PALM SUNDAY, March 27, 2021
ISAIAH 50:4-7 PHILIPPIANS 2:6-11 MARK 14:1—15:47
Many years ago, while I was in graduate school, I read the writings of Egeria, a 4th century Spanish nun. She kept a diary during a long pilgrimage she made to the Holy Land that she intended to share with her sisters when she returned home. Her description of the events that took place in Jerusalem during Holy Week are fascinating.
She speaks of various Church rituals celebrated throughout the city, but more importantly, she describes the movement of the congregation from one “station” to another throughout the week.
Egeria’s diary is my inspiration for the Holy Week stations that follow. I’m going to stop to reflect at seven stations, one every day of Holy Week. I invite you to read the scripture texts for the day as the basis of your personal meditation. Put yourself into the scene. Allow yourself to feel whatever the scene evokes in you; let the feeling lead you to a personal prayer.
THE FIRST STATION: Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusa- It was such a powerful event that we can still hear Jelem as the crowd cheers and lays palm branches along sus shouting out, “Lazarus! Come out!” There’s a large the road. (Matthew 21:1-11) (Additional scriptures for crowd gathered around the house. They’re here to see Palm Sunday Mass: Isaiah 50:6, Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus, but they also want to see Lazarus.
THE FIRST STATION: Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the crowd cheers and lays palm branches along the road. (Matthew 21:1-11) (Additional scriptures for Palm Sunday Mass: Isaiah 50:6, Philippians 2:6-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66)
We’ve gathered at Bethpage, a small town on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem where Jesus has been waiting. It’s a time of great caution. The religious leaders are looking for an opportunity to arrest him. He had made an arrangement with a secret disciple in the town to purchase a donkey for him. He waits here while two of his disciples bring the donkey to him. He mounts it and begins his slow ride into Jerusalem. “This happened so that what had been spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled.” “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (Zechariah 9:9)
As we follow him, note that the crowd along the road is growing. Passover is near so the city is jammed with pilgrims. Spontaneously they’re throwing palm branches onto the roadway – a kind of VIP carpet.
They begin shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blest is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They’re welcoming him with a Messianic acclamation. They’re treating him like a military hero, but he’s anything but that. He’s riding a donkey, not a decorated chariot. This Messiah isn’t a political figure nor a military figure. This Messiah is Isaiah’s suffering servant. By his wounds we will all be healed. He doesn’t silence the crowd knowing full well the consequences of his decision.
THE SECOND STATION: Monday. Six days before the Feast of Passover Jesus is anointed in Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus whom he raised from the dead. (Isaiah 42:1-7, Psalm 27, John 12:1-1)
We’re in Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem, at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They’re Jesus’ family away from home. A short while ago Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. We can see the tomb where he had been buried from the dining room. It was such a powerful event that we can still hear Jesus shouting out, “Lazarus! Come out!” There’s a large crowd gathered around the house. They’re here to see Jesus, but they also want to see Lazarus. Many people are here for dinner, friends of the family and Jesus’ apostles. They’re reclining around a large central table. Everything looks quite festive but it’s tense inside the house. The chief priests are looking for an excuse to arrest Lazarus, also, because many people have come to believe in Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is reclining at table. Martha is serving the meal. Mary has just entered the room. She’s carrying “a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard.” She pours the oil over the feet of Jesus and wipes it with her hair. A beautiful verse from the Song of Songs gives her action a deeply spiritual meaning. “While the King was at his table my perfume spread its fragrance. My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” Mary is anointing Jesus as kings and High Priests are anointed. The fragrance of his anointing clings to her hair. But Martha and Lazarus are part of
this scene, too.
There’s a mystical understanding of the Church in this scene we’re watching. Martha is the Church, the ministering servant. Lazarus is the Church reborn sitting at the heavenly table. Mary is the Church sanctifying the world with the fragrance of the King of love.
