As I have commented before, all the resurrection stories depict the Apostles and other disciples on a “journey” or sorts to understand the resurrection. A completely new reality was breaking into their world and challenging their understanding. Far from depicting the disciples as credulous, the texts describe them as shocked, troubled, and even quite dubious. These were not men and women prone to naivete and concocting stories to assuage their grief. These are stories of men and women who are quite stunned by a new reality and struggling to get their minds around something they do not fully understand.
A beautiful example of a journey to resurrection faith is that of Mary Magdalene who begins her journey on Resurrection with the intention of finalizing burial rituals for the corpse of Jesus, and ends by acknowledging that she has seen “the Lord.” Lets examine her journey and see what it has to teach us about our own.
The Passage in question is John 20. By way of background recall that Mary had gone to the tomb every early “when it was still dark” and found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. She ran and got Peter and John who investigated, and (though John believed) there was no conclusion announced after their investigation. They leave and Mary Magdalene is left at the tomb by herself, at least temporarily (for we know form other Gospels that other women were near at hand). Here is where the text picks up:
Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:10-18)
Mary Magdalene makes a journey in this passage from fear to faith. Here is a very general outline of the passage:
- I. Fearful Fretting – vv. 10-13
- Rhetorical Question – “Why are you Weeping?”
- Rueful Response
- II.Faulty Finding – vv. 14-15
- III. First Faith -
- IV. Flamboyant Felicity – vv. 16-17
- (1) Status quo ante – v. 16
- (2) Summons – v. 17
- V. Fullness of Faith – v. 18
I. Fearful Fretting - Mary Magdalene is looking for a corpse. Should come out to the tomb that morning for one purpose, to finish the prescribed burial customs for Jesus. His body had been hurriedly placed in the tomb on Friday evening for it was almost sundown and the Passover feast was near. Now the Passover and Sabbath were complete, it was time to anoint the body and finish all the usual customs.
On Friday, she had been through immense trauma, seeing her beloved Jesus, her Messiah, brutally tortured and slowly kill through crucifixion. And now, if things could not get worse, they just did. It would seem, according to her, that grave robbers had now broken in and stolen the body. Strangely, they had left the expensive linens behind. But never mind that, things had now gone from complete disaster, to total disaster. Now it would seem that she could not even perform a final kindness for Jesus.
And yet, because of her fearful fretting, Mary is not able to look at the information before her properly. Jesus had promised to rise from the dead, on the third day, and this was the third day. The empty tomb does not signify grave robbers, it manifests resurrection! But in her fear and fretful grief, Mary draws the most negative of conclusions.
And this of course, is our human condition. So many of us, on account of fear, and perhaps past trauma, tend to place the most negative interpretations upon our daily life. We are quick to seize on bad news, and too easily dismiss good news, or barely notice that every day most things go right. Instead we focus on the few things that go wrong. Yes, so easily we are negative and forget that even in painful transitions, as certain doors close, others open. New possibilities often emerge even in painful circumstances.
Mary is about to encounter something astonishingly new. But for now, her grief has locked. The only the most negative of interpretations.
A. Rhetorical Question - There comes to her, from the angels, a kind of rhetorical question: “Why do you weep?” A rhetorical question is really more of a statement, in the form of a question, is meant to provoke thought, and to rebuke or at least to invite reconsideration. The Angels, it would seem, are inviting her to recall that this is the third day, and Jesus promised to rise. Therefore, why would she weep over an empty tomb? Jesus, who had raised others from the dead, cast out blindness, calmed storms and healed lepers, had said he would rise on the third day. Why weep over an empty tomb, should she had rather rejoice.
B. Rueful Response - But Mary will have none of it, and her grief she does not take up the consideration offered her by the angels. She states flatly ‘I’m looking for a corpse that they’ve taken away. Tell me where you put this corpse so I can continue to go to work.’
Grief does that. It takes away our capacity to see more clearly other possibilities, other interpretations. So easily we catastrophize, we assume the worst. Mary is at her lowest, locked into fearful fretting and colossal grief.
II. Faulty Finding - The text says, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus speaks to her, Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? But she thought it was the gardener, and goes on speaking of Jesus as a corpse she is looking for.
Why does she not recognize him? Has he changed his appearance? Or perhaps there were tears in her eyes, and she could not see well. We cannot say; but either way, she’s looking right at Jesus, but does not recognize him.
But too often this is our condition as well. The Lord is more present to us than we are to ourselves; he is more present than anyone or anything in this world. And yet we see everyone and everything except him. This is our spiritual blindness. We must make a journey in faith, and learn to see him. We must come to the normal Christian life, which is to be in living, conscious contact with Jesus at every moment of the day. Does the sun cease to be present simply because the blind man cannot see it? Of course not. And neither does the Lord cease to be present to us simply because we cannot see him. We must make the journey of faith where in our eyes are opened; the eyes of our faith to see God’s presence everywhere.
III.First Faith - One of the paradoxes of our faith is that we learn to see by hearing. For Scripture says, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). And faith is a way of knowing, and a way of seeing by way of that knowledge.
Thus Jesus speaks and says “Mary.” And with this word, her faith is enlivened, her eyes are opened and she sees Jesus.
And so it is that we too must allow the Lord to speak to us through his Word, so we can learn to know him and to see him by faith; not by fleshly sight, but my faith.
But Mary’s faith is only a first faith, an initial faith. It needs maturing, as we shall see in the next point.
IV. Flamboyant Felicity - Mary’s initial reaction, having come to recognize the Lord Jesus, is to smother him, to cling to him. Her excess is not merely physical, but bespeaks a kind of clinging to the past. And while it is true that the actual body of Jesus is risen and restored to her, the humanity that has been raised is also a glorified humanity. There is something new that Mary must step back and behold.
A. Status quo ante - Thus Jesus says to her: Do not hold me, that is “do not cling to me.” Mary’s gesture of embracing the Lord and his reaction to it, suggests that something has changed which Mary has not yet fully understood. She clings to him as he was. As if to say, “Jesus it is you – let’s take up where we were before the crucifixion.” She thinks of Jesus of Nazareth alive again, but she must now also see the Lord of glory. His crucifixion has led now to his glory. That is why Jesus speaks further of the fact that he is ascending to the Father.
We too must lay hold of a deeper understanding of Jesus as we make our journey. Or to put it in Jesus terms, we must let the Lord “ascend” in our own estimation. Scripture says elsewhere:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:16-20 )
B. Summons - Mary is then given a summons wherein Jesus says to her: Go to my brethren – Note that this is the first time that he ever called the apostles “brethren.” It seems it took the passion, death and resurrection to accomplish this in fact. Scripture says elsewhere:
- I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: You who fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! (Psalm 22:22-23)
- For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)
- For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” (Heb 2:101-3)
Mary is further told that she should way to them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to My God and your God -
It is interesting that He did not tell Mary to inform them that he had risen but that he was ascending. His purpose was not to stress that he had died and was now alive but that he was glorified and that this was the beginning of a whole new spiritual kingdom where he was to reign with the Father.
