Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

Last night, I talked about the New Testament theme of kenosis, which is the idea of self-emptying, of pouring oneself out.  Last night, we talked about that in terms of the call to service: that Jesus himself got up from table, tied a towel around himself and took the lowest position, washing the feet of his disciples.  We reflected on how we are all called to that kind of kenosis, giving up our entitlement to see to the salvation of everyone in our life.  Today, I’d like to take another brief look at kenosis, because today we see that idea played out in its ultimate form.

I said yesterday that kenosis applied to our Lord, who, as Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  That’s today, of course.  It echoes what Isaiah says of the suffering servant in today’s first reading.  The suffering servant’s appearance is so marred, stricken, so infirm that we cannot bear to look at him.  It shouldn’t be that way; he is our God.  But that’s kenosis.

The reason we can’t bear to look on him, of course, because if we really looked hard enough, we know, in our heart of hearts, that the marring, the strickenness, the infirmity are all ours.  This is a dark hour.  It seems like all is lost.  That’s one of the few guarantees that this fleeting life gives to us.  We will have to bear our own cross of suffering: the illness or death of loved ones, the loss of a job, the splintering of a family, or even the shame of addictive sin.  It is our brokenness that we see in the suffering servant, our sinfulness on the son of man.  And this suffering servant is embodied by our God, Jesus Christ our Savior, who carries all of that nastiness to the cross, and hangs there before us, bleeding and dying and crying out in agony.  That’s our sin, our death, our punishment – and he bore it all for us.  He chose to pour himself out – for us.

And just when it seems like there is nothing left for him to give, when it seems like all life has been snuffed out, when it seems like death has the upper hand, the soldier thrusts his lance into the side of our Lord, and he pours himself out in one more glorious act of kenosis:  from his side pours forth the life blood and water that plants the seeds of the Church into the barren ground of the earth, guaranteeing the presence of the Lord in the world until the end of time.  Christ our God gives everything he has for us, takes away all that divides us, and performs the saving sacrifice that makes salvation possible for all people.  Our God gives up everything – everything – for love of us.

We know that the suffering and death of Jesus is not the end of the story.  In the day ahead, we will keep vigil for the Resurrection of the Lord which shatters the hold that sin and death have on us.  We are a people who eagerly yearn for the Resurrection.  We certainly hope for the great salvation that is ours, and the light and peace of God’s Kingdom.  But that’s for tomorrow.  Today we remember that that salvation was bought at a very dear price, the price of the death of our Savior, our great High Priest.  Today we look back on all of our sufferings of the past or the present, we even look ahead to those that may yet be.  We see all those sufferings up there on that cross, willingly taken there by our Saving Lord.  And as we sit here in God’s presence we know that we are never ever alone in our dark hours, that Christ has united himself to us in his suffering and death.  May we too unite ourselves to him by embracing our own suffering, and walk confidently through it with him, pass the gates of salvation, and enter one great day into God’s heavenly kingdom.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel gives us a very interesting start to the Sacred Paschal Triduum.  This three-day-long-feast begins with a meal, which makes sense.  But it’s a meal interrupted by a very important teaching.  I think it’s fair to say that Jesus never did anything without also trying to teach something important in the process.  When he healed on the Sabbath, he was teaching that the Sabbath was not something to be observed for its own sake, but was for the glory of God and the recharging of people.  When he fed the thousands, he was teaching that there was nothing so impossible that God could not make it happen.  Even when he chose his disciples, he was teaching that people’s worth was defined by God and not by the things they have accomplished on their own.

So when he interrupts this Passover supper to wash the disciples’ feet, he was trying to teach them something, and to put the meal and the teaching together in context.  Washing the feet of guests was a common practice in Jesus’ time.  In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration.  And they would travel that distance, not by car or train or even by beast of burden, but most often on foot.  The travelers’ feet would then become not only dirty from the dusty roads, but also hot and tired from the long journey.  It was a gesture of hospitality to wash the guests’ feet, but it was a gesture that was not usually supplied by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, like a servant or slave.  But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around his waist, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.  So we are about to see that he wasn’t just washing their feet to get a job done or even to provide hospitality; he was dong this to give them an example of what Scripture scholars call kenosis.