Suddenly, Judas protests claiming that the money spent on this expensive oil should have been given to the poor. Jesus turns toward him looking straight into his eyes. “Let her keep this for the day of my burial.”
THE THIRD STATION: Tuesday. Jesus reveals his betrayer. (Isaiah 49;1-6, John: 13:21-33, 36-38)
We’re in Jerusalem in an upper room that has been rented for Jesus and his closest disciples to celebrate the Passover. We stop and focus on a jarring moment. As the meal progresses Jesus is becoming deeply troubled. He suddenly stops the conversation at the table with a shocking proclamation. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Everyone turns in their place to look at him but Jesus doesn’t say anything else. The conversation picks up again but in hushed tones. Peter motions across the table to John who was lying next to Jesus. He leans back. “Master, who is it?” He receives a whispered response: “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.” He dips a piece of unleavened bread and hands it to Judas.
“As Judas took the morsel Satan entered him. So, Judas took the morsel, and left at once. And it was night.”
As soon as Judas walks out into the night, the anxiety that was permeating the room seems to leave with him. Jesus takes a deep breath and slowly looks at each individual around the table. “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” Peter, James and John glance at each other. Will Jesus manifest his glory again as he recently did on the mountaintop? No. Something’s different here. Then, whispering his last words to them, Jesus continues: “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. You will look for me…but where I go you cannot come.” For a few moments silence overtakes the room.
Peter’s voice suddenly pierces the stillness. “Master, why can I not follow you? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus’ response clutches every heart in the room. “Will you lay down your life for me? Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow before you deny me three times.”
Peter, you will follow me. You will lay down your life for me. But you’re not ready yet. The King himself must show you the way.
THE FOURTH STATION: Wednesday. Judas betrays Jesus. (Isaiah 50:4-9a, Matthew 26:14-25) We’ve walked across the city to the residence of Caiaphas the High Priest. He’s meeting with the Sanhedrin, the council of chief priests and prominent Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. They’re worried. The crowds have been rallying around Jesus. There’s
bound to be a revolt and this liberal upstart from Galilee will surely be leading it. The Roman military will come in again to squelch it. Many will die, and the little autonomy the nation enjoys will be lost. A servant enters the room and whispers a message to the High Priest. Caiaphas stands and turns toward the door. Everyone looks around. Judas enters.
He takes note of the people in the room, then looks at Caiaphas. “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”
Will we ever know what was going through Judas’ mind? What led him to this? Did he feel that Jesus was a failure because he chose a spiritual path rather than a political one? Was it jealousy because Jesus seemed to be grooming Peter, James and John as his leaders? Was he expecting a place of honor in the new kingdom? We can only conjecture.
“They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.”
This moment was prefigured long ago in the story of Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons. (Genesis 37:1-36) His brothers, jealous of him, sold him to Ishmaelite traders for twenty pieces of silver. The traders took him to Egypt where they sold him to a representative of the Egyptian court. There Joseph, through his cunning and wisdom, rose in power and influence. When a great drought struck the Middle East Jacob, his sons, and their families migrated to Egypt in search of food.
Despite what they did to him, Joseph never stopped loving his brothers. He forgave them and welcomed them. Jacob and his entire family settled in Egypt. They grew in number and became prosperous.
Judas handed Jesus over to the religious authorities knowing it would seal his death. Little did he know that Jesus’ death would model a new way of living, a way that would change the world.
THE FIFTH STATION: Thursday, Jesus celebrates his last supper with his closest disciples. (Exodus 12:18, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-15)
“Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)
We’re in the upper room, a rented space where Jesus is sharing what will be his last meal. Judas Iscariot has just left the gathering. Jesus is reclining with his closest and dearest friends, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew the tax collector, Thomas, James, Simon the member of the Zealot party, and Judas the son of James.
Look at his face as he gazes around the table. In spite of knowing each one’s short-comings, his love for each of them is clearly visible. He knows that in a few hours every one of them is going to abandon him, but that can’t destroy the love he has for each of them.