Note too that Jesus never said “Our Father” as if the relation that He had to the Father was on the same basis as ours. Jesus’ sonship was by nature, ours is by adoption and membership in the Body of Christ.
Mary and we are also taught another important distinction. In terms of his human nature Christ can say, “My God.” He chooses to emphasize his human nature here because it is that nature that has risen and is now glorified and changed. As God he could not suffer or ascend. But as man he can do both and ascend, as Man to “his God” In terms of his Divine nature the phrase “My God” makes little sense. But Scripture often speaks of Jesus in view of one nature or the other and the result is that the language is effected.
V. Fulness of Faith - Mary makes a remarkable journey. She comes to a fuller faith based on this interaction with the Risen Jesus. How? She says, I have seen the Lord – Mary’s declaration shows that she has already made progress in understanding the new relationship she has with the risen Jesus. She does not say “I have seen Jesus” she calls him the Lord. This is resurrection faith. To see the glory of Jesus and understand that he is the Lord of glory and the Word who is God.
Here is true Easter faith, not merely to have seen a corpse come back to life, but also to be able to see who he really is, “The Lord.” Jesus is Lord, and he is risen from the dead. Scripture says elsewhere:
Phil 2: 5 Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Mary Magdalene has made a journey from fear to faith. She began by looking for a corpse to anoint. She ends by making the mature Easter declaration: “I have seen the Lord.” It is truly Jesus who is risen in the self-same body. But he is glorified, and shows forth now fully the refulgence of his glory as the eternal Son of God and Son of Man. To come to Easter faith is not only to see Jesus of Nazareth raised from the dead, but more so to behold that he is the Lord of Glory.
Mary has made the journey. How about you?
There was an informative and helpful article in the Washington Post this Easter Sunday that demonstrates certain keys to success in evangelization. The focus of the article is the happy fact that the Archdiocese of Washington welcomed a record number of converts this year at the Easter Vigil. But the article also documents important factors that helped that number. Let’s review excerpts of the article and consider some important keys for evangelization. My remarks are in red text. (The Full Article is here: Record Number of Catholic Converts for DC)
Austin Russell [a] University of Maryland sophomore…started dating a Catholic woman and befriended other practicing Catholics, he became interested in the Church’s teachings. He enrolled in a class to learn more, and this weekend, he joined a record number of people in the Washington area taking the final steps to convert to Catholicism. Once he is baptized and receives his first Communion this weekend, “I can really walk into the church and say that I’m a follower like everybody else. It’s going to be exciting….Seventy-two percent of new converts cite marriage as an important reason for coming into the church”
And here is the first key: RELATIONSHIPS. Knowing a fellow Catholic who is serious about his or her faith is absolutely central to the conversion of the vast majority of people who find their way to the faith. For Austin, beauty and truth coincided. The beauty of his girlfriend first drew him. But soon enough the beauty AND truth of her faith, and the beauty and truth of the Catholic Faith, which she lives, also attracted him.
For many others, it is within the Call to Holy Matrimony that their call to the Church was experienced. Of the five converts we welcomed in my parish at the Easter Vigil, three of them are either married to, or engaged to a Catholic in my parish.
There is a form of evangelization known as “Friendship Evangelization.” Obviously, the first stage in friendship evangelization is friendship! But it is a particular friendship that sets the stage for witness to the faith rather than just beer drinking, sports, or other superficial things.
[T]he highest conversion rates are in the South, according to an analysis released last week by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown University group that studies American Catholicism. The report also found that adult converts are more active in the church and more knowledgeable about the religion than those who have been Catholic since childhood.
And here are two more keys: Demographics and Well-formed Converts. One we cannot really control, the other we can. The demographics are clear; the US population has shifted south. For the Catholic Church this has been a problem, since we own a LOT of real estate in the Northeast, a region whose population is both declining and aging. We are scrambling to build and establish parishes in the South even as we have to close and consolidate parishes in the North. It is a painful process to be sure. Some very beautiful churches and once-effective schools have been closed. If only we could put those old parish plants on wheels and roll them south! But demographic realities of this sort have a life of their own that we can do very little to change. They are rooted in economies and shifting preferences.
However, another key mentioned here is well-formed converts, and here we can do a lot. Nationally, we have been wonderfully blessed by converts from many Protestant denominations, especially the Evangelicals. They bring with them a great love for Jesus and the Scriptures, a joy, and an evangelical zeal. Marcus Grodi’s The Journey Home tells many wonderful stories of their entrance into the Church, and what they have been doing since that time. Some very great evangelizers are among the ranks of converts: Scott Hahn, Tim Staples, Jimmy Aiken, Peter Kreeft, and so many others!
Welcoming converts joyfully into our ranks, accepting their gifts, and giving good, solid formation, are the keys to more converts. And though not all of them come to us as well-trained as some of the national figures mentioned above, giving solid formation ensures not only their stable status, but also their ability to draw others to the Catholic faith through compelling testimony and well-reasoned, joyful answers to those who ask the reason for their conversion.
Although conversion numbers in the Catholic Church have fallen nationally in recent years, possibly because marriage rates are down, they are up in the Washington area, where there has been an overall uptick in population. The Washington Archdiocese said it is welcoming 1,306 new Catholics this Easter, a higher number than it has ever recorded.
Yet another key (if you ask me) is to dream big and to create high expectations. This record number is good news, but frankly, our numbers should be a lot higher. In a diocese that has 136,000 people in the pews every Sunday, that means that only one in a hundred Catholics were able to call someone to conversion. We can and should do better than that. And note that 136,000 is the actual headcount at masses, not just the number on our rolls. Is it really so unrealistic to expect that one in ten Catholics bring a convert each year? Am I dreaming? If that were to happen, then our Easter harvest would be 13,000! Even half that number would be over 6,000.
Thanks be to God for our higher-than-ever number. But let’s dream big! Let’s work at being more intentional in training Catholics how to evangelize more effectively. It can start with simple training such as this: “When someone asks ‘How are you doing?’ don’t just say ‘Fine’ say ‘God has been very good to me!’”
Some years ago I trained over one hundred people in my parish to evangelize, and though our numbers should be higher, our headcount has edged up by almost a hundred, from 425 to 525 per Sunday, a twenty percent increase. I’m not satisfied. But I’m adding a Mass, not eliminating masses. And we’re going to keep knocking on doors, doing sidewalk evangelization, reaching back into our families, and encouraging Holy Matrimony. It’s working, even in a neighborhood of dramatic demographic shifts.
While the U.S. Catholic Church will soon become majority Latino because of immigration patterns from Catholic countries, converts within the United States tend to be more diverse. In the Washington area this year, nearly one-third are between 19 and 35. That does not surprise Susan Gibbs, an adviser to Catholic organizations and a board member of CARA: “Washington is an interesting case because so many people come here to serve others,” she said. “Young people are searching for a start in life, and part of that journey can be to find faith.” Washington is also home to two of the nation’s largest Catholic universities, Georgetown and Catholic, Gibbs noted, adding that other campus ministries, such as Catholic Terps at the University of Maryland, have active peer fellowship and evangelization programs.