I had a Scripture teacher who always used to talk about kenosis.  During my seminary days, we went through some pretty rough times with the Church.  Just two weeks after we started, we had the tragedy of 9/11.  Along with the rest of the country, we all felt like the bottom had dropped out and nothing was really certain any more.  Then, the following spring, the sexual abuse scandal broke wide open, and so many of us wondered what we were getting ourselves into.  Many of us had personal tragedies as well, me included when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer just one month apart from each other.  We ended our time in seminary with the tragic death of two of our brother seminarians in a car crash on the school grounds.  Life is like that, we all have things that we go through and we wonder why we go on, why we even try to live as disciples.  And I remember whenever we would express that, one of my Scripture teachers would always look at us and say, “It’s all about kenosis.”

At first when we heard that we looked at him like most of you are looking at me right now.  But we came to know what kenosis meant.  It is a New Testament Greek word that basically means “self-emptying.”  It comes from the root word kenos which is used to describe places or vessels that are empty, or to describe people who are empty handed or arrive without a gift.  Kenosis in the New Testament sense is used to describe Jesus Christ, who as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  Christ emptied himself of the honor that was rightfully his as our God and took our own human form.  That’s kenosis.

And he drove the point home as he finished this great act of service.  He says, “Do you realize what I have done for you?  You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.  If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  If even our Lord who had the right to demand anything from us, to whom he gave everything, if even he would tie a towel around his waist and wash people’s feet, then we disciples, we followers of the Lord, we who would look for our reward with him, we must also be willing to do whatever it takes to bring people to salvation.  We’re not supposed to just watch the Mass be performed for us, we’re supposed to live the Mass every day of our lives in any place the Lord puts us, knowing that he walked that way before us, and that our reward will be great.  We, brothers and sisters, are called to kenosis in our own lives.

But here’s the kicker: another aspect of our own call to kenosis is that sometimes we have to empty out the part of us that desperately wants to do everything for ourselves, and to let someone else minister to us in our need.  I told you about my parents both being sick when I was in seminary.  That was such a hard time for me, mostly because I was still really convinced that I could get through anything life threw at me on my own.  But I had to learn that sometimes I need to let my friends pick me up and carry me to Jesus when I couldn’t get there on my own.  I’m bad at that.  I’m like Peter – no one’s going to wash my feet.  But I learned that I have to get over that if I’m ever going to be empty enough for Christ to fill me up.  It’s not about me – and it can’t be about any of us, we who would take up our crosses to follow our Lord.

There’s another part of this Gospel that really strikes me.  You heard me tell you about the practice of washing the feet of guests in Jesus’ day.  So when do you think their feet would be washed?  Immediately upon arriving, of course: their feet were dusty and tired from the journey.  But that’s not what happens here, is it?  The Gospel reading says that during the supper, Jesus rose, changed his clothes, and washed their feet.  That’s a detail that would really stick out to those hearing the story in that day, because they understood the practice.  Now Jesus didn’t wash their feet at that time because he forgot to do it when they arrived, or because he had just now noticed how filthy their feet were.  He had a very specific reason for washing their feet during the meal.  Because now that great act of kenosis would be forever intimately tied to the celebration of the Eucharist.  Because of the very precise timing of this act of service, we who receive the Eucharist now know that we are called to follow Jesus’ example and to pour ourselves out in service to our brothers and sisters.  Every time we are fed by our Lord, we must always remember that we are called by our Lord to empty ourselves and become the presence of Christ for those who share life with us.

On this great night, as we begin the great three-day feast of our Savior’s triumph over sin and death, we come together to share a meal – the same meal he shared with his friends on that night so long ago.  And because we Catholics don’t simply remember this night with mere fond recollections of an ancient historical event, but instead by entering into the experience in all its fullness yet again, then we have to hear the same commandment Jesus gave his disciples: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  As we gather and come forward to do this in remembrance of Christ, may we also pour ourselves out each day for our brothers and sisters, lovingly washing their feet just as ours have been washed by our Saving Lord.

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion: The Way of the Cross

Today’s readings

I saw a little comic on Facebook yesterday that had two panels. The top panel was entitled “your way” and showed a stick figure on a bicycle traveling a straight road to the finish line. Smooth sailing, or bicycling, whatever. The bottom panel wasn’t so simple. The same bicyclist had to travel a very treacherous road, filled with rocks, mountains to climb, ditches to avoid, an ocean to cross, and many other obstacles. That panel was entitled “God’s plan.” The only thing that panel was missing was the Cross, and well might it have been there.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

You heard me quote that, the Entrance Antiphon for this Sacred Paschal Triduum, in my homily last night. Last night I reflected on the scandal of the Cross, and today I’d like to continue the discussion by reflecting briefly on the Way of the Cross. Lots of us are familiar with the Way of the Cross: we come to the Stations of the Cross on Fridays of Lent and reflect on them; perhaps we even reflect on them privately in our homes, or here at church, or outside of church on the back piazza. Whenever we’ve prayed the Stations of the Cross, maybe like me you’ve found it tiring to stand and kneel and genuflect in fourteen different stations. But I can assure you the first person to have traveled the Way of the Cross didn’t have it anywhere near as easy.