He gets up from the table and leaves the room for a
moment. Returning with a towel wrapped around his waist and carrying a bowl and pitcher he begins, one by one, to wash their feet.
Look at their faces. They’re shocked. He’s acting like a house slave! Peter objects loudly. Jesus puts down the pitcher and bowl. Everyone is looking at him. There’s tremendous kindness in his voice as he begins to speak to them.
“What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later…unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me…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, your master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example to follow, so that what I have done for you, you should also do.” They’re silent. He moves from one to the next washing their feet and drying them with the towel.
Returning to his place he teaches them at length. He becomes solemn as he declares a new commandment. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Look at them. They’re listening but they don’t understand the depth of his teaching. His words touch their ears but can’t penetrate their hearts right now. They must first suffer his passion with him. Let’s leave the room now to ponder his last teaching. Tomorrow we gather at Golgotha.
THE SIXTH STATION: Friday, the sacrifice of the Lamb. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42)
We’re standing within the walls of Jerusalem near the temple precincts. It’s the preparation day for the Passover; it begins at sundown. Jerusalem is crowed and noisy. Venders are selling lambs to the pilgrims for the obligatory sacrifice in the temple. Tens of thousands will be slaughtered today. One by one their blood will be collected and poured on the altar.
While the temple ritual continues throughout the day Jesus is held under arrest. He had been taken from the High Priest’s chambers, where the Sanhedrin condemned him, to the residence of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea. Buckling under pressure from the religious leaders, and fearing that a riot might break out, Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified.
We walk north about 300 meters outside the walls where we come to an open space surrounded by a rocky formation. The people have named the place Golgotha, the Aramaic word for cranium or skull because of the shape of the field. The main trade road runs by this spot. That’s why it’s chosen for public executions. The crucified were meant to be a deterrent against possible rebellion.
Jesus hangs from the cross here. His arms are wide and spread open – but not because of the nails that se
cure them. His arms are open to welcome everyone and anyone. Look at him. Remember what he said to his disciples. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened. I will give your rest.” Listen to what he just said from the cross! “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
Let’s look at the cross and pray Saint Paul’s prayer. “For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nothing already in existence, and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, manifested to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
THE SEVENTH STATION: Saturday, we hope. We wait for the sunrise. (Acts 10:34a, 37-43, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-9)
We’ve at a garden a short distance from Golgotha. Yesterday, soon after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, came out of hiding to petition Pilate for the body of Jesus so that he could give him a proper burial. Another secret disciple, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, brought myrrh and aloes for the burial. He and Joseph carry the body to the garden.
In the garden there’s a new tomb. It looks like any other countryside tomb, a small chamber carved in the rock. They place his body on a low shelf inside. Then they push a stone over the opening to seal it.
It’s so quiet here. The night breeze is cool. Listen to the insects speaking in the darkness. The full moon is setting but we can still see the tomb. Let’s conclude our vigil at the tomb by reading the description of Jesus burial from the Gospel of John.
“They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to Jewish burial custom. Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day, for the tomb was close by.”
No one has ever been buried in this tomb. This is a NEW tomb. Saint Paul, the great teacher, looked at this tomb and understood its meaning. He looked at the tomb and then wrote this: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”
As we await the sunrise of a new day let’s look at his tomb – a NEW tomb – our tomb.
A NEW STATION – A NEW WEEK – A NEW WORLD: Sunday, the sun is rising over the garden tomb. (Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24 1-12, John 20;1-18) Wherever you are. Whatever you may be experiencing. Look into the empty tomb. DO NOT BE AFRAID! He is with us, the resurrected Christ.