Yes, reaching young adults is another key growth factor in Washington, D.C. In my own parish, we have added a 7:00 PM, Sunday Mass since so many young adults asked us to do so when we met them in our neighborhood walks. We have also started a young adult Bible Study and fellowship that is growing. We want to expand with a kind of “Grill the Priest” offering wherein we have food and the Young Adults get to ask questions of the priest, no holds barred. It’s like Theology on Tap, except the participants call the shots and get to set the agenda based on what is on their mind.
“College, for a lot of these kids, is really a time for discovering who they are,” said Rob Walsh, chaplain at the Catholic Student Center on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. “They’ve tried one side . . . through partying, through stuff, through sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and it didn’t work.” They may also be disappointed by the limits of technology and social media, he said, adding that replacing human interaction with screen time can make young people feel lonely. “You can get so buried in it that you lose a part of who you are, and they reject that,” Walsh said of the young converts.
Yet another key is effective campus ministry. Fr. Walsh is doing great work at the University of Maryland. We also have some great College Chaplains at several of our other Colleges here. FOCUS is also a great asset and is reaching a lot of young people on college campuses throughout the country. As Fr. Walsh points out, many young people are dissatisfied with aspects of modern culture. They seek answers and community.
I would also add that a significant number of them have had it up to here with the dysfunctional and selfish aspects of the lives of their baby boomer parents and grandparents. Many want more than the vain, vapid, and self-centered world of broken families, sexual irresponsibility, and addiction that is the legacy of the sixties and seventies. Frankly, a lot of the young adult Catholics I meet are much more mature and responsible than I was at their age.
Aaron Holland, 18, a freshman there who grew up Methodist and became a Catholic this weekend, said he was drawn to Catholicism because he felt it answered more of his questions. “It’s not so much what I learned in the Methodist Church, it’s what I didn’t learn,” said Holland, who is studying aerospace engineering…
And here is yet another key: clear and cogent answers, in a word, the TRUTH. Many people love to hate the Catholic Church because we have prophetic stands and are often a sign of contradiction to a world lost in relativism, and that often celebrates that there are “no answers.” The angry ones tell us we have to change and parrot the culture to win converts.
And yet many others are hungry for answers and appreciate that the Church tells them clearly what is taught, even if what we teach is not popular or fashionable. For all the problems that the Catholic Church has had with declining numbers in Mass attendance and demographic shifts, the Liberal (Mainline) Protestant denominations, which largely parrot modern trendy thinking, have fared far worse.
It would seem that many people, young adults among them, appreciate that the role of the Church is not to tickle people’s ears, but to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable or challenging. Surely, the Church must console and embrace sinners, but we cannot and should not coddle them. That is disrespectful and also leads to the Church not being taken very seriously. A designer church with a designer god is really a sham and most people seem to know it, as the numbers show.
The prominence and popularity of Pope Francis, who was elected last year and has an 85 percent approval rating, could make Catholicism more attractive not only to non-Catholics but also to Catholics who have fallen away from the church, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There’s a renewed interest, a renewed pride in the Catholic Church,” she said. “Personally, I’ve seen more people in church, people coming back.” But this year may be too early to see the “Francis effect” in conversion rates, said Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Washington Archdiocese, noting that the course of study leading to conversion generally takes nine to 12 months.
Another key to remember is that, while the Church is Universal, conversions are more dependent on local factors. Pope Francis, or other ways the Church is in the news may have an initial impact on how someone sizes up Catholicism (for better or worse). But there comes a time when the person must encounter the local diocese or parish.
Pope Francis might be able to draw someone to Sunday Mass, but what they find when they walk in the door of the local parish is really more critical to making or breaking the deal. Politics is local, and so is the Church and the experience of faith, even in a worldwide Church of over a billion members. You don’t get Holy Communion on the news or on the Internet.
It takes a parish and a local community to seal the deal. The parish needs to be healthy and inviting. Even a charismatic Pope can only do so much.
The 2006 arrival of Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who is known as one of the country’s most efficient administrators and who has expanded outreach efforts, has perhaps been more instrumental in attracting people, said Sara Blauvelt, director for catechesis at the Washington Archdiocese. “He’s a great leader, and he gives great guidance to his priests,” she said, adding that the archdiocese has been encouraging the laity to go out and invite others to the Church.
Yes, here then is the final key for evangelization to consider from this article: a strong, stable, and steady diocesan Church. The Archdiocese of Washington has been blessed with strong and steady leadership all along. On account of this, the clergy work very well together, and an excellent, well-trained lay leadership has grown over the years.
There are not many factions within the Archdiocese of Washington. We have a legacy of good administrators, solid, orthodox teaching, and far less history of strange and exotic dissent among the clergy and parishes than in many other dioceses. We have over seventy seminarians currently studying.
The Archdiocese of Washington, despite criticism from both the left and right wings in the Church, has always been a middle-of-the-road, steady-as-you-go Archdiocese. Cardinal Wuerl is a fine leader marked with great prudence, as have been all the Archbishops before him. Some want him to be more severe about this or less severe about that. So too, for his predecessors. Nevertheless, time proves where wisdom lies.
Having a strong and stable Archdiocese with a predictable, ecclesial environment has permitted steady growth and has allowed what works to flourish.
OK, so there it is. Take what you like and leave the rest. But I would argue that some very important keys for successful growth are articulated in this article. There are more keys than these, but the ones I’ve highlighted here are evidence enough that evangelization benefits well from certain important factors. Add your own and make distinctions in the comments. Please remember to exercise charity and know that personal attacks against people, parishes, or legitimate and approved movements in the Church will not be published. You are free to state your preferences and what you think will work best, but it is not necessary to attack.
At the Great Easter Vigil, after a lengthy series of Old Testament readings, The lights come on full, the Gloria is intoned and the opening prayer is sung. Then all are seated for the first reading from the New Testament proclaimed in the new light of Easter glory. It is Romans 6, the opening text from the New Testament proclaimed by the Church as Christ steps forth from the tomb! It would seem the Church considers this an important reading for our consideration, given it’s placement.
Romans 6 is a kind of mini-Gospel where in the fact of our new status as redeemed transformed Children of God is declared. And within these lines is contained “Standing Order # 1″ for the Christian who is a new creation: “No longer let sin continue to reign in your death directed bodies.”
Perhaps we can take a look at this central passage from the New Testament. Here it is in total and them some verse by verse commentary:
We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with,that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. 8Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Romans 6:1-14)
1. THE PRINCIPLE - We have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? - Here is a powerful and uncompromising statement. Paul is setting forth the most fundamental principle for the Christian life. Namely that sin is not to have any power over us. This is the NORMAL (i.e. normative, to be expected) Christian life, a life that is victorious and that is seeing sin put to death and the blessings of grace come alive. Paul says, quite clearly, we have died to sin.