As we reflect on the Passion of our Lord, the Way of the Cross becomes quite clear to us. It involves betrayal, injustice, and abandonment. It required prayer, focus, and love.

The betrayal was easy to see. Judas is disgruntled, or disillusioned, or greedy, or some combination thereof, and so he looks for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to the authorities. They were delighted and most willing to pay Judas. And there begins the injustice: the tainted motives of the Sanhedrin, the cowardice of Herod and of Pilate. Our Lord is railroaded to his death. And then begins the abandonment: Peter denies him, the disciples fall asleep, they all flee when he’s arrested. Because our Lord has taken all of our sin on himself in this moment, he rightly feels abandoned, a living hell on earth: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps. 22:2)

But it’s important that we get this right today. John spells it out quite clearly throughout his Gospel narrative: Jesus did not get dragged kicking and screaming to the Cross – no, he willingly gave his life that we might live. And that required prayer: uniting himself totally with his Father, he took on his Father’s will. It required focus: Jesus never took his eyes off the Father, he was completely focused on what he came to do and why he came to do it. And it required love. And this is the part I can’t stress strongly enough, Brothers and Sisters: our God loved us so much, that even the betrayal, injustice and abandonment could not stop him from bringing us back to him. His great love and mercy required that his only Begotten Son would pay the price for your sins, and my sins. He willingly gave his life for us – because he loved us beyond anything we could imagine or dare hope for.

That was Jesus’ Way of the Cross. But it’s important to know that we have our own crosses too, and while they might not be what God would like to give us in his love, he allows them in his mercy. The Way of the Cross is the way disciples live. And so we too will suffer from betrayal: when friends let us down, or coworkers take advantage of our compassion, or when our bodies stop doing what we need. We too will suffer from injustice: when someone pre-judges us, or when we give so much to a relationship without anything seeming to come in return, or when our jobs are eliminated. And we will also endure abandonment: when nobody comes to our defense, or when our illness causes them to pull away. Some days it may even seem like God has abandoned us.

But our prayer will tell us otherwise. Prayer is the fuel disciples use to navigate the Way of the Cross. Prayer helps us to focus, and when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can see where the road is leading us. And that focus helps us to embrace the cross in love, joining our sufferings to those of Christ, who deeply longs to lead us to eternity.

Because the Way of the Cross might require death, but it doesn’t end there. Good Friday is good for a reason. And in our deepest sufferings, we can always take comfort that our Savior has gone there before us, and has blazoned the trail that leads to life.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Holy Thursday: The Scandal of the Cross

Today’s readings

I love what Jesus says to Peter after Peter initially refuses to have his feet washed. “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” I kind of feel like that’s what could be said about the entirety of our faith. What we are taught very rarely makes sense at the first presentation, but later, when we have eyes opened up by the Resurrection, well, then things start to fall into place.

So I want to start my reflection on these three holy days, this Sacred Paschal Triduum, with the incredibly scandalous idea that is the Holy Cross. The Church would have us do so, too, for She provides just one entrance antiphon for these three days, and that comes at the beginning of today’s Mass, and it says:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

This antiphon is adapted from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:14) in which he spends most of the letter chastising the community – even to the point of calling them “stupid” (3:1) – for taking their eyes off Jesus and the Gospel and everything that Saint Paul has taught them, and instead looking back to the Jewish law and all its artificial marks of righteousness. But we dare not condemn them so quickly. Because, quite frankly, we have to understand their faltering faith in light of our own.

For us, now removed a couple of thousand years past the Crucifixion of our Lord, the Cross seems pretty standard – it almost doesn’t even phase us any more. We see it in church, we probably have one or more in our homes, and we might even wear one around our neck pretty often. And so, I think, the Cross may have lost some of its very important impact: an impact Jesus’ disciples certainly experienced as they fled in fear. It’s an impact Saint Paul’s Church in Galatia would have experienced too, and perhaps explained their trying to find justification in other ways.

