Passionate Week

Christ on the Cross by Leon Bonnat, circa 1874

Christ on the Cross by Leon Bonnat, circa 1874

We are between the most tragic and most triumphant days of the liturgical year: the agony and the ecstasy of Christianity. This past Sunday was Passion Sunday. The normally short reading of the Gospel was replaced by the entire account of the last days of the earthly life of Jesus. We followed him from the exuberant entry into Jerusalem when he was hailed as king to his last supper with the disciples, his betrayal, the mock trials, the false testimonies, failure of justice, police brutality, horrifying execution and death. This was the passion of Jesus Christ.

The word itself – passion – conjures intense feeling. It is not necessarily a term used for our thoughts, although one can be intellectually passionate in the pursuit of some truth. When we use the word, passion, we generally apply it to something just slightly over the top, intense, driven. This describes well the feelings accompanying the reading of the Passion account. Those involved in this drama acted on passion: the crowd who chanted his praise in their spontaneous procession into the city; those who shared an intimate meal and pledged to die with him (if it came to that); the one who panicked and made a deal to set himself up; the predetermined judgments based on the lies of false witnesses; the pitiful authorities attentive only to pride and self-preservation; perverted guards too easily worked into a frenzy by their temporary power; the self-righteous leaders who gloated over their victory as one otherwise innocent man “died for the people”; and those same unworthy leaders who demand a squadron of guards to insure their Victim remained dead and buried. These, except when speaking of the fervent welcome of the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem, were the evil passions at work in the Passion.

Other passions were in play as well. We see the anxiety of the apostles as Jesus speaks to them during that last meal together, the initial confusion and anger of the man pressed into service to help carry the cross, the resolute strength and devotion of the youngest apostle, John, the uncontrollable weeping of the women along the road and the great sorrow of the woman who walked along beside her son. And Jesus himself was driven by his own passions. They were two: that the Will of his Father be accomplished and that his life be spent entirely for our salvation. Jesus did not only suffer his passion, but he offered his passion. The difference is immense! He came to our world to accomplish our salvation, that is, to bring about the reconciliation of God and the human family, to mend the relationship severed by sin. This he did passionately, freely, intensely, lovingly.

Next Sunday will be Easter, the day of triumph, when the Passion becomes Exultation. We really shouldn’t think of Jesus’ Resurrection as a reward for his suffering. That is short-changing the Event. That perspective is too human. His rising from a real death to new life (Resurrection) is the fulfillment of the restored relationship between God and the human race. In the Risen Jesus, we, fallen humanity, are restored to our rightful dignity as God’s children, destined to eternal life with God.

During this week between the agony of sin and the ecstasy of redemption, let’s think of our response to so gracious a gift. Are the passions I suffer and the passion I feel always directed to my relationship with a loving God in Jesus Christ my Lord?

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Matthew and the Upright Prayer (Mt 1:18-25)

In his Gospel, Matthew mentions nothing about the Annunciation of the angel to Mary which resulted in the Incarnation of the Word. Instead Matthew begins with the annunciation to Joseph who realizes Mary is pregnant, but not by him. Although Matthew says that this pregnancy is through the power of the Holy Spirit, it seems that Joseph didn’t know that. He only knew what he could see. Being an upright man, a just man, he would quietly divorce this woman who was to be his wife. We assume he also loved her and could not allow the law, which he also loved, get hold of her. Now the Gospel doesn’t mention that Joseph prayed about this matter, however, he most certainly must have since he was upright. One thing that the Gospel does show us is that an upright life in itself is a prayer. Joseph was a man of God. It seems he was both fervent and devout. God saw his prayer of anguish, his prayer of concern for Mary’s safety above his own humiliation.

God sent an angel to answer an unasked prayer. Proceed as planned, the angel said. He explained the role of the Spirit. He calmed Joseph’s fear: Take Mary. She will give birth to a Son. You, as her husband, as head of the family, as foster-father, are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Imagine how long Joseph would be processing such a thought! This potentially tragic event has taken an unbelievable turn. A prophecy dear to every Jewish heart has been fulfilled. So Joseph took Mary as his wife and lived with her in God’s sight. It is amazing how the two of them continued to live as normal people knowing, that literally, God was with them. Only the upright of heart shall see God.

