Blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called ‘transubstantiation’.” 

The Eucharist that Jesus institutes at this moment is the memorial of His Sacrifice which will very shortly occur.  Jesus includes the apostles in His own offering and with the words we hear in the liturgy, “do this in memory of Me” instructs them to continue this as a perpetual memorial thus instituting them as priests of the New and Everlasting Covenant.  Saint Cyril strengthens our faith in the Eucharist with these words: “Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since He is the Truth, He cannot lie.” 

When Jesus went to a place called Gethsemane, He prayed to His heavenly Father and concluded His prayer with the words: "Not what I will, but what You will."  As Christians, surely we all want to follow Christ's example and pray these very same words, but these words can be frightening.  There's something inside of us that needs to call our own shots.  Trusting God above ourselves is very difficult. 

Oddly enough, the saints may very well have something to do with that feeling of uneasiness.  Undoubtedly we honor them and applaud them for their holy example; but even if you've never read the life of any saint, you're still likely to be familiar with the "high profile" saints.  A common thread which seems to run through the lives of a great deal of the saints are the sufferings they've endured.  There's Sait Pio of Pietrelcina and the stigmata he bore for fifty years; there's Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and her holy acceptance of tuberculosis; and then there's the legends of the bible like Saint Paul and the sufferings which he never seemed to be without.  And, of course Moses, who made this plea to God, as translated from Hebrew: "I am not able to bear all these people alone because it is too burdensome for me.  And if You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray You, out of hand, if I have found favor in Your Eyes; and let me not see my evil" (Numbers 11:14-15).  Perhaps the inability of Moses "to bear all these people alone" points towards the Messiah Who would alone bear the burdens of everyone. 

There's a fear factor in letting go and letting God take over.  In fact, it was Saint Teresa of Avila who said, "Dear Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!" 

While suffering uniquely and very intimately unites us to Christ, in many cases, and understandably so, suffering actually flickers the flames of faith.  When suffering arrives, hear the Voice of Christ: “All of you will have your faith shaken.”  While that might not be the most comforting words to ever come from our Savior, they do teach us that He is with us and thus we're never alone.  The psalmist writes: "Where can I go, then, to take refuge from Your Spirit, to hide from Your view?  If I should climb up to heaven, You are there; if I sink down to the world beneath, You are present still.  If I could wing my way eastwards, or find a dwelling beyond the western sea, still would I find You beckoning to me, Your right Hand upholding me" (Psalm [138] 139:7-10)

Jesus said to Peter, James and John: “Remain here and keep watch.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “In Jesus the Kingdom of God is at hand.  He calls His hearers to conversion and faith, but also to watchfulness.  In prayer the disciple keeps watch, attentive to Him Who Is and Him Who Comes, in memory of His first coming in the lowliness of the flesh, and in the hope of His second coming in glory.  In communion with their Master, the disciples’ prayer is a battle; only by keeping watch in prayer can one avoid falling into temptation” (CCC 2612)

It is not possible to fully understand the interior life of Jesus.  Taking into consideration the assumed complexities of this dual-natured God-Man, even with all the covenants and prophecies foretold throughout salvation history leading up to this moment of agony, one would have to wonder if the redemption of humankind was somehow hanging in the balance in the Garden of Gethsemane.  With the exception of committing sin, God fully embraced our way of life when He clothed Himself in flesh.  It’s a certainty that fear and apprehension is very much a part of our existence.  Since Divine Providence has not fully revealed it nor has anyone else ever possessed both a divine and human nature, it’s impossible to know for sure what was going on in Jesus’ Heart when He said, “Take this cup away from Me.”  It’s also interesting that in this scene of Jesus’ agony some of the ancient transcribers of the earlier texts purposely left out the portion of the text which tells of an angel appearing to Jesus to strengthen Him as well as the part about His Sweat becoming like drops of Blood falling to the ground.  They left it out because they felt it was not consistent with the dignity of Jesus. 

Our mixed bag of being human contains life experiences of both Jesus and Judas.  We have been betrayed -- we have betrayed.  Pride, however, is that one unpredictable ingredient which wreaks havoc.  Pride makes it equally difficult to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. 

As our Lord's captors led Him away, Peter followed at a distance.  In the spiritual life there are several ways to follow Jesus at a distance.  Perhaps the most common example is to go to Mass every Sunday, then leave the Lord alone all week and not give Him another thought until the following Sunday.  But a way that is more closely related to Peter's distance is when Mass is attended weekly or even daily, there's a daily devotional life as well; but when that faith is challenged, and suddenly there's a risk of mockery or friendships are jeopardized, one backs off a little from being a living witness and defending the faith just to avoid being the talk of the town, so to speak.  One may still attend Mass and continue with the daily prayers but have abandoned the evangelistic example and thus faith becomes a very private matter.  This also is very much likened to Peter's denial of Jesus.  Peter knew Who Jesus was and had faith in his Teacher but when he felt threatened by others because of his relationship with his Lord, he was suddenly out of his comfort zone and wanted quickly to avoid what could be a tense situation. 

During the initial interrogation Jesus tells the high priest that he will see the Son of man seated at the right Hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.  In the Book of Daniel are the prophetic words: "I beheld therefore in the vision of the night, and lo, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven" (Daniel 7:13)

As many gave false witness of Jesus, can you see your opponent prowling around like a roaring lion (cf. 1 Peter 5:8)?  Can you see the devil offering those mysterious whispers of evil, suggesting thoughts of temptation -- that shouts of falsehood should overpower truth?  