Because the cross was terrifying. And not only that, the cross was scandalous. It was saved for the dregs of society, for the worst of the worst. For those who were a problem for society. It was saved for the likes of Barabbas, for heaven’s sake! And the unrepentant thief. And yet, that is where our Lord went at the end of his life on earth. Nobody in Jesus’ day would have been inspired by this awful display. Saint Paul acknowledges as much in his first letter to the Corinthians when he says, “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23).

But if people in that day missed the importance of Jesus embracing and dying on the cross, then they missed his entire message too. Because it was every bit as scandalous that Jesus ate with sinners and touched lepers. Just as scandalous as the cross was his getting up at supper and taking off his outer garments, tying a towel around his waist, and washing the feet of the disciples. That was the job of a servant, but then he did come to serve not to be served. That was the job of a slave, but then he did come to set us free from our ancient sinfulness.

As scandalous as the Cross was for the early Church, it is also deeply problematic for the Church today. Because we live in a society that values freedom, convenience, and bright shiny happiness – none of which, I dare say, you’ll find on the Cross. In our society, we might boast that there is a pill for almost every ailment, even if they come with a horrifying list of side-effects. In our society, we have convenience down to a science: we eat fast food, we bank and shop online and delight in free overnight shipping, we lose our minds in the line at the DMV. In our society, we do our best to spin every situation into some kind of false happiness, with painted smiles and happy music and all kinds of glitzy advertising.

We’re more than happy to have a Resurrection, thank you, but the Cross … well that’s just not something we’re open to embracing. And the problem with that is that living the Gospel requires that we take up our own crosses and follow our Lord (Matthew 16:24). So our aversion to the Cross, both in the ancient Church and now, is a real obstacle to our life of faith, a real obstacle to our eternity.

The cause of the obstacle, I would assert – at least in my own spiritual life – is that on the Cross, we see our own sins. The real scandalous part of the Cross for us is that our Savior had to go there to free us from our sins. What makes us turn our heads away and avert our gaze is that we can’t bear to see that even our smallest sins have such horrible, scandalous consequences. The real scandal of the Cross is that the Word made flesh had to give up his own life in such a terrible death in order that I might live.

What on earth are we supposed to do with that? How do we live with the fact that God’s only begotten Son died for us? Well, he tells us in today’s Gospel. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” And he’s not just talking about washing feet, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Whatever he’s done for us, we’re supposed to do for others. If he’s forgiven us much, then we should never stop forgiving. If he has served us, then we have to serve others. If he has laid down our life for us, then we better do the same for the people in our lives. Anything less is an offense against the Holy Cross.

As we gather on this Holy Thursday night, we know that the washing of the feet is a mere foreshadowing of the Cross. Jesus came to give himself completely so that we might have life. He washes feet, cleansing the disciples of their sins and making them fit for service. He offers his Body and Blood to be the food that sustains us on our journey. And he offers us our own crosses that we might have a share in his own, leading us onward to eternal life.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

During this Triduum journey, I have been reflecting in my homilies on the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve talked about the fact that this is not a popular thing to do because we as a society are not big on suffering. If we put a sign out on Chicago Avenue that said, “Come suffer with us,” I’m pretty sure we’d be all alone here in church! We certainly do suffer in this life, but no one wants it – as well we shouldn’t. The problem is that we tend to gloss over it, not acknowledge it, be embarrassed by it. Suffering becomes the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, and that’s too bad, really.

Certainly it seems odd that I would continue to talk about the Cross on this holy night. I mean, we’ve moved on, haven’t we? We came here for resurrection and want to get on with our lives. Just like we tend to rush through our grieving of loved ones – to our own psychological and spiritual peril, by the way – so too we want to rush through our Lent and particularly our Good Friday and Holy Saturday, so that we can eat our Peeps and chocolate bunnies and call it a day.

But we can’t, right? If we’ve prayed well this Lent and particularly in these Triduum days, we know how we got here to this moment. We know that we don’t get an Easter Sunday without a Good Friday, that we can’t have resurrection if there hasn’t been death, that we can’t have salvation if there hasn’t been a sacrifice.

And there sure was a sacrifice. Our Lord suffered a brutal, ugly death between two hardened criminals, taking the place of a revolutionary. He was beaten, humiliated, mistreated and nails were pounded into his flesh, that flesh that he borrowed from us. He hung in agony for three hours and finally, when all was finished, he cried out in anguish and handed over his spirit. The veil of the temple was torn in two, there was a tremor in the earth, and an eclipse of the sun. And no wonder, the light of the Messiah had been extinguished on the Cross.

Placed in the tomb, he descended into hell. Collecting the souls of the blessed ones of old, he waited while earth mourned and disciples scattered and everyone wondered what happened to this Christ.

