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…
“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.
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.
At the heart of it, Lent is about two things. First, it’s about baptism. That’s what the participants in our RCIA program are reflecting on these days, and eleven of them are preparing to be baptized at our Easter Vigil Mass this year. And baptism leads us to the second purpose of Lent, which is conversion: forgiveness and reconciliation and grace. Baptism is that sacrament that initially wipes away our sins and gives us grace to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to the Father.
Jesus paints a picture of a very forgiving Father in today’s Gospel, so this story is of course perfect for Lent, when we ourselves are being called to return to God. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard this story growing up, I was always kind of grumpy about what was going on. I guess I’d have to say that I identified myself with the older son, who tried to do the right thing and got what seemed to be the short end of the deal. Which is in and of itself sinful, to be honest. But that’s not what the story is about.
We often call this parable the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I don’t think that’s right because I don’t think the story is about the son – either son – at least not primarily about them. This story is instead about the father, and so I prefer to call this the parable of the Forgiving Father. That puts the focus where I think Jesus intended it to be: on the father and his relationship with his sons.
So let’s look at what the forgiving father was all about. First of all, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it feels hurtful. Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance now, please – I just can’t wait.” But the Father gives him the inheritance immediately and without ill-will. Secondly, the Father reaches out to the younger son on his return, running out to meet him, and before he can even finish his little prepared speech, lavishes gifts on him and throws a party.
There is a tendency, I think, for us to put ourselves into the story, which is not a bad thing to do. But like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to identify with the hard feelings of the older son sometimes. But let’s look at these two sons. First of all, I’ll just say it, it’s not like one was sinful and the other wasn’t – no – they are both sinful. The younger son’s sin is easy to see. But the older son, with his underlying resentment and refusal to take part in the joy of his Father, is sinful too. If we’re honest, that kind of sin is much more common and much more destructive because it’s easy to overlook it or suppress it. What amazes me is that the Father comes out of the house to see both sons. That’s significant because a good Jewish father in those days wouldn’t come out to meet anyone – they would come to him. Probably on their hands and knees, begging for forgiveness. But the Father meets them where they are and desperately, lovingly, pleads with them to join the feast.
So, both sons are sinful. But remember, this is a parable, and so the characters themselves are significant. They all symbolize somebody. We know who the Father symbolizes. But the sons symbolize people – more specifically groups of people – too. The younger son was for Jesus symbolic of the non-believer sinners – all those tax collectors and prostitutes and other gentile sinners Jesus was accused of hanging around with. The older son symbolizes the people who should have known better: the religious leaders – the Pharisees and scribes. In this parable, Jesus is making the point that the sinners are getting in to the banquet of God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, because the sinners are recognizing their sinfulness, and turning back to the Father, who longs to meet them more than half way. The religious leaders think they are perfect and beyond all that repenting stuff, so they are missing out. As I said, that kind of sin is easy to overlook and suppress.
So again, it’s good to put ourselves in the story. Which son are we, really? Have we been like the younger son and messed up so badly that we are unworthy of the love of the Father, and deserve to be treated like a common servant? Or are we like the older son, and do we miss the love and mercy of God in pursuit of trying to look good in everyone else’s eyes? Maybe sometimes we are like one of the sons, and other times we are like the other. The point is, that we often sin, one way or the other.
But our response has to be like the younger son’s. We have to be willing to turn back to the Father and be embraced in his mercy and love and forgiveness. We can’t be like the older son and refuse to be forgiven, insisting on our own righteousness. The stakes are too high for us to do that: we would be missing out on the banquet of eternal life to which Jesus Christ came to bring us.
For us, this Lent, this might mean that we have to go to confession. Even if we haven’t been in a long time. We have confessions at 3pm for the next two Saturdays, next Saturday we also have confessions at 8am. For the next two Fridays, we have confessions at 6pm, and next Sunday, the 7th, we will have several priests here to hear your confession at 2pm until all are heard. Please don’t wait until the last minute; we will not have any confessions during Holy Week. Lent is the perfect time to use that wonderful sacrament of forgiveness to turn back to the Father who longs to meet us more than half way with his prodigal love and mercy. So don’t let anything get in the way of doing it. If you haven’t been to confession in a very long time, go anyway. We priests are there to help you make a good confession and we don’t yell at you, don’t embarrass you – we are only there to help you experience God’s mercy.
We are all sinners and the stakes are high. But the good news is that we have a Forgiving Father, who longs to meet us more than half way. All we have to do is decide to turn back.