Sunday 24th March 2013 – Passion (Palm) Sunday

Palm Sunday. Year C Lectio divina on Lk 22,14-23,56

It is a pity that we are so familiar with the account of the passion that it no longer evokes surprise or compunction. The death of Jesus on the cross is the tangible proof of the love God has for us. We should remember, however, that it was also a test of the fidelity of the first disciples, and they failed that test. They faced the challenge, for they could not avoid it. But they were unable to stay with Jesus to the end. We, on the other hand, read the passion account as the story of something that happened long ago. We fail to see that we are participants in the drama, and that we are the people who benefit from it. It is easy for us to think that we have no part to play in it. We meditate on it as something remote that does not touch our lives. If that is how we see the passion, we will not feel that we are saved by it.

I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

Luke follows an earlier account of the passion and death of Jesus (Mk 14,1-15,47), but adds a little bit of his own (Lk 22,28-30) and some new details (Lk 22,35-38; 23,6-12). In Luke’s account, Jesus seems to have less control over the course of events, but displays precise awareness of what was happening to him, and a greater measure of self-control. He undertook his journey to Jerusalem with great anticipation and used the time to instruct his followers. Jesus knew from the beginning that this was his “exodus” (Lk 9,31). It was an authentic “Via Crucis”, but it would turn out in reality to be a “Via Lucis”, a path to glory (Lk 24,26), the fulfilment of God’s plan foretold by the prophets.

Jerusalem is the place of the drama of the passion and of the Jewish feasts of Passover, during which it unfolds. Satan appears at the beginning of the account (Lk 22,1-6), entering into Judas, the one who was to betray Jesus. This transforms the narrative into one of dramatic combat, the definitive battle between God and his adversaries (Lk 4,13) to decide the salvation of humankind. As soon as the authorities took the decision to kill him, Jesus gave orders for the celebration of the paschal meal. During this farewell meal, Jesus speaks to his disciples about his personal offering (Lk 22,14-23) and teaches them how they are to live later, as servants of one another (Lk 22,14-30). The supper finishes with Jesus’ foretelling his betrayal that was soon to happen (Lk 22,31-38) and with his refusal to defend himself (Lk 22,35-38).

From the intimate setting of the super room with his disciples, Jesus passes to the struggle, face to face, with his God in the garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22,39-46). His way of acting, surrendering to the will of God in his moment of supreme weakness, is an example for his followers. Anyone who wants to overcome temptation must pray as he did (Lk 22,40.46). After the temptation comes the perfect offering: Jesus, betrayed by his friend, offers himself freely to his enemies, and even takes time to heal one of them (Lk 22,51).

Jesus undergoes trial at the hands of his enemies. Luke begins with the repeated denial by Peter, the only disciple who was still following him, and ends with Peter’s act of repentance (Lk 22,54-62). The interrogation of Jesus takes place first before the Sanhedrin (Lk 22,66-71), and then before Pilate (Lk 23,1-7) and Herod (Lk 23,8-12). Jesus shows personal strength and fidelity to his mission. He is the Messiah (Lk 22,67), the Son of God (Lk 22,70), King of the Jews (Lk 23,3). Only before Herod, the one who wanted to know Jesus (Lk 9,7-9), did he keep silent and suffer ill-treatment (Lk 24,9-11). His innocence and his dignity, both human and divine, are seen very clearly.

Luke tries to exonerate Pilate, insisting on the obstinacy of the Jewish authorities who asked him repeatedly to crucify Jesus (Lk 23,13-25). Along the way of the cross, Jesus receives the help of a man from Cyrene and he speaks to the women he meets along the way about his forthcoming ordeal (Lk 23,36-42). The torture of crucifixion is described and none of the dramatic details are spared (Lk 23,33-43). It is seen as the fulfilment of the Scriptures (Lk 23,33-43). Before he dies, Jesus forgives his executioners (Lk 23,34) and saves a criminal (Lk 23,43). In this way, Luke shows the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice, and his Christian readers learn to live and die like Christ. Jesus dies trusting in God (Lk 23,46) and is acknowledged as a just man by his executioners (Lk 23,47). Some women standing “at a distance” are the only witness from among his followers (Lk 23,49). The hurried burial, before the Sabbath began, serves as proof of the death of Jesus (Lk 23,44-56).

In his account of the Passion, Luke gives the impression of trying to achieve historical accuracy and to avoid over-dramatic descriptions. This was in order to adapt to the sensitivities of his readers. His “more objective” account is dominated by three key ideas: Jesus is presented as an innocent martyr, whose supreme obedience to God reveals the merciful love God has for mankind. He did not die because of what he did during his ministry, but rather he had to die because it was the will of God. His faithful servant suffers because God loves so much. His personal sacrifice on the cross is the definitive proof of the supreme mercy of God. A God who loves so much has need of servants who suffer. The disciple becomes a suffering servant by following the way of his Lord. His following of the Lord is tested and proved by his willingness to stay with the Lord, in time of temptation and on the way of the cross, and, if he does not succeed, by his repentance. Only in this way can the disciple make the sacrifice of Jesus efficacious and the love of God evident. Anyone who does not embrace the cross, will not know that he is loved by God, and will not experience the saving value of the cross of Christ.

