Greater Love

“He who dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me” (Matt 26:21).
 
The betrayal of Jesus by Judas is an inside job, inflicted not by an enemy but by an intimate friend, one who has been part of the inner circle gathered around the common dish.  In Middle Eastern culture, sharing a meal with someone meant you were welcome inside the “nasal bubble” of shared food and conversation at the most personal level. No wonder the scribes and Pharisees were so outraged that Jesus “ate with sinners.”
 
The case against Judas is amplified in each Gospel, and it must have been one of the most shocking aspects of the Passion accounts. Jesus is handed over by one of his own chosen ones, a disciple who dared identify him in the garden with a familiar kiss.
 
The story is also the fulfillment of Psalm 41:9 “Even my friend in whom I trusted, one who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me.”  The 30 pieces of silver, the amount paid for someone with a price on his head, is also linked to Zechariah’s instructions for a Potter’s field where the indigent and could be buried.
 
These scripture passages show how the evangelists sought to understand this betrayal, to say it must have been foretold and therefore necessary to Jesus’ sufferings. In any conceivable narrative, betrayal by a friend would be the deepest wound of all. Someone you love hands you over to death. Someone you have been so close to you that you could take a piece of bread, dip it in the dish and hand it to them.
 
If the mysterious role of human suffering was essential to Jesus’ full immersion into the human condition, as it is for us all, then his suffering encompassed the deepest kind of emotional and psychological assault possible. He was betrayed by a friend.  He is denied and abandoned by his closest disciples. He is rejected by his own people, his own faith community as a heretic. He is treated like a criminal by the state and executed unjustly. 
 
The body of Jesus that was placed in the tomb on Good Friday had endured every kind of suffering imaginable. There is no one who can say Jesus would not understand their agony or isolation. It from this absolute depth of loss that the resurrection will be wrenched as the ultimate sign that love defeats death and that divine mercy is greater than any evil. 
 
We who share intimately with Jesus at every Eucharist can only rejoice that we have such a friend and brother, who did not spare his life but gave himself up for us all.  His gift is our Easter.
 

Success Through Failure

“Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; though you will follow later” (John 13:36).
 
Human betrayal is one of life’s most devastating experiences, for both the victim and the betrayer. It reveals just how weak we really are, especially in a crisis. A victim can recover and move on, but to abandon a friend or fail to keep a promise for lack of courage will stay with the one who betrays until they find a way to make amends, if this is even possible.
 
Judas hangs himself in despair when he realizes what he has done. Peter weeps bitterly and will recover only by reliving his triple denial in a heart-rending encounter with the risen Jesus.  All of disciples will in some form or other experience a profound conversion before they are confirmed as Apostles.
 
Isn’t this part of the story, a necessary failure that prepares Peter and the Apostles to preach the gospel of mercy? What they proclaim to others they must first experience themselves. As God forgives them, so they will preach that same forgiveness to others.  Even the worst sin – to deny a friend, to abandon your post in a moment of cowardice – finds forgiveness.
 
Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “One of you will betray me,” probe all our hearts. Like Peter, we think it can never happen to us, yet it does.  Peter is so determined to follow, yet Jesus tells him that he cannot follow now.  Jesus must first open the way to divine mercy by his death on the cross. After that, we will also be invited to walk the same road he walked.  This is the meaning of our discipleship.
 
Holy Week takes us deeper and deeper into the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  The most difficult part may be our need to confront our own betrayals, sins and failures, yet this is how we will understand God’s saving mercy.  Let us go forward, confident that God is showing us in Jesus the path to Glory.

Love Unto Death

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:9).
 
After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus retires to nearby Bethany for a celebration at the home of Martha, Mary and their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
 
The mood of this victory dinner is pierced by Mary’s act of anointing the feet of Jesus with a very costly liter of aromatic nard, It is a burial rite, and the disciples are shocked. Judas criticizes Mary for an extravagant waste that could have been spent on feeding the poor.
 
Jesus knows that Mary alone understands that he is about to die. He utters the famous line, “You will always have the poor with you,” an indictment of the world’s neglect of those in most need.  The very source of God's compassion is now in their midst, and they do not recognize him. The disciples are about to lose him, and they still do not grasp what Jesus is about to accomplish on their behalf.
 
