Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42)

We tend to think of lambs as vulnerable animals.  Do you remember watching cartoons in which the wolf seeing a lamb imagines lamb chops?  But there is at least one instance when the lamb is strong enough to protect all his subjects from harm.  In the Book of Revelation the Lamb of God sits on the throne surrounded by those he has saved.  The Passion of St. John which we just heard features this same lamb in a subtle but telling way.

At the beginning of the Gospel John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29).”  He has in mind, of course, Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross to atone for human sin.  The Passion account does not speak directly of Jesus as the lamb but gives at least three hints that he is the Passover lamb of the Old Testament tradition that needed to be sacrificed for human freedom from the bondage of sin.  In the first place, Jesus is said to be crucified at noon on the preparation day for the Passover, the exact time when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple (19:14).  Then while Jesus is hanging on the cross, the people “put a sponge soaked in wine on a spring of hyssop…up to (Jesus’) mouth (19:29).”  The hyssop is a slender plant that could bear the weight of a soaked sponge.  It is used here to remind the reader of the hyssop that the Israelites used to sprinkle their doorposts with the blood of the Passover lamb.  The blood saved them from the Angel of Death who destroyed the first-born of the Egyptians when the Israelites were fleeing captivity (Ex 12:22).  The last hint of Jesus as the Lamb of God comes as Jesus dies on the cross.  A soldier comes to break his legs so that he can no longer support breathing.  The text says that the soldier, seeing that Jesus had died, sticks a lance in his side perhaps to save himself the trouble of breaking a large bone (19:36).  In any case, no bone of the Passover lamb was to be broken (Ex 12:46). 

Was it necessary for Jesus to be sacrificed as a lamb to free us from sin? we may want to ask.  And, could God have forgiven us our sins without the cross?  No, it was not absolutely necessary and, yes, God might have forgiven our sins without Jesus’ bloody death.  However, without knowing the terrible price that Jesus had to pay for our salvation, we would be less inclined to follow his ways.  Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross gives us both courage and example to give of ourselves for the love of God and the good of others.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord’s Supper

(Exodus 12:1-8.11-14; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15)

It has been noted that the Eucharist celebrated today has no ending.  Rather, after Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for continuing reflection.  Similarly, the service conducted tomorrow does not begin with an introduction, nor does it end with the usual blessing and sending forth.  And then on Saturday, there is likewise no greeting as the liturgy gets underway; there is only an exhortation about participating reverently.  The Church deliberately designs the services in this way to teach that Christ’s Eucharistic meal, his passion and death, and his resurrection are but one saving event for all to partake in.

At the heart of today’s gospel Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.  It is a symbolic action to be emulated not just by the priest once a year but, much more to the point, by all Christians every day.  It is accomplished by ordinary service like ministers of Holy Communion visiting shut-ins or volunteers driving an elderly person to his or her doctor.  People will regularly do these things for loved ones, but Jesus has in mind rendering similar service to virtual strangers.  As his love extended to every person, so his disciples’ love cannot be limited by prejudice or convenience.

We can take advantage of the time before the Eucharist tonight to reflect on how we may render the service that Christ’s asks and to pray for the grace to implement the plans we make.  If we find ourselves wondering whether we can do it, we should look forward to the Passion of Christ which will be recalled tomorrow to consider what Christ has done for us.  We also might anticipate the Easter service when we are assured of the strength to live out the life to which he has called us.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 26:14-25)

Of the four gospels Matthew gives the most complete portrait of Judas Iscariot.  As in Mark and Luke, Judas is named on Matthew’s list of apostles in the last place because he will betray Jesus (10:4).  In the passage read today, Judas bargains with the chief priests for thirty pieces of silver in exchange for handing Jesus over.  During the Last Supper Matthew alone pictures Judas as disobeying Jesus’ explicit directive not to call anyone “Rabbi.” In Gethsemane Judas again defies Jesus by calling him “Rabbi” and then treacherously kisses him as a sign to the arresting party that he is their man (26:47-50).  Finally, only Matthew describes Judas’ returning the money he received from the high priests out of regret for what he had done.  Then, according to Matthew alone, Judas hangs himself (27:3-5).

Judas betrays Jesus out of greed.  The thirty pieces of silver comprise 120 days of wages for a skilled laborer in gospel times.  In the end Judas appears remorseful when he goes back to the chief priests to return the silver.  Is he expressing contrition for his sin?  Not really. He offended Jesus, not the chief priests.  If he were truly sorry, he should have sought Jesus’ forgiveness. 

Judas evidently was at least gifted enough to attract Jesus’ attention and to be elected an apostle.  Perhaps he was blinded enough by the desire for silver that he bought into the criticism of Jesus by the Jewish leaders.  In any case he lacked the fortitude to ask forgiveness of the person he offended.  Looking at ourselves, we may find some of the same character faults.  Hopefully, we pray every day that God will strengthen us so that we never betray our friends, least of all, Jesus, the greatest of our friends.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 49:1-6; John 12:21-33; 36-38)

The gospel today invites us to compare and contrast Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial of Jesus.  Preachers sometimes say that the two offenses amount to the same sin of infidelity.  That opinion, however, seems mistaken.  It would be like equating setting a house on fire and failing to call the fire department when we see the blazes.  “First, do no harm,” wrote the primordial physician-philosopher Hippocrates. 

Other preachers may condemn Judas for treachery but dismiss Peter’s failure because he was afraid.  This way of thinking also seems misguided.  There is no evidence that Peter suffered clinical anxiety.  Indeed, he appears as a head-strong man.  Doing good almost always involves some difficulty.  Peter’s failure to act righteously when confronted about Jesus indicates that he considers his losses in declaring his loyalty as greater than his benefits.  Although his repeated denials comprise lies, we should see Peter’s principal sin as one of omission.

Nor can Judas’ treason be defended by saying that the devil made him do it.  Although the passage states, “Satan entered him,” a bit later, when Judas leaves the supper, it adds, “ was night.”  This reference is made not so much to give the time of day but to indicate that Judas deliberately chose the darkness of evil to the light of Christ.  We are wise to consider that we too are susceptible to the same tragic mistake and to avoid it at all costs.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 42:1-7; John 12:1-11)

Jews read the passages about the “Suffering Servant” with a question in mind: “To whom does the prophet Isaiah refer?”  Is it the prophet himself, or Job or possibly the entire Jewish people who suffered terribly at various points in history?  Christians, in turn, have no doubt that the passages refer to Jesus Christ whose passion and death fit quite squarely with Isaiah’s descriptions.

Jesus did not come with an army of followers and much less did he use violence to impose his teaching.  He established justice on earth by exemplifying God’s love to what became myriads of followers.  With his crucifixion, God established an eternal covenant which is by no means in retreat despite the fact that relatively fewer people attend church in Western societies.  Jesus also opened the eyes of the blind, physically in some cases but, more critically, morally to all people who seek fulfillment from power, pleasure, or possessions.  Finally and most importantly, he freed prisoners of sin who may not even be aware of the harm they do.

We will hear readings from the Suffering Servant passages throughout Holy Week.  They remind us how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy through his passion and death.  Although everyone has difficulties, they leave us in awe at the price Jesus paid for our freedom.