Readings for Passion Sunday Reflection:
From the beginning, it was the cross that was the symbol of Christianity. Despite the absolute certainty of the resurrection as the defining event in the establishment of a community of faith, it was never an empty tomb, a blossoming lily, a glorious sunrise, or any other possible symbol of new life. It was the cross. It was the symbol of a life cruelly taken, an ignominious death of a prophet, an abject rejection of a righteous man by his own people that became the common sign of Christians.
The image of a suffering servant was long present in Judaism; that is apparent from the reading of Isaiah. An innocent who will undergo suffering for the sake of others was part of the Jewish worldview. It was an acknowledgment that the evil in our world is such that those who least deserve to suffer are often the ones who do. And it is the generous love of those who accept and endure such suffering that holds this precious yet sinful world of ours together. It is the ones who are struck but who do not strike back, those who are betrayed and lied to but do not seek vengeance, those who are maligned and vilified unjustly but are willing to forgive—they are the ones who help correct the balance sheet of graced activity over human sinfulness.
In Paul's letter to the Philippians, we have a passage that scholars tell us was likely a pre-existent baptismal hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter, a hymn that would have been part of the very first generation of Christian belief. It is a hymn that tells us of the self-giving nature of God. Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but willingly emptied himself to become human. The Greeks had a word for it, kenosis, self-emptying, a God who loves us so much that God entered into our vulnerable condition. So vulnerable that even innocent, good, righteous persons can be killed without real cause. In his reflection on the divine kenosis, Francis of Assisi used to speak in awe about the humility of God to which the hymn from Philippians attests.
There is an inspiring invitation in these first readings for Passion Sunday—it is that when we participate in the passion of Jesus, through acts of self-giving and self-emptying, we may be able to remind others that our world is not incapable of genuine goodness, a goodness that transcends any cost-benefit analysis of self-giving versus self-interest. Rather, it is possible that the world might see our goodness, our willingness to serve our brother and sister, rather than seek to impose our will upon others as a reminder that the witness of Jesus continues in the lives of those who dare to call themselves Christians. The invitation is to be a disciple of the one who hung on a cross to reveal the life-giving power of becoming a self-gift. In Luke's account of the Last Supper, it is crucial to remember that the bread and wine that Jesus blessed became a body broken and blood shed for others. The cross on Golgotha was the culmination of a process of self-emptying that had already begun earlier in the life of Jesus.
During his entire journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus is engaged in a sort of peripatetic seminar with his disciples, teaching them about the meaning of discipleship. This continues right up through the Passion. At the Last Supper, he teaches the disciples about servanthood. Along the path to Golgotha, he stops to address the women who are mourning his fate; in his final words on the cross, he teaches us how to die in hope.
In Luke's passion account, which is the version we read this year, he has a number of intriguing aspects. More than in any other gospel, the figure of Jesus in Luke's portrayal is very composed. When the crowd in the Garden of Olives comes to arrest him, Jesus is restrained and in command. When confronted by accusations that are false or likely to be misinterpreted, Luke's Jesus maintains a calm silence. Unlike the anguished cry on the cross of abandonment in Mark and Matthew's accounts, the Jesus in Luke's account is full of trust, commending his spirit into the hands of the loving Father.
It is not signs of violence or drama that occur with Jesus' death, but only acts of repentance and grace. Unlike in Mark and Matthew, the Temple veil separating the Holy of Holies from others is ripped prior to Jesus' death. After the death, it is the Roman centurion who makes the statement of Jesus' innocence, which follows Pilate's earlier protestations that he finds Jesus innocent. Two Gentiles attest to the injustice in Jesus' death. Then we are told by Luke that the crowd of onlookers returned home beating their breasts, a sign of repentance. Finally, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin responsible for bringing Jesus before Pilate, asks to have the body of Jesus removed and placed in a tomb that Joseph has available. And, of course, it is only in Luke that Jesus extends salvation to the criminal executed with him and who asks the Father to forgive those who crucified him for they did not know what they were doing. For Luke, the moment of Jesus' death is a moment of repentance, healing, forgiveness, and grace.
But maybe it is not the details of the various gospels that matter. This story in all its versions can help us face all the other stories that come our way, all those other terrible narratives of loss, pain, and grief both personal and communal. And so across the globe, we gather as a community of disciples to listen one more time to this story.
May it give us courage, calm, conviction, and confidence in the one who sent Jesus, in the one who continues to draw us close through Jesus, in the one who sends the Spirit that Jesus handed over. May it bring us closer to the Father who did not abandon Jesus and who will not abandon us.
There is a Hasidic story of an old and wise rabbi to whom leaders of his town came one day and said that a great evil was about to befall the town and could the rabbi help them. The old rabbi went outside the town to a sacred spot in the woods where he lit a fire and said a special prayer, and behold, the town was spared.
A generation later, the town was again in peril, and the people came to the new rabbi and beseeched him to help. He knew about the fire and he knew the prayer, but he did not know the sacred spot. So he lit a fire and said the prayer, and it was enough to save the town.
Then another generation later, people in the same locale came to their rabbi and pleaded with him to help spare their town from a new threat. Well, this new rabbi did not know the place and did not know about the fire, and he did not even know the words of the prayer. But he knew the story and thought maybe if he told it, that would be enough to save the town. And it was.
Well, we don't know the sacred spot where his body was hung on the cross. And we don't know the prayer that those at the foot of the cross may have said. But we do know the story. It will not be the details that save us. However, maybe if we read the story once more, thoughtfully and prayerfully, maybe it will be enough to save us.