- Published in Church Reflections
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT, March 20, 2021
JEREMIAH 31:31-34 HEBREWS 5:7-9 JOHN 12:20-33
Holy Week is still a week away but we can already feel the darkness closing in on Jesus. The gospel passage we’ve read today tells us that, as Passover was drawing near, Jerusalem was filling up with pilgrims. Some were Jews of Greek origin. They were probably converts. They had heard about Jesus, the teacher, the healer, the exorcist. He was the talk of the town. While some people believed he might be the Messiah, others considered him a religious radical and feared he might incite a rebellion.
Some Greeks asked to see Jesus. Philip consulted with Andrew and the two introduced them to Jesus who had no time for polite chit-chat. He immediately brought them into his reality. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What a powerful statement! Was he announcing that he was the Messiah, and that Israel’s long-awaited Golden Age was about to begin? He continued.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies it
produces much fruit.” “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Not a very upbeat message! They didn’t know what to make of it. But suddenly, they all heard it: a voice as loud as thunder came from the sky. It spoke of glory.
He ended the “conversation” with a prophecy. “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
These words Jesus spoke to the Greeks are spoken to us today. In a few days we’ll enter Jesus’ darkest hour. We’ll see him lifted up. We’ll witness his death. We’ll kneel in silent awe hoping for the grain to sprout. Where do we go from here….
Lord Jesus, you told us: “The light will be among you only a little while. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overcome you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light.” Lord, help us to believe. Help us become children of the light.
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FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT, March 14, 2021
THE MAN WHO VISITED JESUS AT NIGHT
2 CHRONICLES 36:14-16, 19-23 EPHESIANS 2:4-10 JOHN 3:14-21
Today we listen very closely to a teaching Jesus gave to a clandestine follower. This is how John introduced him in his gospel. “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night.” First of all, he was a Pharisee.
The Pharisees took an oath to follow every letter of the Law – and they did. It was a 24/7 life commitment. The word Pharisee means “separated one.” They separated themselves from ordinary life and ordinary people in order to carry out every precept of the law. The Pharisees were the epitome of orthodoxy.
Second, Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews.” He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the court of 70 members that had ultimate jurisdiction over all Jews. It was at the Sanhedrin’s debate about how to deal with Jesus that Nicodemus argued that Jesus should be brought in to defend himself before they
formed any judgment about him.
He was attracted to Jesus and his message but had many questions. He couldn’t ask them when Jesus was publicly teaching because of his sensitive position. Opposition to Jesus was growing among the members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus needed to keep his opinion of Jesus private, and so he came to speak with Jesus under the cover of darkness. What we read in the gospel passage today is a portion of what Jesus shared with Nicodemus.
Jesus revealed the meaning of his death. He linked the image of the cross to the redemptive image of the bronze serpent. The book of Numbers records an incident when the Israelites had lost their trust in God and turned on Moses. “Why have you brought us up from the land of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food.”
God freed them from the slavery of Egypt, protected them from enemy tribes and fed them with manna every day, but still, they lost their faith in God. As a punishment God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. Many people died from their bites. But at the pleading of Moses God relented from the punishment. He instructed Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole and to lift it up for the people to see. Everyone who looked at the image was healed.
By connecting this image to his crucifixion Jesus was teaching that his death would be redemptive. Looking at him crucified, opening our hearts to him and believing in him is the source of eternal life. Jesus went deeper into the teaching.
In the desert the people despaired because they had forgotten how much God loved them. Continuing to explain the meaning of his crucifixion Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but might have eternal life.”
Nicodemus, the ultra-orthodox Pharisee who thought he would win God’s love by following every precept of the Law, was confronted by the reality of God’s love. God wasn’t waiting for an opportunity to punish him. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God, the Eternal One, doesn’t want to condemn anyone. God wants to share his life – Eternal Life.
I’ll leave you with an image from our liturgy. When I walk around the altar to incense it at Mass I stop at the center of the altar, bow, and incense the golden crucifix mounted high on a golden pole. I listen to his words as I watch the smoke rise to the cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
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THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT, March 7, 2021
JESUS CLEANSES THE TEMPLE
EXODUS 20:1-17 1 CORINTHIANS 1:22-25 JOHN 2:13-25
Let’s begin today’s reflection by putting the account of the cleansing of the temple into context.
