Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion

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

In the Gospel of John, Jesus dies with enigmatic words on his lips.  What does he mean when he says, “’It is finished’”?  What is finished?  Does Jesus have his life in mind?  Is he saying something like his apostle Paul who writes near the time of his death:  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”  Perhaps he is only saying that his ordeal is ending.  He has been betrayed by a disciple, brutalized by the Roman soldiers, and finally crucified as a treacherous criminal.  Do we note a sigh of relief in these words?  No, that is not it.  Jesus means that he has completed the mission on which his Father sent him.  He has given himself as the sacrifice that achieves the forgiveness of the world’s sins.

Certainly this is the message of the first two readings.  Jesus fits the description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.  “He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins…”  The Letter to the Hebrews is more explicit in referring to Jesus.  It says, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  Jesus has made up for human disobedience by suffering and dying in obedience to the Father.

But we should not think of forgiveness as automatic.  We are not forgiven because we are humans or even because we are Christians.  No, we must acknowledge our sins and ask forgiveness.  Many of us have difficulty recognizing our sins.  We do not think we do anything worse than “telling white lies” or “having bad thoughts.”  Others admit that they have graver faults but justify themselves saying they are not adulterers or thieves.  This kind of thinking reveals the root of our sin in self-centeredness.  We live for ourselves and not for God. 

This year we are experiencing extraordinary circumstances.  The normal venue for acknowledging sins and asking forgiveness is not largely available.  What are we to do?  Live in fear that our sins may damn us?  No, that is not necessary at all.  We simply make an act of perfect contrition in our hearts.  We tell the Lord that we are sorry because we love him even more than ourselves.  We also promise to go to Confession as soon as possible.  Then, as sure as God will deliver us from the Corona-19 pandemic, He will forgive us our sins.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Holy Thursday

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

A family friend was telling me about a woman who lives in her retirement complex.  The woman helps her neighbors with the van that she owns.  Twice a week she takes them to buy groceries.  “Is she paid for it?” I ask.  “No,” my friend says, “she volunteers her services.”  Now, however, with the pandemic, the woman cannot make grocery runs.  Her son has advised her to stay at home.  In fact, she does better for her neighbors by not taking them out.  Thinking about her, we might say that sometimes it is better not to do what Jesus tells us in this evening's gospel!  Sometimes it is better not to wash one another’s feet!

Of course, Jesus does not mean that we literally wash one another’s feet.   He is using foot-washing as a figure of speech.  On one level Jesus is asking that we show our love for one another by works of service.  We might do this by cutting a neighbor’s lawn or cleaning her house.  However, in order to not spread the virus, now not going near other people is itself a good work.

But there is a deeper meaning to what Jesus is telling his disciples here.  He is using feet washing to describe the sacrament of Baptism.  For this reason he tells Peter, “’Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.’” His disciples are to go forth and baptize others into the mystery of Christ.  All of us have a role in this mission.  We are to bring others to faith in Jesus Christ by our words and works of service.  He is the one who “loved them to the end.”   When we always speak graciously and love unselfishly, we fulfill Jesus’ mandate.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Wednesday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 50:4-91; Matthew 26:14-25)

In Italy abstaining from meat on Wednesdays as well as Fridays is still sometimes practiced.  Of course, the Friday penance commemorates Jesus’ death on the cross.  The Wednesday abstinence similarly recalls Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, his disciple.

Although all four gospels speak of the betrayal, Matthew gives the most detail.  He tells us Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver for the treason.  This is a paltry sum when one considers the enmity the Jewish leaders feel toward Jesus.  Earlier in the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to take any silver with them as they preach the Kingdom of heaven.  Here Judas takes thirty pieces to turn in the kingdom’s main preacher.  More indicative of his contempt of Jesus is Judas’ calling him “Rabbi.”  Jesus told his disciples not to use that title for anyone (23:8). But Judas defies the mandate.  Of course, Judas’ betrayal brings about his destruction.  As Jesus suggests would happen, Judas hangs himself.  And even today his name is recalled with the same infamy as that of Hitler or Pot Pol.

Ironically, some have tried to justify Judas over the centuries.  In one novel Judas is portrayed as a co-redeemer because his action brings Christ to the cross.  Often these days Judas is seen as no worse than Peter when he denies Jesus.  Yes, Peter commits a terrible sin.  However, he acts out of fear and the difference between betrayal and denial is multiple.   Nevertheless, we should see the possibility of our acting as ignominiously as Judas.  We may betray associates for money or for pleasure.  We may betray Christ by feigning to be a “good Christian” and leading a double life.  Judas is one person we want to avoid imitating.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Tuesday of Holy Week

(Isaiah 49:1-6; John 13:21-33.36-38)

Christians see Jesus in the gospels as a teacher, healer, and, ultimately, redeemer.  Most underappreciate him for whom the gospel writers took him to be.  They understand Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament.  He has the faith of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon.  He also fits the description of the Suffering Servant found in the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  During Holy Week the Church features the four songs or poetic passages that tell of this remarkable person.

Today’s first reading mentions that the Servant is named and formed in the womb.  He is predestined to speak on God’s behalf.  His work, however, seems barely noticed except by God who promises to make a light to all nations.  The Suffering Servant may be compared to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s play King Lear.  Cordelia speaks the truth in love to hear father when the foolish man wants her to lavish praise on him.  For her discretion, the king banishes Cordelia, but in the end her virtue is vindicated.  She dies prematurely as she brings the old king back to his senses.

Shakespeare intended Cordelia to be a figure of Christ as is the Suffering Servant.  Both help us to understand the wonder of him who died cruelly that we might live eternally.  Like Cordelia Christ always spoke the truth in love.  Like the Suffering Servant Christ he has become the light revealing God’s love to all nations.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Monday of Holy Week

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

Of all the signs that a person leaves behind at death, none can be greater than her body.  The dead body, of course, looks like the living person.  It often indicates whether the person suffered before dying.  In order to preserve the body temporarily, perhaps as an aid to mourning, Jews anointed the dead body.  Anointing became a sign of respect for the dead person and perhaps an honor due her.

In today’s gospel Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.  Her motive is not stated.  Perhaps she does it in thanksgiving for Jesus’ resuscitating Lazarus.  Jesus, however, interprets the act as preparation of his body for burial.  He realizes that the time for him to complete the work of redemption is at hand.  Although she may be unaware of it, Mary is prophetically proclaiming Jesus’ death.

With Jesus we all die.  At least, this is our belief and also, quite counterintuitively, our hope to overcome death.  If we die with him in love with God and neighbor, then we will rise with him.  Death has lost its finality for us Christians living in self-sacrificing love.  Whether we anoint our dead or cremate them, we know that death will give way to the resurrection.  This is the Easter faith that we celebrate throughout this long Holy Week.