Palm Sunday is, quite honestly, a feast with a bit of a split personality. We start out on a seemingly triumphant note. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the Holy City, and the center of the Jewish religion; the city he has been journeying toward throughout the gospel narrative, and he enters it to the adulation of throngs. Cloaks are thrown down in the street, the people wave palms and chant “Hosanna.” This is it, isn’t it? It seems like Jesus’ message has finally been accepted, at least by the crowds who have long been yearning for a messiah, an anointed one, to deliver them from foreign oppression.
Only that wasn’t the kind of salvation Jesus came to offer. Instead, he preached forgiveness and mercy and real justice and healed people from the inside out. He called people to repentance, to change their lives, to hear the gospel and to live it every day. He denounced hypocrisy, and demanded that those who would call themselves religious reach out in love to the poor and those on the margins. It wasn’t a welcome message; it wasn’t the message they thought the messiah would bring.
And that’s what brings us to the one hundred and eighty degree turn we experience in today’s second gospel reading, the reading of our Lord’s Passion and death. Enough of this, they say; the religious leaders must be right: he must be a demon, or at least a troublemaker. Better that we put up with the likes of Barabbas. As for this one, well, crucify him.
Who are we going to blame for this? Whose fault is it that they crucified my Lord? Is it the Jews, as many centuries of anti-Semitism would assert? Was it the Romans, those foreign occupiers who sought only the advancement of their empire? Was it the fickle crowds, content enough to marvel at Jesus when he fed the thousands, but abandoning him once his message made demands of them? Was it Peter, who couldn’t even keep his promise of standing by his friend for a few hours? Was it the rest of the apostles, who scattered lest they be tacked up on a cross next to Jesus? Was it Judas, who gave in to despair thinking he had it all wrong? Was it the cowardly Herod and Pilate who were both manipulating the event in order to maintain their pathetic fiefdoms? Who was it who put Jesus on that cross?
And the answer, as we well know, is that it’s none of those. Because it’s my sins that led Jesus along the Way of the Cross. It’s my sins that betrayed him; it’s my sins that have kept me from friendship with God. Those sins could have kept me from friendship with God forever, but God’s love would not have that be that way. And so he willingly gave his life that I might have life. And you.
He gave himself for us.
Caiaphas had no idea how prophetic his words were. Actually, as far as the intent of his words went, they were nothing but selfish. The Jews didn’t want to lose their standing with the Romans. As it was, they had an uneasy peace. The Romans pretty much let them practice their religion as long as there wasn’t any trouble. But they knew that if everyone started following Jesus, the Romans would give preference to the new way, in order to keep the peace. The religious leaders couldn’t let that happen, so they began plotting in earnest to kill Jesus, planning to find him when he came to celebrate the upcoming feast day, which they were certain he would attend.
It’s a time of high intrigue, and for Jesus, his hour – the hour of his Passion – is fast approaching. That’s so clear in the Gospel readings in these last days of Lent. In just a few hours we will begin our celebration of Holy Week, waving palms to welcome our king, and praying through his passion and death. It is an emotional time for us as we know our God has given his life for us, the most amazing gift we will ever get. It is also a time of sadness because we know our sins have nailed him to the cross.
But, this is where the significance of Caiaphas’s words brings us joy. Yes, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation. God knew that well when he sent his only Son to be our salvation. Jesus took our place, nailing our sins and brokenness to the cross, dying to pay the price those sins required, and rising to bring the salvation we could never attain on our own. Caiaphas was right. It was better for one person to die than for the whole nation to die. Amazing as it seems, that was God’s plan all along.
Today’s readings: Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8e-9 | Psalm 23 | Romans 8:14-17, 26-27 | Matthew 6:9-13
Today we did the RCIA presentation of the Lord’s Prayer to the Elect at our evening Mass. There are special readings for that, as above.
Where do you go when you’re at the end of your rope?