Mary’s passionate show of love for Jesus was to wash his feet. In Chapter 13 of John's Gospel we will see this gesture again. Her gift to Jesus will be his final gift to his disciples.  Only after his death will  they begin to understand the depth of his love for them.
 

Entering Jerusalem

“He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matt 27:33).
 
Matthew sets the stage for Holy Week with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But to reveal the ‘Messianic secret” of Jesus’ glory through suffering, Matthew loads both this account and the longer Passion reading with irony and paradox.
 
In a parody of the entry of conquering generals astride white stallions, Jesus enters the city on an ass. Because Matthew writes for a predominantly Jewish audience, this and subsequent details of the Passion will resonate repeatedly with the words of Isaiah, other prophets and the psalms. Everything that happens to Jesus will fulfill the Scriptures.
 
The Passion we read today is rich in details, beginning with Jesus’ agony in the garden, his betrayal by Judas, the flight of the disciples and the triple denial of Peter. Condemned and abused by the Sanhedrin, Jesus is sent to Pilate, who, despite his doubts, frees Barabbas and hands Jesus over to be flogged, mocked and crucified.
 
The same crowd that deliriously welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday now jeers at him as he carries his cross to Golgotha. The chief priests, scribes and Pharisees, with blind accuracy, scoff at Jesus for saving others but not saving himself. Jesus instead “empties himself” for our sake, taking upon himself the sins of the world.
 
Only the women remain faithful, and they alone keep watch during the dark interval after Jesus’ death and burial. From their grief will rise up the first glimmer of faith on Easter morning. Even then, the chosen Twelve, in hiding, will be slow to understand what has happened.
 
Palm/Passion Sunday is unique in that all of us assembled to mark the start of Holy Week will be invited to share in the dramatic reading of the Passion.  As participants, we are challenged to cross the threshold of faith to accept the pattern of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in our lives. Only by uniting ourselves, mind, heart, soul and strength with Jesus, will we begin to be true discipleship. The memory of Jesus’ passion is a living call to follow him in our own time, whatever the cost.
 
We do not lack irony and paradox today, as the world’s great powers stand poised once again in confrontation, ready to escalate military action as a first option. Jesus’ words, “Put up your sword,” are a reminder that violence leads to violence and has never really resolved any conflict without enormous destruction and the loss of innocent life.  
 
We commemorate the Passion of Jesus in order to take up his redemptive mission in our own time and place.  He revealed God’s way of drawing history toward the beloved community of justice and love. This is how we will enter into that difficult process, but it is the only road to Easter,
 

"Are You With Me?"

“They tried to arrest him; but he escaped from their power” (John 10:39).
 
The forces aligning against Jesus are closing in on him.
 
He has aroused the attention of the Romans because of his popularity. King Herod is haunted by John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, and he sees Jesus as his reincarnation. The chief priests fear his stirring up of the poor as a threat to their control. The scribes and Pharisees are building a case against Jesus for blasphemy.
 
With each confrontation, the tensions rise and a decision is reached that he is threatening the intricate balance of power that holds Jerusalem in balance. He needs to be taken down.
 
Jesus himself is on mission and forges ahead to complete his Father’s will. Like Jeremiah, he knows his hour is coming and that even his friends are unsure of him:  “All those who were my friends are on watch for any misstep of mine.”  The air is filled with whispering.
 
His enemies are set against him and everything he says. The only thing left is what he is doing. His deeds reveal the work of God. Jesus is perfectly aligned with his Father, doing only what he sees the Father doing, saying only what he hears the Father saying. If this is not enough, no further witness will convince them.
 
John the Evangelist tells the story of Jesus but is also describing the struggle for faith for the church two to three generations after the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As the faith is attacked from without and undermined by doubt from within, will the church hold? 
 
Lent ends this Sunday with the celebration of the Palms and the reading of the Passion.  We, too, have been brought to the moment of decision whether we will continue with Jesus into Holy Week. Do we believe in him? Do we trust him? Is he who he claimed to be?   The reading of the Passion will invite us to enter the scorn of the crowds, the fear of the disciples, the rejection of the leaders and the tears of the women.
 
There is no turning back. “Who do you say that I am?”
 

The Secret Revealed

“Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be I AM” (John 8:58).

The confrontation between Jesus and his religious critics culminates in his claim to be so intimately identified with God that he transcends history and existed before Abraham.
 