Before returning to this concept it might be important to consider what the word “sin” means here. The Greek word is ἁμαρτίᾳ (hamartia). In its root sin (ἁμαρτίᾳ) means “missing the mark” or falling short of a designated goal. In the Greek tragedies the hero often had a “fatal flaw” wherein he misses the mark, or fails to obtain what he sought due to a moral failing or error in judgment. In Scripture the word ἁμαρτίᾳ usually means something closer to what we mean by sin today, namely “a moral failing.” But we should not completely leave behind the notion that sin is a missing of the mark. It is not untrue to say that sin is not so much a reality unto itself as it is a “privation,” a lack of something that should be there. In every sin, something is missing that should be there.
Now St. Paul often describes sin (ἁμαρτίᾳ) at two levels: the personal experience with sin, but also as a “climate” in which we live. So we might distinguish between Sin (upper case) and sin (lower case). Hence, Sin is the climate in which we live that is hostile to God, that has values in direct opposition to what God values. It is materialistic, worldly in its preoccupations, carnal and not spiritual, lustful, greedy, self-centered, and alienated from the truth. It will not submit to God and seeks either to deny Him or to marginalize him. This is Sin. (We need to understand this distinction for in verse 10 of this passage Paul says Christ “died to Sin.” But clearly Christ had no personal sin. But he DID live in a world dominated by Sin and it was to THAT which he died).
As for sin (lower case), it is our personal appropriation of Sin. It is our internalization and acceptance of the overall climate of sin. For example, a Bosnian child is not born hating a Croat or Serbian child. That hatred is “in the air” and the child often (usually) internalizes and then acts upon it. Hence Sin becomes sin.
Now Paul says, we have DIED to all of this. That is to say the overall climate of Sin cannot any longer influence us, neither can the deep drives of our own sin continue to affect us.
But how can this be, most of us feel very strongly influenced by Sin and sin? Consider for a moment a corpse. You cannot humiliate or tempt, win an argument with or in anyway personally affect a corpse. The corpse is dead and you and I can no longer have any influence over it. Paul is saying that this is to be the case with us. We are dead to the world and its Sin. It’s influence on us is broken. Because of this, our personal sins and drives of sin are also broken in terms of their influence.
Ah but you say, “This does not seem true.” Nevertheless, it IS the principle of the Christian life. It is what is normative for us and what we should increasingly expect because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is true, death for us is a process, more than an event. But to the degree that the old Adam has been put to death in us, then his vital signs are diminishing. He is assuming room temperature and Christ Jesus is coming alive in us.
And here is the central question Is Jesus becoming more alive in you? It is a remarkable thing how little most Christians expect from their relationship with Jesus Christ. The best that most people hope for is to muddle through this life and just make it (barely) over the finish line to heaven. Mediocrity seems what most people expect. But this is not the normal Christian life! The normal Christian life is to be increasingly victorious over sin, to be experiencing the power of the Lord Jesus Christ at work in our lives. We have died to sin. It’s influence on us is waning, is diminishing. Increasingly the world and its values seem ludicrous to us and God’s vision becomes precious.
So here is the principle – have died and are dying to sin, it is increasingly impossible for us to live in it or experience it’s influence.
2. THE POWER - Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
When Paul (and Scripture) use the word “know” it always means more that grasping something intellectually. To “know” in the Bible means to personally experience something and to have grasped it as true. Thus, what Paul is really saying here, “Or is it possible that you have not experienced that we died with Christ and risen with him to new life?” In effect he is saying, grab hold of yourself and come to experience that you have died to your old life and now received a completely new life. Start to personally experience this.
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation! (2 Cor 5:17). This is the normal Christian life and we ought to be experiencing it more and more.
But here again, we have to fight the sloth of low expectations. Do you think that Jesus Christ died for you so that you would continue to be in bondage to anger, or lust, or hatred? Surely he died to free us from this!
To see your life transformed is NOT your work, it is the work of the Lord Jesus. Since it is his power at work we ought to expect a lot. But low expectations yield poor results. So Paul is saying, come to know, come to personally experience and grasp his power at work in you. Have high expectations! How can we have anything less when the death and resurrection of Jesus are the cause of this?
3. THE PERSONAL WITNESS – For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with,that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. -
Once again Paul says we “know” this. This is the normal Christian life: to experience that our old self was crucified and has died and that increasingly we are no longer slaves to sin.
In my own life I have experienced just this. Have you? I have seen many sins and sinful attitudes put to death in me. My mind has become so much clearer in the light of Christian faith and I now see and experience how silly and insubstantial are many claims of this world. So, my mind and my heart are being transformed. I have died to many of my former and negative attitudes and drives.
I’m not what I want to be but I’m not what I used to be, praise God. A wonderful change has come over me.
How about you? Do you have a testimony? Do you “know” (experience) that your old self has been crucified and that you are being freed from sin?
4. THE PROCLAMATION – in various ways then in the verses that follow, Paul sets forth the essential proclamation of the Normal (normative) Christian life:
- count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
- Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires…..
- [you] have been brought from death to life….
- For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
Some final questions:
- Do you believe this?
- Do you know (experience) this?
- What do you expect from your relationship with Jesus Christ?
- How are you different from some one who lived under the Old Covenant?
- How are you different from the unbelievers in this world?
- Are you living the normal Christian life of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ, or are you just muddling through?
Icon above is 18th Century Russian, and is available at most Icon Distributor. In this vision, is the Harrowing of Hades where Christ pulls Adam and Even from their tombs and summons them to new life.
This song says, Victory is mine, I told Satan, “Get thee behind” for victory today is mine.
Nearly all of the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels present the apostles and disciples on a journey to deeper faith. In stages, they come out of the darkness of despair and of this world into the light of faith. Matthew’s account (28:1-10), which is read at the Easter Vigil this year and can also be read at Masses during the day, is no exception. I have also commented on the Johannine Gospel that is often read on Easter Morning (here: From Fear to Faith).
Let’s look at the Easter journey that Mary Magdalene and Mary (likely, Mary the Mother of James and Joseph) make out of darkness into light. Mark (16:1) adds that “Salome” went with them. Salome was the wife of Zebedee, and the mother of James and John. From Luke (24:10), it also appears that Joanna, wife of Chusa, Herod’s steward, was with them. Hence, though Matthew only mentions two women by name, it would seem that our analysis includes these four women. As these women journey through the events of Easter Morning we see their faith deepen and brighten. In a condensed sort of way, we see in this a microcosm of the whole life of the Christian. Similarly, we, journeying in stages, come to a deeper faith and a brighter vision of the Paschal mystery that is our life.
Let’s observe their journey in four stages.
Stage 1 – Disturbance at Dawn. The text says,
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.
Note that in this first stage it is still quite dark. The text here says, with hope, that the new day was dawning. The Greek word actually used, however, properly means as the first day “approached,” or drew on, without specifying the precise time. Mark (16:1-2) says that it was very early in the morning, at the rising of the sun – that is, not that the sun “was risen,” but that it was about to rise, or that it was the early break of day. Luke (24:1) notes that it was “very early in the morning” (in the Greek text, it was “deep twilight,” or when there was scarcely any light). John (20:1) says that it was “very early, while it was yet dark,” that is, it was not yet fully daylight, nor had the sun risen.