Bob was not accustomed to praying and didn’t really have a relationship with God. But life, as it often does to us, started piling up: job concerns, health scares, relationship problems – everything. And so he knew he couldn’t make it all work on his own. So in his desperation, he looked at the old Bible he got for his first Holy Communion, and took it down off the shelf. Dusting it off, he realized he didn’t know where to turn so he decided to just open it up, point to a verse, and see what God had to say to him. So that’s what he did, and on opening the Bible, he read “and Judas went off and hanged himself.”
Now, obviously, we know God didn’t want Bob to go off and hang himself like Judas did. But the point here is that Bob was doing it wrong: you can’t choose not to have a relationship with God and turn to prayer only when everything else fails. That’s never going to work. Prayer, for the believer, is an ongoing conversation with the God who longs to be intimately involved in our lives. And so, the important thing is to work on that relationship first.
That’s why we are presenting the Lord’s Prayer – one of the great treasures of our faith – to you, the Elect, so late in the process. You’ve been in this for a year or more, or almost two for the children, and we are less than two weeks away from the Easter Vigil, that night on which you will receive the sacraments. And only now do you receive this treasure of prayer. Why? Because you had to work on the relationship first. Praying authentically isn’t something you can do right away. You have to come to know Jesus and in him, see the Father, before you can have that intimate conversation that we call prayer.
And the prayer we are giving you isn’t just any old collection of words. This is the prayer that our Lord Jesus himself gave to us. He literally says “this is how you are to pray.” And in that prayer, he covers all kinds of different prayers. “Hallowed by thy name” is a prayer of praise to God who is the source of all holiness. “Thy kingdom come” is a prayer that our world would be transformed into what God intends it to be. “Thy will be done” is a prayer that opens ourselves up to God’s will for us and allows him to enter in and do what is best. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer that we would be filled up, not so much with what we want, but what we truly need, each and every day. “And forgive us our trespasses” prays that we would be forgiven for the many ways we turn away from God, both in what we do and what we fail to do, while “as we forgive those who trespass against us” prays that we would be as merciful as God has been merciful to us. “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” is a prayer that we would continue to walk in God’s ways, and not give ourselves over to the evil one.
It’s a wonderful, complete prayer, and a prayer that very significantly begins with a statement of relationship: “Our Father…” We pray not to a distant God who created us and then backs off to watch us get messed up in our own foolishness, but instead to God our Father. That’s the kind of relationship God wants us to have with him: one that depends on him as a child depends on a parent, a relationship that sustains us and advocates for us in our need, but also corrects us in our wandering, and shields us from what is truly evil. It’s a relationship that we can’t live without, a relationship that is there on our best days and also when we’re at the end of our rope. It’s a relationship that the Church wants for all of you, so that you’ll never have to decide how to use that dusty old Bible you’ve left up there on the shelf.
Remember: this is how you are to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven…
Back in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, the Israelites were in a bad way. They had been separated from their God by sin: against God’s commands, they had betrayed their covenant with the Lord and made foreign alliances, which he had forbidden them to do. He forbade this because he knew that as they made these alliances, they would give in to the temptation to worship the so-called gods of the people they with whom they allied themselves. As punishment, God separated them from their homeland: the cream of the crop of their society was taken into exile in Babylon, and those left behind had no one to lead them and protect them. Because they moved away from God, God seemed to move away from them. But he hadn’t: I think it was really they who had exiled themselves from God. In today’s first reading, God shows them that he still loves them and cares for them, and promises to make them a new people. I love the line: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” God would indeed bring them back and create their community anew.
The Israelites were in exile, but exile can take so many forms. And Saint Paul had a good sense of that. For him, the exile was anything that was not Christ; a sentiment we should embrace. Saint Paul knows that he has not yet taken possession of the glory that is promised him by Christ, and so he wants to leave behind the exile of the world and strains forward to all that lies ahead, the goal and prize of God’s calling in Christ.
