Father David's Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Lent
What do you think it means to be a "disciple" of Jesus? What is your experience of it? What questions have you asked Jesus? What has he said that you have paid attention to? Has your experience ever proved him right?
Today is called both "Passion Sunday" and "Palm Sunday," and in the two names we find the two complementary themes of the celebration. The Antiphon before the procession with palms proclaims Christ's victory: "Hosanna to the Son of David, the King.." The Responsorial Psalm repeats the words of Jesus during his passion on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Psalm 22). Taken together, they give us the focus of all the readings: that authentic discipleship is to "believe and do" whatever Jesus says, and especially to reflect in our lives our faith-conviction that appearances can be deceptive. It is a basic Christian belief that, both for Jesus and for us, defeat is victory, dishonor is glory, and to be looked down upon is to be exalted. Even when our hearts cry out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" our faith sings, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"1
In the introduction and blessing of the palms, we ask that we might "follow Jesus with lively faith" and "reach one day the happiness of the new and everlasting Jerusalem by faithfully following him who lives and reigns forever." We ask that we might "honor God every day by living always in Christ." Disciple- ship is to hear with faith and to carry out into life what we have heard.
In order to "live in union" with God we ask him in the Opening Prayer(s) to "guide our minds by his truth and strengthen our lives by the example of his death." We are accepting Jesus as a model, and specifically as a "model of humility." By accepting his self-emptying through humiliations and defeat as the pattern of our own lives we will be "worthy to share in his resurrection." This is discipleship accepting what does not seem acceptable at all! Who wants to be a humiliated loser?
1 Note that the whole of Psalm 22 is a song of trust and triumph: "In you our ancestors trusted. and you delivered them.. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations."
To listen like a disciple:
In Isaiah 50: 4-7 the prophet says that each morning God "wakes me to hear." But Isaiah says he is only able to "listen like a disciple" because God "has opened my ear." Human common sense is not able to accept everything God
Says. Isaiah, like Christ whom he was imitating in preview, says, "I offered my back to those who struck me. I did not cover my face against insult and spittle." He was able to accept this because of his belief in what was not visible: "The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults." Isaiah was evaluating defeat and victory, honor and dishonor, by another standard: God's. This is what it means to "listen like a disciple." Isaiah may have felt, like Jesus after him, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" but he believed:
The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord!.All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations (Psalm 22).
He “emptied himself”
Philippians 2: 6-11 tells us that Jesus "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave."
We can say that Jesus, becoming one of us, a human, also became a disciple. He listened, believed and lived out what he heard. "He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross." And as promised, God turned his apparent defeat into victory: "Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name": so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The rock-bottom source of our confidence is that this same Jesus, by taking our bodies to be his own, took on our weakness and gave us his strength.
Triumph by defeat:
Luke's account of the Passion (Luke 22:14 to 23:56) is introduced by the first Gospel reading of Palm Sunday (Luke 19:28-40), in which Jesus asks his disciples to take his word that the owners of the colt they were sent to take would let them have it if they said, "The Lord has need of it." They believed in his promise, took the risk, and it came true. Right after that the "whole multitude of disciples" believed in the promise made of him as Messiah and escorted him euphorically into Jerusalem.
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!
Their faith, however, was based on "all the deeds of power they had seen." They would have to learn to keep believing in the promise when they saw no "deeds of power" - just defeat and humiliation. Christian hope does not depend on the here and now. It is "bottom line" confidence in the ultimate out- come.
Today's Gospel begins with Eucharist as a preview of the "end time" when Christ will come in glory:
I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it [again or]... drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.
The Mass is a "making present" of three moments as one. When we proclaim, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!" we know that in the host held up before us Jesus is present simultaneously offering himself on the cross, rising from the dead and returning in glory at the end of time. For God there is no before and after, just one eternal "now," which is present to us and in which we are immersed in the celebration of Eucharist. In Eucharist we give thanks for what was, what is, and what will be, all made present in the body of Christ.
Because, as disciples, we see the present in the light of what was and what will be, our attitude toward what seems important in this world is radically different. Specifically, Jesus tells his disciples to shun like a plague all prestige and symbols of honor.
Among pagans the kings lord it over them; and those who have authority are given [titles]. This must not happen with you. No, the greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.
This is a teaching of Jesus that his disciples almost universally ignore. There may be no completely consistent option when we are forced to play by the rules of this world: military officers and corporate executives must accept titles and distinctions of rank as part of their job, although the wise among them try to remove the barriers this inevitably erects between them and those under their authority. But in the protocol of the Church - determined historically by the etiquette of royal courts and worldly society, not by any religious principles or values - those who "have authority over us" are given pretentious titles like "excellency," and "your eminence," and dressed in outlandish costumes that project power and importance. This is in direct contradiction to the instructions of Jesus, who made the radical innovation of divorcing function from prestige. Those whose function it is in the Church to exercise authority should depend for its support on the faith of the people, not on the impressiveness (or intimidation) of worldly symbols of importance.
Read the rest of the Passion in Luke, noticing who believes in appearances instead of in Jesus; who believes what Jesus says but does not act on it; who asks him questions and refuses to accept (or respond to) his answers); and who, in spite of everything, is still able to say, "Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" even when Jesus himself is praying, "My God, why have you abandoned me?"
Insight: In my ordinary life, how many questions do I ask Jesus? How many decisions do I consult him about? How much do I draw on my knowledge of his word? What have been the results when I did?
Initiative: Decide what will help you most to "hear and do" what Jesus says.