It is an astonishing claim, and his opponents reach for stones to execute him for blasphemy.
 
As we approach Palm/Passion Sunday and the start of Holy Week, we are also brought to the culminating claim of the Christian faith. If Jesus is only a human being, we can admire him; If he is God, we must obey and follow him. 
 
The divinity of Jesus, together with his full humanity, is also the focus of our quest to understand ourselves before God. Just who are we? We are created in the image and likeness of God, enabled by our baptism to enter with Jesus into the life of the Trinity.   
 
The Gospel of divine life, the heart of the Good News, has been called Christianity’s best kept secret. It so surpasses the promise of religion to take good people to heaven after death, it almost seems like blasphemy. Yet, because of Jesus, we will share the inner life of God as adopted children of God. 
 
This astonishing truth reveals the purpose of the Incarnation: Jesus took on our human nature and experience, including temptation, suffering and death, in order to transform it.  He became human in all things except sin in order to perfect our nature. He revealed what St. Irenaeus later proclaimed, that "a human being fully alive is the glory of God!" 
 
 Jesus healed our estrangement from God that brought death to all through Adam and Eve. He rescued us not as a divine hero from without, but from within as our human brother. Jesus is our bridge to God, offering us his own intimate relationship with God.
 
This is the gift of divine mercy, poured out on saints and sinners alike.  To believe this is to enter the mystery of Easter. Let the Spirit testify: “Alleluia!”
 

The Truth Will Set You Free

“If you remain in my word. You will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 11:15).
 
In today’s gospel selection, the evangelist John takes up a question that St. Paul explores thoroughly in his Letter to the Romans. Those who place their confidence in the Law continue to be subject to its power, while those who put their faith in Jesus experience the liberating power of grace.  The Law has the curious effect of defining what is right and wrong, making us accountable while also enticing us, since what is forbidden becomes even more desirable.
 
The scribes and Pharisees know the Law of Moses, but Jesus tells them they are still not fully children of Abraham, whose righteousness depends not on the Law, which had not yeat been revealed, but on his trust in God’s promises.
 
This theological exchange in John’s Gospel focuses us away from religion as such and on a love relationship. It is because we are united in love with Jesus and incorporated into his body by baptism that we share in his life. We are set free from fear and servitude, obsession with rules and rituals that reassure us we are pleasing to God. 
 
To be with Jesus is to share in the Father’s love for him. God sees us and says, “You are my beloved child.” Even in our daily failures and weaknesses, God’s mercy is never withdrawn. We are God’s family, brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another. We walk confidently and freely through life, trusting that God is always there.
 
This freedom of the children of God is why we can live fully, even take risks in loving others, going with the flow of the Spirit, discerning  each day and, even if we fail, going forward with joy.
 
Our Lenten journey serves to free us from fear and anxiety, so that when we encounter the inevitable challenges of life, we will not lose hope or stop trusting that God is present in every experience, supporting and comforting us especially when life is difficult or disappointing.
 
This is the joy of the Gospel, and it never ceases to be the Good News that defines us and keeps us moving forward in Christ. This is the truth that sets us free.

God So Loved the World ...

“When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM” (John 8:28).

In this passage from the fourth Gospel, the latest and most theological of the four Gospels, the author again identifies Jesus as I AM, the name for God given to Moses from the burning bush.
 
The phrasing, “When you lift up the Son of Man” also links to two other scriptures, The first is today’s first reading from Numbers 21:4-9, the account of the attack of saraph serpents in the desert on the people, and Moses’ instruction that a bronze serpent be lifted up so that anyone who looks at it can be healed.
 
The other reference is to the “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel. A mysterious figure who is both human and a divine figure will come on the clouds on the day of judgment. This is one of the few titles Jesus accepts, calling himself the ultimate representative of humanity before God. the "Son of Man."
 
So, in a confrontation with the Pharisees, the Gospel witnesses to Jesus as this human-divine figure God has sent to save the world. What is so astonishing about this claim is that the redemptive act that will reveal God’s love for a sinful world is when the Son of Man is “lifted up,” a reference to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
 
Jesus’ moment of glory will be his death on the cross. Those who can see (believe) will grasp that what appears to be a curse is in fact a blessing. By his death we are given life. By his suffering we are set free of sin, our exodus from slavery to freedom.  Jesus will lay down his life so that we, his brothers and sisters, might be lifted up by his resurrection..
 