So the point is, it is still quite dark, but dawn is near! And all this creates for us, who read the account, an air of great expectation. An old song in the Taizé Community says, “Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away!”
Next, there is a great earthquake! Sometimes God has to shake things up to open new doors and new vision. And in our lives too, there are often violent shakings. But, remember, we are at the dawning of a new day. In just a few short years, if we are faithful, we’ll be with God. And so it is that this earthquake is not unto destruction, but is unto the opening of the tomb that has claimed our Lord, and unto the opening of tombs that have claimed us, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and so forth. This earthquake, frightening though it may seem, serves only to draw these women deeper into the Paschal mystery and toward the risen Christ.
Now, notice that they haven’t seen him yet or even heard that he is risen. There is only this earthquake. But it has a purpose. Yet for now, it is barely dawn and things are still very unclear to them…
Stage one: Disturbance at dawn
Stage Two: Declaration: Do Not Be Afraid. The text says,
Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
Note that the angel summons them to deeper faith. He exclaims, “Do not be afraid.” Now to most of us, this may seem to be almost a “throwaway” line – one we often hear when we are perceived by others to be anxious. And frankly, when others say this to us it is both annoying and unhelpful. But in this case, the Angel presents a basis for their faith to grow and their anxiety to dissipate.
That they should not be anxious or afraid is firmly rooted in the Lord’s promise and in his Word. The angel is reminding them that the Lord had promised to rise on the third day, and that he has done just as he said. The Lord, who had raised others from death and healed multitudes, has now done exactly what he promised.
Hence, the angel summons them to grow in their faith by pondering the Word of Jesus Christ and coming to trust in His promise.
The angel also presents evidence to them: the empty tomb. He invites them to connect the dots between the promise of Jesus and the present evidence of an empty tomb.
So, it’s getting brighter, by the power of God’s Word and the application of that Word to the present situation.
We too must journey through this stage as we become more deeply immersed in God’s Word and apply it to our present situation. As we grow in knowledge and remembrance of God’s promises and his Word, our anxiety begins to diminish. This happens especially when, like these women, we begin to connect God’s Word with what is actually happening in our life. We start to notice the empty tombs, the many signs of God’s favor and blessing. Things start to add up and we begin to connect the dots between faith and experience. And as we do this, it gets brighter and our faith grows stronger.
Stage two: Declaration: “Do not be afraid!”
Stage Three – Deepening Dispatch. The text says,
Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.”
Learn by teaching – Having been instructed in the Paschal mystery, and having grown deeper in their faith, they are sent by the Lord to inform others. An interesting aspect of teaching is that we often learn more by teaching than we ever learned as a mere student. Hence, we grow in our faith as we begin to teach and testify to it. And simply the acts of teaching and witnessing cause us to grow.
But note the text, “Behold, I have told you.” The true faith is received from God, not invented by us. St. Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing.” Do NOT go and invent your own faith; that is a very bad idea! We receive the faith from God through the Church and through the Scriptures approved by the Church. These women had first been instructed by God’s angel, and only after that are they told to go and tell the disciples. We too are instructed by the Church. Our faith comes from what is heard and then we pass on what we have heard.
So, these women are sent. And as they go, we shall see that they have a great breakthrough. But prior to that breakthrough, they are sent to witness, to proclaim. And this very act for them, and for us, deepens their faith even more.
Stage Three: Deepening Dispatch.
There is one final stage that they must attain. For they are still only able to pass on what others have said; they have not yet personally seen the Risen Lord. That comes next.
Stage Four: The Discovery that is Definitive. The text says,
Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
Here we see an important and powerful stage that, frankly, too many Christians ignore. Note that, in this moment, they go from inference to experience. Inference is a form of knowledge based only on what others have said. But experience includes personal witness. Experience means that I myself can personally vouch for the truth of what I proclaim. As we have seen, inference is a necessary stage of our faith (do NOT go and invent your own religion). But the Lord invites us deeper to more personally experience the truth of what the Church has always proclaimed and what her Scriptures have always announced.
Inference to experience – These women have heard from the angel that Jesus is risen, and they receive the teaching with joy. But, on the way, on the road of their lives, they come to personally meet the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Suddenly the truth of what they have been taught is made quite personal to them and they experience it as real. They have gone from inference to experience. And now they will tell not only what they have heard from others, but also how they have personally experienced its truth.
We too are invited to do the same. I need to be able to say, “In the laboratory of my own life I have come to personally experience as true all that the Church and her Scriptures proclaim.” I am now a firsthand witness to Jesus, for I have experienced him personally in my life. I have met him in my prayer and in my experience. He is alive and real to me, and he is changing my life. I have done more than hear about the Lord; I have met him. I do not merely know about him, I KNOW him.
Do you know the Lord, or do you just know about him? Have you met him, or have you just heard about him? On Easter Sunday morning, we have observed a group of women go from the darkness of this world to the light of the normal Christian life. And what is the normal Christian life? It is to be in living, conscious contact with God in my life and to know, personally, the Lord of all glory. It is to be in a living and transformative relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Painting above: The Resurrection by Annibale Carracci
Bringing our consideration of certain texts from the Matthean Passion Narrative to an end, let’s conclude with the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ Death and see what it has to teach us. There are essentially four immediate results that are described of Jesus’ death, and while they are historical happenings, they also signal deeper spiritual truths. Let’s observe the text and consider the four results, each in turn.
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city, and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:50-53)
1. Return - At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The significance of the rending, the tearing of the Temple Curtain, and the way in which it happened ought not to be underestimated. Consider that God had walked intimately with Adam in Eve in the garden in the cool of day (cf Gen 3:8). But after sin, Adam and Eve could no longer endure the presence of the God, and they had to dwell apart from the paradise that featured God’s awesome presence. Consider too, how terrifying theophanies (appearances of God to human beings) were after that time. For example, when God appeared on the top of Mt Sinai we read:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Ex 20:18-19)
Had God changed? Was he different from when he walked with Adam and Eve in intimacy? No. But we had changed and could no longer endure the presence of God.
Throughout the Old Testament, a veil existed between God and Israel. There was the cloud that both revealed God’s presence and also concealed it. There was also the curtain in the sanctuary, beyond which the High Priest could only go once a year, and then with fear and trembling.
Sin had done this, had made God’s presence intolerable for mere human beings.
But now Jesus has cancelled our sin. Once again, we have access to God through Christ our Lord. His blood has cleansed us, and the ancient separation from the Father and from God’s presence is cancelled. But we will not encounter God in a merely earthly paradise; the God has now opened the way to heaven.
It is now for us to make the journey there, but the way is open, the veil is rent. This is a moment of apocalypse, or unveiling. Through this open veil the Father now says, “Come to me!”