But then came the morning. The Sabbath was over, and the sun was rising in the east on the first day of the week, and the women came with spices to prepare our Lord for burial. But they couldn’t: he has been raised! He is not here! Our Lord is risen and death is defeated! The menacing, ugly Cross has become the altar of salvation! The instrument of horror has become the Cross of glory, and we can do no less than praise our God!

Saint John Damascene reflected on this salvific reality. He writes, “By nothing else except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been brought low: The sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to despise the things of this world, even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God and we made children and heirs of God. By the cross all these things have been set aright…It is a seal that the destroyer may not strike us, a raising up of those who lie fallen, a support for those who stand, a staff for the infirm, a crook for the shepherded, a guide for the wandering, a perfecting of the advanced, salvation for soul and body, a deflector of all evils, a cause of all goods, a destruction of sin, a plant of resurrection, and a tree of eternal life.”

It’s so important that we enter into Lent and the Triduum every year. Not just because we need to be called back from our sinfulness to the path of life – yes, there is that, but it’s not primary here. What is so important is that we see that the Cross is our path too. In this life we will have trouble: our Savior promises us that. But the Cross is what sees him overcome the world and all the suffering it brings us. We will indeed suffer in this life, but thanks be to God, if we join ourselves to him, if we take up our own crosses with faithfulness, then we can merit a share in our Lord’s resurrection, that reality that fulfills all of salvation history that we’ve heard in tonight’s readings.

In these Triduum days, we have seen the Cross call us to service, we’ve seen it stand for our suffering, and tonight we’ve seen it help us on the way to salvation. The cross is brutal and ugly and harsh. But it’s also beautiful, if we have eyes to see it.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Good Friday: Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Last night, I talked about the cross, and how, while brutal and inconvenient and ugly, it is the way to salvation for all of us. We see that so poignantly on this Good Friday, when we remember the Lord’s Passion, we venerate his Cross, and we receive the gift of Holy Communion to sustain us in these somber days. Our Lord’s complete gift of self, his act of emptying out his will so that he could fully embody the will of the Father, this is our hope and our salvation, and it is only possible through the brutal, ugly Cross.

Our world hates the Cross. I talked a bit about that last night, too. We want instant gratification, and we don’t want to go through a lot of hassle to get it. We seek instant remedies to pain, quick ways to get rich, instant service at any establishment according to our whim. We don’t like to wait, we don’t like to endure pain, we don’t like to suffer in any way. But as St. Augustine once said, “God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”

Today we see that, taking up our crosses at our Lord’s command is going to involve suffering in this life. It did for Jesus, and so we have no right to assume that won’t be the case for us. Jesus never came into this world to take our suffering away; he came to redeem it. He’s not going to wave a magic wand and make your problems go away, but he will endure them with you, taking up the Cross with you, giving his life with you and for you. And most importantly, as we’ll see tomorrow night, he will redeem your suffering to eternal glory. That, dear ones, is the Paschal Mystery, and we absolutely have a share in it.

So think about your worst problem right now – call to mind whatever you may be suffering. Or call to mind the suffering of others: a loved one who is battling cancer, or a friend who is unemployed or underemployed. Perhaps call to mind those who are homeless, or those who go without much food every day, even while we dread keeping the Paschal Fast! Whether it is your suffering or the suffering of others, bring that to the cross as we venerate it shortly. And know – know – that that suffering does not go unnoticed by our God; that it never is willed for its own sake. And know that our Lord walks through it too, bringing it at last to its eternal redemption.

Suffering is the way to glory for all of us who take up our crosses to follow our Lord. Pope Saint John Paul II said it well: “There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.”

The Cross of Jesus is brutal, ugly and harsh. It embodies the horror of all our suffering. We might hate to look at it, hate to take it up, but there is no glory without it.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Church sees this evening’s Mass as the beginning of a three-day Liturgy that embodies our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. These three days are the Paschal Mystery, in which we see our Lord’s love and Divine Mercy poured out freely on sinners – which is to say, of course, on you and me. No one in this church has merited this Divine Mercy; it is freely given, and if we have prepared ourselves properly this Lent, freely received.

At the beginning of every Liturgy there is an introit or entrance antiphon. It’s a brief scriptural verse that provides the mindset, if you will, that the Church wants us to have as we pray that Liturgy. For these three days, the Church gives us an adaptation of the fourteenth verse of the sixth book of Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Church wants us, appropriately enough, to focus on our Lord who is, after all, the whole reason we’re here tonight, and for the rest of these days. More specifically, the Church wants us to reflect during this most holy three-day liturgy on our Lord’s Cross. And quite honestly, that’s kind of inconvenient. It’s hard to gather people together to celebrate the Cross – it’s not pretty and it doesn’t portray the glitzy kind of happy message that beckons Christians to church.