Which brings us back to the woman caught in adultery. We certainly feel sorry for her, caught in the act, dragged in front of Jesus and publicly humiliated. But the truth is, just like the Israelites in the sixth century before Christ, she had actually sinned. And that sin threatened to put her into exile from the community; well, it even threatened her life. The in-your-face reversal in the story, though, is that Jesus doesn’t consider her the only sinner – or even the greatest sinner – in the whole incident. We should probably wonder about the man with whom she was committing adultery; that sin does, after all, take two. And as serious a sin as adultery certainly is, Jesus makes it clear that there are plenty of serious sins out there, and they all exile us from God. As he sits there, writing in the sand, they walk away one by one. What was he writing? Was it a kind of examination of conscience? A kind of list of the sins of the Pharisees? We don’t know. But in Jesus’ words and actions, those Pharisees too were convicted of their sins, and went away – into exile – because of them.
Sin does that to us. It makes exiles out of all of us. The more we sin, the further away from God we become. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Jimmy and Suzy went to visit their grandparents for a week during the summer. They had a great time, but one day Jimmy was bouncing a ball in the house, which he knew he shouldn’t be doing. It didn’t take long for the ball to hit grandma’s favorite vase, knocking it off the table and breaking it. He picked up the pieces and went out back and hid them in the woodshed. Looking around, the only person who was around was his sister Suzy. She didn’t say anything, but later that day, when grandma asked her to help with the dishes, Suzy said “I think Jimmy wanted to help you,” giving him a rather knowing look. So he did. The next day, grandpa asked Jimmy if he wanted to go out fishing. Suzy jumped right in: “He’d like to, but he promised grandma he would weed the garden.” So Jimmy weeded the garden. As he was doing that, he felt pretty guilty and decided to confess the whole thing to grandma. When he told her what had happened, grandma said, “I know. I was looking out the back window when you were hiding the pieces in the woodshed. I was wondering how long you were going to let Suzy make a slave of you.”
That’s how it is with sin: it makes a slave of us, and keeps us from doing what we really want to do. It puts us deep in exile, just as surely as the ancient Israelites. And it doesn’t have to be that way. You see, it’s easier than we think to end up in exile. All we have to do is a good examination of conscience and then think about the way those sins have affected us. Have they made us feel distant from God, family and friends? Have they caused us to drift in our life and not feel God’s presence in times of hardship?
Exile is heartbreaking. And to the exile of sin, God has three things to say today:
First, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” That sounds like something that’s easy to say but hard to do. But the fact is, once we have accepted God’s grace and forgiveness, that grace will actually help us to be free from sin. Of course, that’s impossible to do all on our own. But God never commands us to do something that is impossible for us, or maybe better, he never commands us to do something that is impossible for him to do in us. God’s grace is there if we but turn to him.
Second, God says: “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.” Once sin is confessed and grace is accepted, the sin is forgotten. God is not a resentful tyrant who keeps a list of our offenses and holds them against us forever. If we confess our sins and accept the grace that is present through the saving sacrifice of Jesus, the sins are forgotten. But it is up to us to accept that grace. We truly have to confess so that we can forget what lies behind and be ready for the graces ahead.
Third, God says: “See, I am doing something new. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” We are the ones who get stuck in the past, always fearing to move forward because of past sins, hurts, and resentments. We are called today to be open to the new thing God is doing in our lives. The way to open up is to confess our sins and get rid of the past.
For a long time in my young life, I didn’t go to confession. I didn’t think I needed to. I grew up in that whole time of the church when it was all about how you felt about yourself. Garbage. I knew something was wrong when I was in my young adulthood and felt lost. I took a chance and went to confession at a penance service, and the priest welcomed me back. In that moment, I knew exactly the new thing God was doing in me, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me. In fact, I was released from the exile of all my past sins and hurts.
I never forgot that, and whenever anyone comes to me in confession and says it’s been a long time since they went, I am quick to welcome them back. Because that’s what God wants, and it’s a great privilege for me to be part of that. He wants to lift that weight off of you, to end your exile. All it takes is for you to see that new thing he is doing in you, and to strain forward to what lies ahead.