2. Rendering of Judgment upon the World - The earth shook, the rocks split –
Now has judgment come on the earth; the world stands judged. Here “world” refers not merely to the created world, but also to the forces of this world, of this age, which are arrayed against the Lord and his kingdom; forces that do not acknowledge the sovereignty of God but rather insist that political, social, cultural, and economic forces are what must hold sway and have our loyalty.
This earthquake, which has significant historical corroboration, shows that the foundations of this rebellious world ultimately cannot stand before God. The foundations are struck; the powers of this world quake. Scripture says,
- People will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the fearful presence of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth. (Is 2:19).
- For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. ‘I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD of hosts. (Haggai 2:6-7)
- In my zeal and fiery wrath, I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel. (Ez 38:19)
- The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Psalm 2:2-6)
- In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Daniel 2:42)
- The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble. But the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. (Joel 3:16)
- A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it. (Ez 21:27)
Yes, the world shakes; the world is judged. And, most important, as Jesus says, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. (John 12:31)
Therefore, dear reader, do not doubt that, no matter how powerful this world may seem in its pride and glory. It has already been shaken; it has already been judged. The world has been conquered and shaken to its very foundations. Do not put your trust or hope in any worldly reality; it has been judged, shaken, and cannot withstand the test of time. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Heb 3:14)
3. Resurrection to New Life - the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
“Death is struck and nature quaking. All creation is awaking, to its judge an answer making.” (from the Dies Irae). Yes, by dying Jesus has destroyed our death.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)
Note well that while the text says that many of the dead appeared in Jerusalem, this did not take place until after the Resurrection. Hence, we ought not to imagine ghosts or zombie-like corpses walking about at 3:00 PM on Good Friday. Rather, they appeared to some, on or after Resurrection Sunday. In this, they witness to the truth of Resurrection and the initial fulfillment of the text from Ezekiel:
Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people! I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life. (Ez 37:12-14)
Yes, on Good Friday Jesus awakens the dead, with the words, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.” (Eph 5:14)
4. Realization of Who Jesus is - When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Jesus most clearly showed his identity as the Son of God through his obedience to the Father. In the Gospel of John, as he rose from the table of the Last Supper, Jesus said,
The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. “Come now; let us go forth. (Jn 14:30-31).
Somehow, the centurion, in seeing Jesus die this way, recognizes in him the obedience of the Son of God who loves and obeys his Father.
Jesus has cancelled our disobedience by his obedience; he has cancelled our pride by his humility. Yet the weakness of God is more powerful than any worldly force. And thus too the centurion, who knew power and was trained to respect it, saw in the earthquake and other manifestations an indication of the Lord’s glory. The Lord’s way to that glory is not our way. But his glory and Sonship cannot remain forever hid! Scripture says,
See, he comes amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. Even So! Amen! (Rev 1:7)
One of the most remarkable aspects of the crucifixion of Jesus is the humble reserve he displayed. As God, he had the power to end his suffering and humiliation in an instant. He had already reminded Peter, Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matt26:52-54)
And now, as Jesus hung on the Cross, Satan and the crowds give him one final temptation: the call to come down from the Cross:
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (Matt 27:39-44)
The temptation is to pride and power, to anything but the Cross. They seem to taunt him by saying, “Since God is powerful, if you were God, you would have the power to come down and not be overpowered by your enemy.”
The temptation is very crafty and very worldly. To the worldly-minded, the demand makes sense. In effect, they are saying, “If it’s faith you want from me, you can have it if you’ll just come down from the cross. Then I’ll be impressed; then I’ll believe.” In effect, the tempters want to be saved on their own terms.
Why does Jesus stay on the Cross? For three reasons, at least:
1. Humility – Jesus is out to overcome Satan. In the world, we seek to overpower our foes. Does it work? No. Usually the cycle of violence just continues and in fact often gets worse. We think, “If I can just yell louder and outwit or outgun my opponent, I’ll win the day.” Yes, but there’s more to life than one day. The next day your opponent returns with louder and wittier arguments and bigger guns. And the cycle of violence goes on. It is an endless power struggle.
But as was once said, Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And I would add that here at the Cross, pride cannot drive out pride, only humility can do that.
And therefore, although the crowd and Satan try to coax Jesus into a power struggle, the Lord chooses the only weapon that is truly effective against pride: humility. Humility is like kryptonite to the Devil!
To our eyes, it seems that the Lord is defeated. But in his humility, the Lord is doing more damage to Satan than we could ever imagine. He stays on the Cross to defeat Satan’s pride by his own profound humility. Jesus does this despite Satan’s desperate attempts to engage his pride, and entice him into a power struggle.
2. Obedience – It was disobedience that got us into trouble in the first place. And it will be obedience that restores us. Adam said, “No.” Jesus, the New Adam, says “Yes.” It is not essentially the suffering of Jesus that saves us; rather, it is his obedience. And Jesus’ suffering is part of that obedience.
Jesus decides to obey his Father, no matter the cost. Isaiah says of Jesus, “He suffered because he willed it.” (Is 53:7) St. Thomas says that if Jesus had suffered and gone to the cross, but not willed it, we would not be saved. Jesus himself said, “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down freely. (Jn 10:18) Cassian says, “We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.”
Jesus went to the Cross and decided to stay on the Cross in obedience. And it is by his obedience, by his will to obey and to save us, that we are saved.
3. To save me – On a more personal level, we can also see (based on what has already been said), that Jesus decided to stay on the Cross to save me. If he had come down, I would not be saved; you would not be saved. We might have been impressed; we might have even had a kind of faith. But it would not be a saving faith.
Pure and simple, Jesus decided to stay on the Cross and to endure mockery, shame, pain, and death, in order to save a poor sinner like me. An old gospel song says,
When Jesus hung on Calvary, people came from miles to see
They said, If you be the Christ, come down and save your life
But Jesus, sweet Jesus, never answered them
For He knew that Satan was tempting
If He had come down from the cross, my soul would still be lost
If He had come down from the cross, my soul would still be lost
He would not come down from the cross just to save himself
He decided to die just to save me.
In the Matthean Passion account, we come to the trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate is a study in evasion and vacillation. Despite being a man of great political and worldly power, Pilate is indecisive, inwardly troubled, and quite incapable of doing what he knows is right. Despite the outward power he had, inwardly he was weak and morally compromised. And in his weakness, he does something very awful: he violates his own conscience and sentences an innocent man to death.
Let’s look at his story in five stages.
I. Attempted Avoidance - On a professional level, Pilate considered the whole matter brought before him to be a theological dispute among the Jews, and for this reason wanted nothing to do with it. Yet he could see a storm was brewing as the crowds grew larger and noisier. If there were a riot at Passover, his career as Governor of Palestine (not to mention future, even better posts) would be in jeopardy. Was there not some way out of this perilous matter of Jesus!?
On a personal level, Pilate is also troubled. His own wife, unnerved, tells him, Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19). Yes, Pilate is anxious, unnerved, and seemingly quite avoidant of the whole matter. The last thing he wants to do is to have to make a decision one way or the other about Jesus.
