Conversion to Unconditional Discipleship
April 9 2017
THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF LENT (Year A)
PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION
Do I ever grow weary of praying? Of reading Scripture or reflecting on the word of God? Do I sometimes feel it is useless, that nothing ever comes of it? Do I ever feel that God just doesn’t care about me? Did Jesus feel this?
The Responsorial Psalm is the first verse of Psalm 22, the verse Jesus quoted on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus may have recited the whole Psalm, but if not, the first verse was enough to bring the whole Psalm to mind in his Jewish listeners. And it is a song of trust and triumph: “In you our ancestors trusted… and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were not put to shame… All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD… For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.” Jesus was calling up this Psalm to counter the abandonment he felt in his heart. This pinpoints the theme of all the readings.
In the Opening Prayer we focus on Jesus as a “model of humility” because he subjected himself to human weakness like ours. We ask God to “help us bear witness to you” by trusting in God’s power when our weakness crushes us.
Morning after morning:
Isaiah 50: 4-7 is a declaration of perseverance based on trust. Isaiah recognizes that he is called to discipleship because he is sent to teach: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
We are all called to teach. Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world…. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. …Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 14-16).
To do this we must be committed to persevering discipleship, to constant preoccupation with the message of Jesus; to persistent reading and reflection on the Scriptures, and to open-minded expansion of our understanding of Christ’s teaching. Isaiah testifies to his own faithfulness to discipleship: “Morning after morning he wakens my ear to listen” as a student.
What Jesus felt:
Philippians 2: 6-11 tells us that Jesus experienced the same human difficulties we do. We may think that because Jesus was God prayer always came easy to him; that he never experienced temptations to doubt and despair; that nothing in him ever resisted the Father’s will.
But this isn’t true. In his agony in the garden (Matthew 26: 37-46) Jesus felt “deeply grieved, even to death” — so much so that on the emotional level he was ready to call off his whole passion: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me!” His feelings were intensely opposed to what God wanted him to do. But feelings are not the measure of anyone’s faith, hope, or love — neither in Jesus nor in us. In the garden Jesus did not feel any desire to die for us. But on the level that really counts, the level of will and free choice, he was firm: “Yet not what I want but what you want.”
When Jesus became human he became really human, with no privileges. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” being born just as human as we are, with all the weaknesses that belong to being human, sin excepted. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
This same Jesus, by taking our bodies to be his own, has also taken on our weakness — and given us his strength. That is the rock-bottom source of our confidence.
Triumph by defeat:
Today’s Mass is called both “Passion Sunday” and “Palm Sunday,” because it begins with a procession in which we carry palms. We read two Gospels: the Passion (Matthew 26:4 to 27:66) and one for the procession (Matthew 21: 1-11), when we reenact Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as the crowd that accompanied him spread their cloaks on the road, cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road, shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
This scene gives a key to understanding Christ’s passion and all of his work in the Church since then: the strategy of God is that Jesus wins by losing. He enters Jerusalem in triumph to die. His defeat and death on the cross were his victory over sin and death. And in the world today, when the Church seems most weak and defeated, that is when God is able to do his best work in us. A poor and humiliated Church is a healthy Church
In our personal lives, when we feel the least faith, hope and love, that is precisely when we may be acting most purely out of nothing but faith, hope and love. When our feelings give us no support, but we are still trying to do what we committed ourselves to do, we know we are persevering by the pure grace of God. That is the most unambiguous experience of grace. It is the ultimate verification of conversion. And it is the touchstone of dedicated discipleship. When our feelings are crying out, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” but we have not abandoned him, that is when we know most surely he is near.
Jesus said, “The disciple is not greater than the teacher” (Matthew 10:24). If we are showing up as disciples, Jesus is showing up as Teacher, whether we feel him there or not.
Insight: In my ordinary life, when have I gone against my feelings to persevere in something I decided to do? Were the results good? Can I do the same with prayer?
Initiative: Decide what you will do to be a disciple— how much time you will commit to reading, reflecting and other learning experiences —and determine to persevere.