It’s always been that way. In the early days of Christianity, they knew the cross all too well. They saw it on almost a daily basis. What had been intended to provide an ignominious and painful death to the worst criminal offenders soon enough became the way to execute all those who were politically inconvenient, most especially Christians who refused to take up the worship of pagan gods which was required by the government of the day.

But even now, quite honestly, who wants to look at the cross? We don’t like pain or grief or anything like that. We take a pill for every malady, even braving a horrifying list of side-effects. To those who have experienced the death of a loved one, we offer meaningless platitudes like “everything happens for a reason,” and then we expect them back at work in no more than three to five days, functioning and behaving just as they did before. We anesthetize ourselves with drink, or drugs, or hours in front of the television or computer, or immersing ourselves in work, so that we don’t have to confront the difficulties in our relationships, or family lives, or whatever else might be on our plates. So for us, reflecting on the cross is just too painful, and glorying in the cross – well, that’s just ridiculous.

But we know the Truth: we know that it is only by our Lord’s Cross that we have won salvation; we know that we too have been called to take up our own crosses and follow our Lord; we know that we have been given an example and that we need to follow it – we know that if we don’t glory in the Cross, we can never have a resurrection. And so during these three days, I’d like to suggest some ways that we can reflect on the Cross and glory in it, that we might come at last to Easter glory.

Today we see in the Cross our call to service. But by service, I don’t mean the light and fluffy things we see as service – it’s not a quick service project, or writing a check to do our little part of handling a need. Those things are nice, but they don’t really measure up to the example our Lord gives us today. Our Lord’s service was one of kenosis – the Greek word for “emptiness.” Our Lord emptied himself of his own will so that he could completely embody the Father’s will. He did that to save us from our sins. So the service our Lord calls us to today is one of emptying our own will out so that we can be filled by God’s will.

Jesus emptied himself of his will to be served by serving in the most menial of ways. At the banquet, it was not the host who washed the hot, dirty and tired feet of the guests – it was instead the task for a servant or slave. But because none of those at the Last Supper thought himself low enough to take on that task, our Lord did it, and one wonders if Peter’s reluctance to have his own feet washed was because he didn’t want our Lord to stoop down and serve him, or if it was because he knew it meant that he had to do the same thing. How willing are we to empty ourselves of our entitlement and instead to serve the poor and needy among us?

Jesus emptied himself of his will by giving his body and blood to be our Eucharist – our reason for thanksgiving – and to sustain us on the journey to eternal life. He didn’t come just to give us directions to heaven. He came to bring us there, nourishing us along the way, helping us to get up when we’ve fallen, giving us food for body and spirit. He knew that it was only his Body and Blood that would overcome our profane human nature, that would give us enough a share in his Divine nature, that we could find our way to heaven. How willing are we to empty ourselves out, completely giving ourselves for others?

Today the Cross we glory in is one of service – and it’s a service that is a complete giving of self for another. It’s love beyond words. It’s mercy and grace given with wild abandon. It’s an emptying out of self-will so that God’s will can be accomplished now and in the life to come. That Cross can be heavy and inconvenient and even repulsive at times. But it’s the only way to heaven.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Good Friday: The Reproaches

The Reproaches, known in Latin as the Improperia, are suggested to be chanted during the Veneration of the Cross during the solemn liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday.  They’re not often done, unfortunately, but I think they are worth our reflection.  They come partly from the book of the Prophet Micah, who laments the many ways the people of Israel have spurned the Lord and foretells their destruction because of it.  In the sixth chapter, the prophet sets up the Lord’s case:

 

My people, what have I done to you?
how have I wearied you? Answer me!
I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
from the place of slavery I ransomed you;
And I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:3-4)

The Reproaches take up this theme, telling of the many ways God has offered salvation to his people, and how that offer has been spurned over time.  This is serious stuff, because it lays down the case of how our sins put our Lord on the Cross today.  I have to admit, if one doesn’t feel guilty in some way after hearing the Reproaches, one may not be capable of affective emotion!  Here is the text:

1 and 2: My people, what have I done to you
How have I offended you? Answer me!

1: I led you out of Egypt,
from slavery to freedom,
but you led your Savior to the cross.