II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life

If we forget the tragedy that Jesus suffered by his death on the cross, we lose the sense of knowing that we are loved by God to the very end. His death was the hardest proof of his love that he could undergo. It is highly likely that Jesus knew that his public ministry would lead to a bloody and cruel end. He must have foreseen that he would be abandoned by the majority of his followers, and even, in the end, by his disciples. He knew beforehand that Jerusalem would be his place of burial. However, what he did not imagine was that even God would have left him alone in those terrible moments. Few scenes could express, so soberly and yet so dramatically, the loneliness of Jesus in the face of death, as his cry from the cross to the God who had abandoned him. And yet, few of the episodes related in the gospel can claim the same historical certainty. Jesus died on the cross, crying out in loneliness to the God who seemed to have abandoned him. For one who, like Jesus of Nazareth, had had such trust in God, above all and against all, the silence of God must have been the most painful test, and the hardest to understand, of all the horrors that led to his death.

The loneliness of Jesus, abandoned by his followers and by his God, should come as a surprise to us. The cruel mockery of his enemies or the unpardonable betrayal by his disciples cannot be compared to the sense of extreme frustration and even the sense of having been deceived, that led him to cry out from the cross. When friends and enemies talked among themselves, plotting his downfall, and his followers abandoned him, nothing remained to Jesus but his God. And yet, he had to die, crying out to the God who had abandoned him. The scandal this way of dying constituted for his disciples can be sensed from the efforts they made to play down the obvious meaning of his cry of protest, changing the words and the meaning. From a tortured, almost blasphemous, prayer it came to be interpreted as an expression of acceptance of God’s will. Luke tries to present this moment as an act of supreme fidelity on the part of Jesus. Although he shouted out, Jesus did not offer any resistance to doing what God wanted of him. Even though his obedience to God cost him his life, he faced death without denying his God.

With far less reason, we have abandoned God many times. Luke’s account makes us realize that we can be faithful to the God who seems to have abandoned us, that God is worth dying for, and that he only seems to have abandoned us. The journey Christ made is the journey of all Christians. We may count on God’s presence today and count on his absence tomorrow. Maybe we have spoken to him often, but the time may come when he is silent. We may offer our lives to bring the good news to others, and it may mean living a life that is neither good nor new. We may follow the Lord day and night and still find ourselves without a friend, and disenchanted with God. We know well that God does not delay long in coming to the help of his people. With a delay of three days at most, God will appear alive in a spectacular way we had not even hoped for. Our God, the God of Our Lord Jesus Christ, does not allow himself to be outdone in fidelity. Death can be faced without fear of being lost, by those who give up their lives rather than abandon God. This was the test that Jesus passed, and it is the test that we must pass as Christians.

Celebrating the memory of Christ, and him crucified, could and should ¬lead us to remember our long history of repeated betrayal and denial, the frequent covering up of our faith and our many failures of fraternal love. We should realize that our many infidelities as disciples, today as in gospel times, contribute to the death of Jesus much more than the cruelty and the conspiracy of his enemies. However, it would be wrong to satisfy ourselves with acknowledging past faults, if we fail to do what we still have to do. For Peter to regain the Lord’s friendship and trust, It was not enough to weep bitterly when the cock crew. He still had to obey the Lord’s command of the Risen Lord to go to Galilee and see there, alive among the pagans, the one he had denied. Until we recover our mission in life, and transform our whole life into mission, we will not be free of remorse for our acts of betrayal.

The fact that we are still prey to the same weaknesses is not an obstacle. All our dreams and all our disappointments will not free us from the obligation to return to our origins, there where the Lord called us, and where he wants us to be. The capacity of God’s heart to trust us is far greater than the evil that takes root in our hearts. And as long as he wants us to be with him, we must continue to let our lives be converted. We should never cease to marvel that we have such a Lord. It should amaze us that he continues to think of us, friends who betrayed him, in order to bring to a good end what began with our running away and our subsequent negotiations.

We should not forget that the accounts we have of the passion and death of Jesus, were handed on to us by disciples who betrayed him. Their sins were forgiven because they told the story of the Lord’s death, and their betrayal. We can have no better assurance that God will pardon our infidelities, than by proclaiming that God is present on the cross of Christ, God and God alone, true and entire. We will be healed of our sufferings, and recover from our acts of betrayal, insofar as we bear witness that the cross is our salvation. It would be a mistake to pretend that we can build a new relationship with the Master we have denied, by further denying our responsibility for the spread of his gospel. If we fail to make known that God’s love is revealed in the passion and death of Christ, just because it involves revealing our own acts of weakness, it would be an unpardonable act of betrayal. Anyone who has ever contributed by his betrayal to the death of Jesus, will regain his lost dignity only by proclaiming that the Crucified One has returned to life, and that he has accepted the task of bearing witness to him for the whole of his life.

Too often, we have adopted a pious sentimental vision of the passion of Jesus in order to escape from our responsibility to bear witness to the gospel with our lives. Christ did not hold anything against the people who one day abandoned him. Instead, he entrusted to them the task of proclaiming his resurrection. Today it is no different. He counts on us, no matter how much we may have betrayed him. This is our chance: by proclaiming once again the story of the passion of Jesus, we will know that we are still loved and will be loved to the end.