When Jesus was questioned by Pontius Pilate and accused by the chief priests, much to Pilate's amazement, our Lord remained silent.  Silence is such a tremendous gift but is a foreign notion in today's world.  Silence speaks a trust in God louder than any words.  A Carthusian monk, Augustin Guillerand (1877-1945) wrote: "There are times when we do not need any words of prayer, neither our own nor anyone else's, and then we pray in perfect silence.  This perfect silence is the ideal prayer."

Barabbas is released from prison and is granted his freedom.  To fulfill the will of the Father, Jesus came to take our place and we see evidence of this here with Jesus taking the place of Barabbas, a murderer and therefore the most hardened of sinners. 

As this Gospel tells us, Simon a Cyrenian was pressed into service to carry the Cross of Jesus. He was a “passer-by” which says something about not only a reluctance to carry our own Cross, but as a passer-by pressed into carrying the cross of another, draws even stronger emotions of avoidance.  Our Lord, however, does not ask us to seek out a cross in which to bear, but only to accept it with faith and trust in Him when it comes. 

When Jesus is crucified and His garments divided, there is the fulfillment of what is written in the Psalms: "They parted My garments amongst them; and upon My vesture they cast lots" (Psalm [21] 22:19).  On the Cross was placed the written charge against our Savior: “The King of the Jews". A better English translation is: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews".  The Latin words are: "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudæorum" which explains the "INRI" inscription found on most Crucifixes. 

Jesus being reviled is something we have to humbly accept as representing ourselves.  As we kneel in the shadow of the Cross during the words of consecration in the most unfathomable, holy event to ever occur in human history, our human weakness has seeds of doubt planted within and thus questions whether we are really at Calvary, or that the Real Presence is true.  We really can’t dwell on these doubts because they are a product of concupiscence.  What we can do is believe Jesus at His word. 

This Gospel informs us that Jesus was crucified between two revolutionaries.  Isaiah prophesied about a servant who would be counted among the wicked (cf. Isaiah 53:12).   Jesus cried out in a loud Voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"  These are the opening words to Psalm [21] 22.  Most likely Jesus finished the remainder of the psalm in the silence of His Heart. 

Those who were Christ's followers must have been amazed to hear that even He could bellow out such words.  Most scholars believe that these words are our Savior's way of placing His Human Nature into our human circumstances and showing us that He understands our occasional feelings of abandonment.  Nevertheless while He is hanging from that Cross, He also shows us that He is willing to be with us even through the most hellish experiences.  There are some, however, who have theorized that during this torturous crucifixion, Christ's Human Nature blocked out His Divine Nature and He actually felt abandoned by His heavenly Father.  Once again, one can only speculate on the mystery of the interior life of a Divine Person Who possesses both a Divine and Human Nature. 

This reflection would be incomplete if it didn’t share something about the Blessed Virgin Mary.   At Mass when the priest elevates the Host and elevates the Cup and our eyes move upward to behold our Eucharistic Lord as we're kneeling in the shadow of the Cross, this brief glimpse into eternity allows us to look at Him from the same vantage point as His Blessed Mother saw Him when He said to her: "Behold your Son" (John 19:26).  What a marvelous opportunity to contemplate Jesus Christ through the eyes of the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking her to reveal that which Scripture says she keeps in her heart (cf. Luke 2:19 & Luke 2:51)

“Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed His last.” During Mass at the proclamation of this Gospel we will kneel and pause in a moment of silence after these words have been proclaimed.  Take this period of silence and prayerfully enter into the silence of Jesus. 

The veil of the sanctuary being torn in two from top to bottom signifies God's call to end all sacrifices according to the law of Moses because our heavenly Father has accepted Christ's One and Eternal Sacrifice for the redemption of humanity. 

Logically it would have been somewhere around four o'clock when Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate for the Body of Jesus.  By Jewish law Jesus would have to be placed in the tomb before sundown which begins the preparation for the Sabbath. 

In the eyes of the chief priests and Pharisees, Christ's claim to be the Messiah makes Him an impostor.  His Crucifixion, however, effectively supports our Savior's claim and fulfills what has been foretold by the prophets. 

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is a love story, the love that God has for His people.  Our Lord's Passion is the most loving, charitable act in human history.  And now it's our turn to follow in His Footsteps and love Him by our selfless acts of charity towards one another.  The hymn, "Where Charity and Love Prevail" says it well with these lyrics: "With grateful joy and holy fear God's charity we learn; let us with heart and mind and soul, now love God in return.  Forgive we now each other's faults, as we our faults confess; and let us love each other well in Christian holiness." 

How sad and abandoned the followers of Jesus must have felt when these events occurred in a moment of time.  We, however, who get a glimpse into eternity at Mass have the luxury of knowing that it doesn’t end here.  We have also been given an incredible gift because of these events, namely the Eucharist.  The Catechism reminds us that in the Eucharist Christ gives us the very Body which He gave up for us on the Cross and the very Blood which He poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (cf: CCC 1365).  The Mass re-presents the Sacrifice on the Cross.  Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, perhaps more affectionately known as Padre Pio, once said: “It would be easier for the earth to carry on without the sun than without the Holy Mass.”