2: My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

1: Holy is God! 
2: Holy and strong! 
1: Holy immortal One, have mercy on us!

1 and 2: For forty years I led you
safely through the desert.
I fed you with manna from heaven,
and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led your Savior to the cross.

Repeat “Holy is God…”

1 and 2: What more could I have done for you.
I planted you as my fairest vine,
but you yielded only bitterness:
when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink,
and you pierced your Savior with a lance.

Repeat “Holy is God…”

II.

1: For your sake I scourged your captors
and their firstborn sons,
but you brought your scourges down on me.

(Repeated throughout by Choir 2)
2: My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

1: I led you from slavery to freedom
and drowned your captors in the sea,
but you handed me over to your high priests.
2: “My people….”

1: I opened the sea before you,
but you opened my side with a spear.
2: “My people….”

1: I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud,
but you led me to Pilate’s court.
2: “My people….”

1: I bore you up with manna in the desert,
but you struck me down and scourged me.
2: “My people….”

1: I gave you saving water from the rock,
but you gave me gall and vinegar to drink.
2: “My people….”

1: For you I struck down the kings of Canaan.
but you struck my head with a reed.
2: “My people….”

1: I gave you a royal scepter,
but you gave me a crown of thorns.
2: “My people….”

1: I raised you to the height of majesty,
but you have raised me high on a cross.
2: “My people….”

And here is a nice chant of it, courtesy of Youtube:

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

That is the proper entrance antiphon, also known as the introit, for this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  It is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he says “May I never boast about anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which I have been crucified to the world and the world to me.” During Lent, we have been rediscovering our need for a Savior.  We have seen how our Lord Jesus Christ completely changes everything if we acknowledge that need.  Our water jugs have been left behind because we are filled with living water; our eyes have been opened to see our Lord, ourselves, and others as we really are; we have been freed from our graves, untied from the bondage of sin.  We have embraced the cross, which our Savior willingly took up out of love for us, and have taken it on ourselves, knowing that it is through the cross that we come to the glory of the resurrection.

The Church teaches us in this Sacred Triduum – this three-day-long Liturgy of God’s love –  that we should indeed glory in the cross – take pleasure in the cross – notice the power of the cross.  And we glory in the cross knowing that our God glories in the cross.  It may seem odd to say that, because why would God glory in an instrument of death that destroyed the human life of his only begotten Son?  But we know that God has made something much more glorious come from the sadness of death, and he did that through the cross on which hung the Savior of the world.  In the cross, we have salvation, life and resurrection!

I think what the cross teaches us in these days, and what this evening’s part of the Triduum Liturgy says in particular, is summed up in the Latin word, caritasCaritas is most often translated into English as either “charity” or “love.”  And, as in the case of most translations, both are inadequate.  When we think about the word “charity,” we usually think of something we do to the poor: we give to the poor, we have pity on the poor, that kind of thing.  And “love” can have a whole host of different meanings, depending on the context, and the emotion involved.  And that’s not what caritas means at all.  I think caritas is best imagined as a love that shows itself in the action of setting oneself aside, pouring oneself out, for the good of others.  It’s a love that remembers that everything is not about me, that God gives us opportunities all the time to give of ourselves on behalf of others, that we were put on this earth to love one another into heaven.

And I bring this up not just as a lesson in Latin or semantics.  I bring it up because caritas is our vocation; we were made to love deeply and to care about something outside ourselves.  We are meant to go beyond what seems expedient and comfortable and easy and to extend ourselves.  That’s clearly what our Lord did, and that’s what we’re supposed to be about as well.

Two parts of this evening’s Liturgy show us what caritas means.  The first is what we call the mandatum: the washing of the feet.  Here, Jesus gets up from the meal, puts on a towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples.  Here, at the Last Supper, it is our Savior himself who wraps a towel around himself, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.  This was an extraordinary act of charity on the part of our Savior.  We will reenact that Gospel vignette in a few minutes.  But I have tell you, here in Church, this really isn’t the proper place to reenact it.  Rather, this particular ritual should be reenacted outside of church.  Every day, in every place where Christians are.

For example, maybe you make an effort to get home from work a little sooner to help your spouse get dinner ready or help your children with their homework.  Maybe at work you try to get in early so that you can make the first pot of coffee so that people can smell it when they come in to the office.  Or maybe after lunch you take a minute or two to wipe out the microwave so it’s not gross the next day.  If you’re a young person, perhaps you can try on occasion to do a chore without being asked, or at least not asked a second time, or even wash the dishes when it’s not your turn to do it.  Or if one of your classmates has a lot of stuff to bring to school one day, you can offer to carry some of his or her books to lighten the load.