So we have just a few times left to receive that grace before Holy Week and Easter. We have confessions on Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm. Come to either of them that fit your schedule. If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us. Would that we would all take this opportunity to forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead. God is doing a new thing in all of us these Lenten days. May we all be open to it.
“Lord, by now there will be a stench.”
That’s one of my favorite lines in scripture. It begs the question I want you to pray about this week, which is this: “What in your life really stinks?” Because we have to have that stench washed away in order to really live.
If you know my preaching, you’re not going to be at all surprised about this, but I have to tell you honestly, our Gospel reading isn’t about Lazarus. Yes, he got raised from the dead, so good for him, but he isn’t the center of action in the story. In fact, he’s dead for most of the reading, so he doesn’t play a major part. Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who gives us baptism and grace, those helps that are the remedy for all that stinks in our life.
So Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill. He knows that Lazarus will die, and he knows that he will raise Lazarus up, so very much like the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus is in full control. He delays going to see Lazarus because it will give him the opportunity that will increase faith in the other players in the story. So when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. That’s an important detail because it tells us that Lazarus is really, really dead. The Jews believed that the soul of a person hung around for about three days, but after that, well, he or she was gone forever. So if Jesus had raised Lazarus on the second day, no big deal. If on the third day, that would have been a foreshadowing of himself. But on the fourth day, he raises up someone who is really, really dead: someone just like us.
So just like the man who was born blind last week, we are born dead, in a way. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me. We are born dead in our sins, and there is nothing we can do to raise ourselves up out of that sinfulness except for the grace of God. So the movement in our Gospel today is from life that is so mired in sin that it stinks, to life that is so free of death that burial bands and tombs cannot contain it.
During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil. Much like them, there are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel. The first group of these scriptural catechumens is Mary and Martha, those friends of Jesus that are part of John’s Gospel a few times. Here, the rubber meets the road in their faith. Here, like so many of us, they have something tragic happen in their lives, and now they have to grapple with whether their faith helps them with that or not. Mary is so troubled that she doesn’t even go out to meet the Lord until her sister tells her a white lie that Jesus was asking for her. Both she and Martha, when they first see Jesus, complain that he should have come sooner so that he could have saved Lazarus. But Martha has a little faith. She says very importantly that “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” That’s the beginning profession of faith. She knows that Jesus has power over life and death. So then they have a little catechetical dialogue about life and death and eternity, and at the end of it, Martha professes that Jesus is the Son of God who was coming into the world. The sisters move from their grief, to faith in Jesus, even before he accomplishes the miracle.
The second group of catechumens is the Apostles. God bless them, they’re still trying to make sense of Jesus. We can’t be too hard on them, because they’re a lot like many of us who are trying to be men and women of faith, but don’t really have all the facts right now. “Let us also go to die with him,” Thomas says. And they will, of course: they have to go through the cross before they see and understand Jesus fully. We too will have to take up our own crosses before we can understand the salvation that Christ has won for us.
The third group of catechumens is the Jews. A bunch of them are weeping with Mary, and they go with her to see Jesus. Along the way, they complain that if he could heal the man born blind like he did in last week’s Gospel, why couldn’t he have healed Lazarus? But seeing the miracle, they come to believe, in the very last verse of this long reading. They are a lot like those of us who are skeptical for a long time, but see something wonderful materialize in the life of another and finally decide there’s something to this Jesus that’s worth believing in.
Key to all of these catechumens is that, in order to move to belief, they had to have some kind of stench in their lives washed away. For Martha and Mary, they had to get past the stench of their grief. For the Apostles, they had to get over the stench of trying to figure things out and realize that Jesus was in charge. For the Jews, they had to get past the stench of their skepticism and let him perform miracles among them. For all of us, on the journey of faith, some kind of stench has to be washed away, in order to come to full faith in Jesus. And that stench is, of course, sin. The way it gets washed away is in baptism.