In the kingdom here and now, I am a privileged woman. I’ve been called, chosen, graced, and blessed, but I must confront myself: am I really upright? How often I think of my life as upside down, meaning things are out of order with me. Sometimes things don’t go as I planned; sometimes a monkey wrench gets thrown into the mix; sometimes circumstances try to trip me up. I may even actually pray in those moments, but am I simply asking for a quick-fix? Would I change my ways if an angel suddenly appeared with an explanation? This is the crux: are my everyday ways those of the Lord? Am I standing upright in front of God? Is my life a prayer as was the life of Joseph?

Return of the Kings

The feast of Epiphany is upon us. And the feast is all about us! This is the celebration when the Savior is shown to the rest of the world – to all those who are non-Jews. And so, the three kings return today, as they do each year. Why is the story retold again and again? Perhaps because it is about us. At Christmas we all become a little child-like, and we want to see and be seen by everyone around. We want to be where the action is and to be part of it.  Each year these three enigmatic men show up at the time of Christ’s birth to join in the celebration of that time long ago when a star led them to the holiest night. Most of what we know about the three kings, or wise men from the East, is legend. These beautiful stories may be only partially true or they may be totally true. However, the kings are securely set in our scriptures, and their legends embellish the wondrous story. (Most kings, it would seem, would love to be subject of legend.)

Who are these kings for us today? Are they only the last three figures to place in the table-top manger scene before we take the whole thing apart and box it up again? Hopefully they mean more to us. After all, they are the Magi – men from among us, perhaps religious leaders, perhaps learned men, or the scientists of their day. They had heard that a specific king, a king of kings, was to come. He would be heralded by a sign in the heavens. When they saw an unusual star arise, together they discerned this sign of the times and concluded that the star must be followed.  Imagine the inner strength of these men: they truly were wise – wise enough to be humble. Have we learned this approach to the Savior? Or do we stop at our own wisdom, thinking our way out of following the signs that lead to Christ? Perhaps we begin and end with what we think is humility: I can’t come because I’m not worthy.

Take time to look at the lesson of the Magi. Come with a mind open to Truth, a will desiring the holiness of God, and a heart yearning to meet the Promised One. Come, let us return to the King.

Faith Hurts!

I’ve been reading the mystic poems of Gertrud von Le Fort, Hymns To The Church. Why? Just because they are so beautiful, so exquisitely worded. One poem begins with this line: “I have fallen on the Law of your Faith as on a naked sword. Its sharpness went through my understanding, straight through the light of my reason.” This is how it is with faith! We can be merrily going about our life when suddenly we prick our soul “on a naked sword” of faith. We believe, but don’t always give our mind permission to roam over our beliefs. We’re too busy – and really most of us are very busy just with the business of life – but how healthy to pause and run our spiritual fingers over the sharp edge our faith. No need to draw blood, but just to feel the reality of what we believe. Do we need an example? Well, one example would be the pain of a passing doubt. Has it ever happened to you to realize that you have a question, maybe a big faith-shattering question about God? Things have grayed over. What always was taken for true has suddenly become hazy. Suddenly you feel a little foolish about believing there is a God. You are nervous about trying to communicate through prayer with a being who might not be real. It is painful to have such doubts, but more painful yet to entertain them. Just to know: it will be even more painful to overlook the doubt. This pain is the pain of healing, however. After an injury or operation there is often more pain in the healing than in the problem. So it is when we face our doubt. First of all, we need to know that we can only doubt what we believe. Verbs are all important here! Doubt only happens in the present. Because I believe, I am subject to doubt. Or, I doubt because I believe.

We fall victim frequently to our own crowning glory: our intelligence. It is painful to confront our intelligence, our reason, our understanding when we think we have come upon some unquestionable doubt. Perhaps the most painful part of faith is the humility it requires.

Von Le Fort continues: “Where my feet refuse to take me, there will I kneel down. And where my hands fail me, there I will fold them.” Laying our doubt before God in humility and quiet love soothes the soul. Faith hurts, but heals!