This kind of thing costs us.  It’s not our job.  We’re entitled to be treated well too.  It’s inconvenient.  I’ve had a hard day at work – or at school.  I want to see this show on television.  I’m in the middle of reading the paper.  But caritas requires something of us – something over and above what we may be prepared to do.  As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, he’s given us an example: as he has done, so we must do.  And not just here in church washing each other’s feet, but out there in our world, washing the feet of all those in our lives who need to be loved into heaven.

The second part of our Liturgy that illustrates caritas is one with which we are so familiar, we may most of the time let it pass us by without giving it a thought, sadly.  And that, of course, is the Eucharist.  This evening we commemorate that night when Jesus, for the very first time, shared bread and wine with his closest friends and offered the meal as his very own body and blood, poured out on behalf of the world, given that we might remember, as often as we do it, what caritas means.  This is the meal that we share here tonight, not just as a memory of something that happened in the far distant past, but instead experienced with Jesus and his disciples, and all the church of every time and place, on earth and in heaven, gathered around the same Table of the Lord, nourished by the same body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior who poured himself out for us in the ultimate act of caritas.

We who eat this meal have to be willing to be changed by it.  Because we too must pour ourselves out for others.  We must feed them with our presence and our love and our understanding even when we would rather not.  We must help them to know Christ’s presence in their lives by the way that we serve them, in humility, giving of ourselves and asking nothing in return.  That is our vocation.

And sometimes that vocation is not an easy one.  Sometimes it feels like our efforts are unappreciated or even thwarted by others.  Sometimes we give of ourselves only to receive pain in return; or we extend ourselves only to find ourselves out on a limb with what seems like no support.  And then we question our vocation, wondering if it is all worth it, wondering if somehow we got it wrong.

The ultimate act of caritas will unfold tomorrow and Saturday night as we look to the cross and keep vigil for the resurrection.  Tonight it will suffice for us to hear the command to go and do likewise, pouring ourselves out for others, laying down our life for them, washing their feet and becoming Eucharist for them.  It may seem difficult to glory in the cross – it may even seem strange to say it.  But the Church makes it clear tonight: the cross is our salvation, it is caritas poured out for us, it is caritas poured out on others through us, every time we extend ourselves, lay down our lives, abandon our sense of entitlement and do what the Gospel demands of us.

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

How quickly things have changed among Jesus’ followers.  His disciples – even the chosen Twelve – have pretty much deserted him.  They’ve either fled in fear, or else they have betrayed him, or denied that they knew him.  But some women who were among his devoted followers have braved the implications for them and have arrived with him at the foot of the cross.  The Beloved Disciple – probably John – has come too.  And, of course, his mother.

Think for a moment how much grief has to be in the heart of Mary.  Joseph seems to be out of the picture now; we assume he has died.  Jesus is all she has left in the world, her promised one.  She certainly knows that his hour is at hand, we know that she continues to trust in God, but the pain of these moments has to be almost too much to bear.  And so Jesus speaks to her from the cross: “Woman, behold your son.”  And to John, “Behold your mother.”  Jesus knows that for those who were closest to him in life, they will have need of support, of community, after his death.  Grief cannot be borne alone.  But not only that, community is essential to the continuation of Jesus’ mission.  So that relationship, forged at the foot of the cross, became the basis for discipleship for both Mary and John that would be instrumental in leading the fledgling Church into the ages ahead.

Still greater, though, is that we see in Mary an icon of the Church.  We grieve too, but we for our sins.  As we look up at the cross, we see – with horrifying clarity – the effect of our sins.  We know why Jesus had to come to this hour.  As Isaiah says, “he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.”  No one sentenced Jesus to die on that cross as much as we did, and do, in our daily sins of commission and omission, in our harsh words, in our unkind and impure thoughts, in our lack of loving and in the neglect of our mission.  And yet, as John clearly points out in his Gospel, he went to the cross willingly, taking all that brokenness with him.

Like Mary, we the Church wait at the foot of the cross, not abandoning our Jesus who did not abandon us to our sins.  We, like Mary, receive at the cross our relationships, purified for our salvation, strengthened for the mission: beholding our mothers and sons and daughters and fathers, because we never get to the resurrection alone.  We’re not supposed to go it alone in this life.  Even in his most painful and dying moments, our Jesus gives us gifts that help us to arrive at the fullness of salvation.