So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ. Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Well, okay, yes, maybe a little. But it is more about baptism. Because baptism is a kind of death. As Saint Paul says in our second reading today, baptism is the kind of death that gives life to our mortal bodies. It’s hard for us to imagine that kind of thing when the baptisms we’ve seen are just a mere pouring of water over a baby’s head. But baptism in the early church was full submerging in water while the formula was pronounced, after which they came up out of the water gasping for air. Believe me, they got the connection of baptism with death and resurrection!
Baptism is what washes away the stench in our lives. It does that with original sin, and if we live our baptism by participating in the sacraments, it does that with the sins of our daily life. The sacrament of Penance is an extension, in a way, of the sacrament of Baptism, in which the sins of our lives are completely washed away, leaving us made new and alive in ways we couldn’t imagine.
So today, Jesus sees us dead in the flesh, stinking of our sins. But he calls us forth in baptism, rolling away the stone of sin that keeps us from relationship with him, releasing us from the burial-bands that bind us, and calling us to new life.
So maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our Lord’s call to live. Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter. We have confessions tomorrow at 2:00pm until all have been heard, then Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm. Come to any of them that fit your schedule. If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us. We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths. Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave. Lent ends just before Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday. That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ. Don’t spend these days in the grave. Come out, be untied, and be let go.
There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism. We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda. The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, is a symbol of the Church. We see the Church also in the temple in the first reading, from which waters flow which refresh and nourish the surrounding countryside. These, of course, again are the waters of baptism. Lent calls us to renew ourselves in baptism. We are called to renew ourselves in those waters that heal our bodies and our souls. We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.
But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus. I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, I’m sure that would be a pretty bad thing. But I’m also pretty sure missing out on the kingdom of God would be that one, much worse, thing. There is mercy in being called to repentance, which renews us in our baptismal commitments and makes us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Sometimes parishes have removed the holy water from church during Lent in a kind of fasting. This is exactly why you shouldn’t: Lent is all about baptism, all about God’s mercy, all about being renewed and refreshed and healed in God’s grace. Think about that the next time you put your hand into the holy water font and stir up those waters of mercy. Be healed and made new; go, and from now on, do not sin any more.
Today’s Liturgy is all about vision and sight and light and darkness. All of these, dear friends, are things that many of us certainly take for granted. Think about it: we don’t appreciate the gift of light until that dark and stormy night when the electricity goes out and we’re fumbling around in the darkness trying to remember where it is we put that new package of batteries for the flashlight. We likewise take for granted our own ability to see. I think of my Aunt Mia, who several years before she passed away lost her sight and had to learn how to see things and how to function in a whole new way.
When I hear today’s first reading, it always makes me think of my dad. He was the kind of Irishman who never knew a stranger. We couldn’t go anywhere without running into at least one person he knew. But he didn’t just know them, he knew their story. And so if someone were to complain about someone he knew, he would always be able to tell them something good about that person, because Dad saw the best in them. That’s the kind of vision we are all called to have for one another: we need to see the best in them, we need to see Jesus in them.
So what about this miracle story in the Gospel today. Here’s a question I always like to throw out there: who cares? I mean, it’s nice for that man born blind who can now see, but I mean, he lived two thousand years ago, so what business is it of ours if he can see or not? Why take up so much time with this reading? Well I’ll tell you why we should care: we should care because the man born blind is us, friends. We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does. So we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.
So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?” Well, of course we are. We are, first of all, born blind. We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives. It takes holy baptism to cure that born blindness in us. Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives. We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life. We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world. That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ. Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.
Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision. We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision. Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to a pool: the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see. Our Elect, who are here with us today, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil. In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.
We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel. During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer. At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him. Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, after he has been unceremoniously thrown out of the synagogue, he meets Jesus again and testifies that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship. As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.
We make this same journey ourselves. From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith. We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives. Think about it: our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life. At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be an anchor that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life. Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain. Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.
Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today. We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy. It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that we will hear proclaimed on the Holy Night of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence. All of us have, indeed been born spiritually blind. But you know what? We’re not supposed to stay that way.