This is the Gospel of Mercy, God’s unconditional love revealed in Jesus. It is pure gift to anyone who opens his or her heart to the ineffable mystery of God, who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Our long Lenten journey brings us to this single act of faith, and on it hangs eternity. Someone is about to lay down his life for love of you and me. How can we not respond?  Good Friday is about to reveal Easter Sunday.
 

Mercy and Justice Embrace

“Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her” (John 8:8).

To interest my high school students into opening their Bibles, I used to give out a list of required readings, but added a second list they were not supposed to read.  Needless to say, all of them found and read the story of Susanna in the garden.
 
This dramatic and lurid account of the lustful judges who surprised a naked woman in her bath and demanded sex with her was so well known that the evangelist John created a somewhat parallel story about Jesus, whose wisdom, like that of the boy Daniel, saves a woman accused of adultery from death.
 
Daniel cross-examines the evil judges and trips them up. Jesus shames the woman’s accusers by catching them in their own self-righteous trap.
 
Both scenes, like all lynchings, are lust-driven. The scribes and Pharisees, who just happened to be there when the woman and her lover were having sex, catch her, not him, and drag her before Jesus and a large gathering of men (only men could stone someone). If he lets her go, he breaks the Law of Moses; if he assents to her execution, his message of mercy and forgiveness is destroyed in the eyes of the people.
 
Jesus does neither, but instead puts the dilemma to the accusers. Stone this women, but only if you are yourself without sin.  Blood lust drains from the crowd as each man considers his own faults, and, beginning with the eldest, they slip away in shame. 
 
Two women are saved, Susannah and the unnamed woman before Jesus. But there is a difference.  One was innocent, while the other, together with her paramour, were not.  Adultery is no small matter.  Yet Jesus sends her away with only a warning, not condemnation, knowing the suffering and humiliation she has already suffered.   Such is the real price of sin, which unleashes chaos into our lives. 
 
Justice is there, but so is overwhelming mercy and compassion. This is the joy of the Gospel. How blessed we are to have Jesus watching over us, sinners every one.    
 

Lazarus, Come Out!

“Let us also go to die with him” (John 11:15).

The story of the raising of Lazarus, a favorite Gospel for many funerals, adds another spectacular “sign” to the identity of Jesus, who tells Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” 
 
It is in fact a miracle of resuscitation that restores Lazarus to his former life, but it prepares us for the glory of Jesus’ resurrection, a total transformation that breaks through the barriers of time and space and opens human destiny to eternal life in God.
 
The story has many moving touches.  We are told that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Despite this, Jesus delays going to Lazarus until after his physical death in order to highlight the divine sign behind the temporary restoration of human life.  The disciple Thomas (the "doubter") gets it right when he says, “Let us also go with him to die.” What Jesus will endure on the cross every disciple will also endure.
 
When Jesus comes to the tomb with Mary and witnesses the grief of everyone gathered there, he himself breaks down and weeps.  The Greek word that describes Jesus’ response conveys the idea of gut-wrenching anguish. Lazarus was his friend, someone he loved, and his death moves Jesus profoundly.
 
Some funerals try to gloss over the death of a beloved person with spiritual imagery or theological happy talk about that person being in heaven (playing golf or smiling down on everyone). Faith in resurrection is wrenched out of the deepest grief we can know, forged into a desperate prayer to God to bring us though this loss and sorrow to a deeper understanding of the mystery of death. Only if we let our hearts be broken by the reality of death can we penetrate the mystery of the resurrection that affirms Love's power over real death and separation. 
 
Jesus experienced this grief, and he did not side-step the reality of death because he was God’s beloved Son.  He emptied himself of blood and breath on the cross to accomplish his mission to claim for God the full human experience, from birth to death.  Because of this, all of human experience, including grief, is holy, meaningful and redemptive.  
 
Jesus issues three commands at the tomb of Lazarus that apply to us. “Take away the stone.”  “Lazarus, come out!”  “Untie him and let him go free.”
 
Faith enables us to hear his voice as it clears the path for our journey to Holy Week, calls by name, invites us to follow him through death to life. We are told  to let go of any obstacles that prevent us from freely believing and then proclaiming Easter with joy. 
 
 

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