It was Passover time. Jewish law obliged every adult male who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem to attend the feast, so Jerusalem was jammed. In addition to the population around Jerusalem Jewish pilgrims flooded in from the entire empire. An ancient historian wrote that Jerusalem could see as many as two million pilgrims during Passover!
During the festival it was common for individuals to sacrifice animals for the atonement of their sins or for a variety of intentions. These animals had to be approved for purity before the priests would accept them for sacrifice. There was a hefty fee for this approval. Passover was also an opportunity for pilgrims to pay the obligatory temple tax. Secular currency wasn’t permitted in the temple, so all currency had to be changed to the approved temple shekel. Of course, a fee was tacked on to the exchange.
Where was all this happening?
The temple was divided into sections: the court of the Gentiles, the court of the women, the court of the Israelites, the court of the priests and, in the interior of the temple, the Holy of Holies. The activity the gospel describes, people coming and going, buying and selling, haggling over fees, and the ruckus of the animals, took place in the court of the Gentiles. This was the only place where non-Jews were permitted to pray. It was being desecrated and de facto excluded Gentiles from the temple.
What’s the meaning of this event?
Don’t you find it interesting that no one
stopped Jesus when he began knocking over the tables and driving out the money changers. We’re told that his disciples immediately thought of a prophetic verse from Psalm 69:9-10: “I have become an outcast to my kin, a stranger to my mother’s children. Because zeal for your house consumes me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” The religious leaders were aware of this and other prophecies that said the Messiah would reveal himself by entering the temple and purifying it. Evidently Jesus made just enough trouble to catch their attention. They immediately asked him by what authority he did this: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” They wanted to see a miracle or some powerful event to back up his prophetic actions.
What sign did Jesus show the religious leaders?
He didn’t show them anything…yet. Instead he made a prophecy. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” At that time the temple was still under construction and had been so for forty-six years. Jesus was referring to the temple of his body; they understood him literally and mocked him for his answer. The evangelist notes that his disciples remembered this statement after he was raised from the dead.
How did the incident end?
Everybody began watching Jesus. Some were impressed with the signs (miracles) he worked and believed in him. Others, like the religious leaders, began to scrutinize his every word and action. The account ends with a comment. “Jesus would not trust himself to any of them because he knew them all and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself knew it well.”
What are some thoughts we can glean from this account of the cleansing of the temple?
First, his actions were a declaration that he was the Messiah. The new time had arrived and the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled.
Second, by cleansing the court of the Gentiles Jesus was opening the doors of the kingdom to everyone. He fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 51:9)
Third, he was announcing a new time – a new world. As he would tell the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
What does this incident have to do with our Lenten journey?
Jesus’ actions in the temple remind us that we must be open to all people of good faith – people who are searching for God. Our preaching must be that of Jesus. There’s a place for everyone in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ arms are open, and so should ours be. If there are attitudes or prejudices that make us unwelcoming they need to be cleansed from our hearts. Lent is the perfect time to take a personal inventory of our attitudes towards others.
Christianity is perhaps the most challenging of all religions when it comes to acceptance. St. Paul stressed this to the people of Galatia: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
As Christians, Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, we’ve barely paid lip service to this most basic of Christian principles. Instead, we herald what separates us. I’m Catholic. I’m Greek Orthodox. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Church of Christ. We even use what’s most sacred to us, the Holy Eucharist, as a wedge between us. It’s not so easy to change a Church but each of us can change our hearts. If enough hearts change, the Churches will change.
The cleansing of the temple is a powerful Lenten image. It’s a call to cleanse our hearts, to use the love in our hearts to welcome and embrace, to heal and unite. It’s a call for us to become the new temple – the body of Christ.
- Published in Church Reflections