But at the end of the day, every man, woman, and child on this planet is going to have to decide for or against Jesus. Pilate wants to avoid a decision, but ultimately, he cannot.
According to Luke’s Gospel, he seeks refuge in a jurisdictional solution:
On hearing [of Jesus' actions in the north] Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 26:6-7)
“Ah!” thinks Pilate. “Here is a way out. Herod can save me from having to take a stand on Jesus! Whatever the decision, I can evade responsibility.” But in the end, Herod merely sent him back to Pilate without rendering a guilty verdict. Surely this would satisfy the crowd! But it does not.
Pilate (this also means you) is going to have to decide about Jesus, one way or the other. No one else can make this decision for him. His attempt to avoid taking a stand on Jesus has failed.
II. Calls for Compromise - So it is now clear that a crucial moment is coming for Pilate. The text says,
Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, “You have said so,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. (Matt 27: 11-14)
It is evident that Pilate wants Jesus to give him a way out. If only Jesus will speak in a manner that will reassure all present. If only Jesus will not so unsettle others with his divine claims. If only he would not stand out in such stark, black and white contrast; if only he would appreciate the need for a little more gray in this whole matter! Yes, if he will just compromise a little with his claims, all will be well!
But it will not be so for Pilate. Jesus remains silent to all the demands that he reassure others by diluting the truth or by compromising his message.
Many today are like Pilate, and seek to rework the true Jesus, to “tame” him, to paint a picture of him in soft focus and pastel colors. A “kinder, gentler” Jesus is trotted out by some, even by religious “leaders” in hopes of quieting the controversy and making it easier and more palatable for people to make a decision for Jesus.
But of course to decide for a fake Jesus is not the same as deciding for the real Jesus. A compromised, fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one can. Watering Jesus down, diminishing his moral demands or his summons to absolute faith in him, setting aside his insistence on being the central priority of our life even to the point of martyrdom, modernizing him, or seeking to turn him into a harmless hippie – none of this will work. One day you are going to have to decide on the real Jesus. Compromise will not work.
III. Substitution Stunt – Avoiding and compromising hasn’t worked, so Pilate tries substitution. It’s the old bait and switch. Let’s find something or someone to replace the decision. So Pilate trots out Barabbas.
Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him…But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matt 27:16-20)
Pilate thought that surely the crowd would not prefer the swindler and robber, Barabbas, to Jesus, who had been so popular earlier that very week. Pilate reasoned that it was only the leaders among the Jews who feared and hated Jesus, out of concern only for their own power. Yes, surely the crowds would favor Jesus from Galilee over Barabbas. Surely! This bait and switch, this substitution, would get Pilate off the hook so he wouldn’t have to decide about Jesus. Or so he thought.
But it will not work. The religious leaders have seeded the crowd. Barabbas is chosen. Pilate is still stuck with the Jesus question!
Here too, many of us try similar bait and switch tactics. Radically following Jesus is a bit too much for some. But how about buying off or deflecting the decision? Perhaps it amounts to writing a nice big check to charity, or engaging in some good work. Perhaps some religious ritual can buy some time or placate the Lord, who stands silently by waiting for an answer from me as to his Kingship in my life.
It is significant that the “substitute Jesus” that Pilate trots out for his bait and switch has the name “Jesus Barabbas” (a name that means “Jesus, Son of the Father”). Yes, the substitute that Pilate uses bears a name and title similar to the real Jesus. But he is NOT the real Jesus. And neither are our attempts at check writing or perfunctory religious observance (though having aspects of Christ) the real Jesus. Our substitution stunt, our bait and switch, cannot buy off the question, or avoid the decision we must make for or against the real Jesus. We too must ultimately face the “Jesus Question.”
IV. Refusing Responsibility – Exasperated, Pilate engages the crowd:
What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:23-25)
Pontius Pilate, the governor, the most powerful man in the region, the only one with the judicial faculty to hand a man over to death, stands before a crowd and claims that he is not responsible for what he does. He claims that, in violating his own conscience and handing over an innocent man to torture, he is innocent.
These are lies. Pilate cannot refuse to take responsibility for the decision he is making. He must be a man and own his choice. He has weighed the consequences. It will be either his career, or Jesus; it will be either his power and position, or Jesus; it will be either his eventual promotion, or Jesus. Having been weighed against career, power, and promotion, Jesus is dismissed by Pilate and handed over for torture and crucifixion.
But Pilate cannot avoid responsibility despite the theatrics of washing his hands. Jesus’ blood is on your hands too, Governor Pilate. Down through the centuries your responsibility resounds: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried.”
Yes, Pilate had to decide about Jesus one way or the other. And so do you and I. No attempted avoidance, no calls for compromise, no substitution stunts, no refusal of responsibility will work. You must decide, I must decide, one way or another, for or against Jesus. There is no third way. And if you think you can sit on the fence, know this for sure: one day Satan will say, “Come with me,” for Satan owns the fence.
You are free to decide, but you are not free not to decide. Jesus stands before you and “compels” a choice. What is your answer?
Here is a movie account of the trial from The Passion of the Christ. Note that both Pilate and Jesus speak in Latin. I think this is the director’s way of saying that Jesus, as God, is speaking personally to Pilate, thus he uses Pilate’s mother tongue.
As we continue to ponder some of the texts of the Matthean Passion Narrative, we turn to the difficult case of Judas. To many modern readers, Judas is something of a sympathetic character. Some of this is due to our (rather flawed) moral reasoning, reasoning that places exaggerated emphasis on subjective issues (such as intentions, feelings, etc.) and almost no emphasis on the objective morality of the act itself. Granted, both elements are important, but our modern emphasis creates a rather skewed tendency to evade personal responsibility and to overlook the objective harm of sin.
But, to be fair, the biblical text itself also evokes some sympathy for Judas, who deeply regretted what he had done and even went so far as to return the money. The text says,
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)
It is clear that Judas is sorrowful for his sin and this is surely one component of what we call contrition. He even returns the money, a further sign of his sorrow, and wishes to be free of any profit from his sin.
And yet we are also faced with the fact that he went and hanged himself, which, while further indicating his sorrow, remains objectively an act of despair. Instead of turning to Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end the pain of his guilt rather than facing the Lord, admitting his sin, and humbly seeking mercy from the Lord and His Body, the Church.
In this, Judas acts quite differently from Peter, who at first ran off in sorrow after denying the Lord, but did not turn in on himself. Rather, in spite of his humiliation, Peter remained rooted in the early community of the Church, and found healing with the Lord in an honest conversation at the lakeside (cf John 21). None of this could have been easy for Peter. Surely, a part of him wanted to run off and hide his guilt and shame from the Lord and from others. But unlike Judas, he stayed in communion with the early Church and let the Lord find him.
St. Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow for sin, and what he writes is instructive for us here when we ponder Judas and his fate:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)
And thus Godly sorrow draws us to repentance and back to the Lord. The Greek word here translated as “repentance” is μετάνοιαν (metanoian) meaning, more richly, “to come to a change of mind,” or “to change one’s thinking.” And this change “leads” us to salvation.
But what is salvation? It is not just to have a certain legal status; it is to be in a saving and transformative relationship with the Lord. And Godly sorrow leaves no regret because of this healing, merciful, and joyful relationship to which it restores us.
In this way, we can see how Judas’ sorrow was lacking in two important fruits. First, it did not lead him back to salvation, that is, back to Jesus. Second, it did not remove regret. Judas remained devastated and was not willing to seek to return to a relationship with Jesus. Why was this? It is hard to say. Perhaps he would have been too humiliated to face Jesus or the community. Whatever regret he had, he was not willing to share it humbly. And thus, instead of turning to the Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end his pain on his own terms rather than those of the Lord or his Body, the Church.
St. Paul says simply and bluntly of worldly sorrow: it produces death. It is known by its fruits: separation, isolation, inwardness, and finally death – both spiritual and physical.
So yes, Judas had sorrow for what he had done. But it was the wrong kind of sorrow, the worst kind of sorrow.
What became of Judas in terms of salvation? To many of us, despite a reflection like this, we retain the hope that perhaps he could ultimately have been saved. Was he? Here too we cannot certainly say. But Jesus himself gives us a rather sad clue when he says of Judas,
The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mk 14:21)
It is difficult for us to imagine Jesus saying this about a man who is ultimately saved and makes it heaven. So while we’re not sure, it certainly doesn’t look too good for Judas!
Our sympathy for Judas has understandable roots. But in the end, his fatal flaw (and the difference between him and Peter) was that Judas repented unto himself, not unto the Lord. When you walk, sometimes you fall; but if you fall, make sure you fall on Jesus!
A final postscript to the sad story of Judas is to ponder what might have been. Can you imagine the glory of the moment, had Judas come to Jesus in sorrow and received mercy and forgiveness? Imagine beautiful churches all over the world named “St. Judas Parish,” “St Judas – Patron of Sinners,” “St Judas Refuge of Criminals,” “The Parish of St Judas the Reconciled.” Imagine the novenas and prayers of similar titles: “Novena to St. Judas, Patron of Lost Souls,” “A Prayer to St Judas for a Worthy Confession.” Parishes might even have dedicated their “Lost and Found” department to St. Judas!
But none of this was to be, “for worldly sorrow brings death.” Save us O Lord from final despair!
Continuing to look at some of the text from the Passion according to St. Matthew, we come to the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest.
Having heard false and conflicting testimony from various witnesses, Caiaphas turns to Jesus, and here is where we pick up the text:
The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Christ the son of God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Let’s look this text in three stages.
I. Obedience to Lawful Authority – Jesus has remained silent in the trial thus far. But at a critical moment in the trial, Caiaphas puts Jesus under oath. Caiaphas, as high priest, has the authority to do this. And on account of this, Jesus will in fact make an answer. In so doing, he demonstrates obedience to lawful authority.
Nowhere does Scripture counsel disrespect or disobedience to lawful authority. Jesus accepts the lawful authority of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Earlier he had counseled his disciples, The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matt 23:2-3)
Likewise, he would later say to Pilate You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above (Jn 19:11). And while he reminds Pilate that he will answer for his use of authority, he does acknowledge that Pilate has authority, and has it from God.
St. Paul would counsel and remind the early Christians, Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Rom 13:1-3)
None of these counsels and commands are to be taken to mean that those in authority were good or even just men. We have the authorities we deserve, and that God permits, and unless they command us to do something objectively evil, Scripture teaches that we are to obey lawful authority and show proper respect. If even Jesus can stand before the likes of Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and accept their authority, then certainly we can do so.
Accepting the authority of those over us does not mean that we never air our differences or express our concerns. Jesus plainly did this, as did Paul and others. But at the end of the day, even less-than-perfect authorities are to be obeyed when they legitimately command us.
Thus as we shall now see, Jesus, having been put under oath, will answer the high priest.
II. Oath – Jesus is put under oath and ordered to answer whether or not he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answers, “You say so.”
This answer may at first seem to us to be evasive and mildly disrespectful. But as we shall see, Jesus seeks to distinguish what he means by the term Messiah, or Christ, from what Caiaphas means. For many used the word “Messiah” in a way that Jesus was not comfortable with. Many understood the Messiah as a political figure or a military leader. But Jesus spoke of himself as a suffering Messiah, one who would bear the sins of the people, and having suffered and died, would rise on the third day.
The Messiah was to be a king, but not a king of this world. He was to wage war, but not against the Romans or some other enemy of flesh and blood, rather against Satan and the forces of darkness.
Thus, when Jesus is told to declare whether or not he is the Messiah, his expression “You say so” could also be rendered, “Those are your words.” Or more extensively,
“Yes I am a Messiah, but not in the way you understand. I am the Christ, the Messiah, but I have not come to wage war; I am not here to dislodge the Romans or to act in a way that you fear will bring Roman crackdown. No, I have come to suffer and die for the sins of the people. I’ve come to fulfill Scripture which says of the Messiah: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed….the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:5-6)
I have come to reconcile man to God and reopen the gates of heaven. Am I the Messiah, the Christ? You say so. And you’re right. But you and I do not mean ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ in any way remotely similar.”
As for confirming whether or not he is the Son of the living God, here too Jesus prefers different terminology, terminology that to our ears seems a lesser title than “Son of God.” Instead, Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man.”
Though to modern ears, “Son of Man” seems a lower title than “Son of God,” biblically this is not really the case. In the Scriptures, the title “Son of God,” or “Sons of God,” could refer to the Angels, but it could also refer to human beings, who are made in the image and likeness of God. For if God is their creator, He is in essence a Father to them, and they are his sons.
Of course, Jesus often did refer to himself as God’s Son in a unique sense, declaring that he and his Father were one (Jn 10:30), that to see Him was to see the Father (Jn 14:9). And he would often speak equivocally of himself and the Father, for example saying, My Father is working until now, and I am working (Jn 5:17).
And thus, to believers in Jesus, Jesus was in fact the Son of God in a unique, perfect, and sublime way. But for a typical Jew of the first century, hearing Jesus call himself the Son the living God, would have been ambiguous – even shocking.
Thus, Jesus does not simply answer back to the high priest, “Yes I am the Son of the living God,” but he goes on to call himself the Son of Man. In so doing, he taps into a passage from the Book of Daniel that speaks of the Messiah in high and divine terms. And to Jewish ears, the title “Son of Man,” while rarely used, was a far more exalted title for Jesus to claim of himself than the title “Son of the living God.”
Here is the passage from the book of Daniel to which Jesus refers:
As I (Daniel) looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened...In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. Daniel (7: 9-14)
And thus we see that Jesus claims for himself a high and exalted title wherein he is the great eschatological King, the one who shall rule over all the nations, and his kingdom shall never be taken away. And as Son of Man, he rules from heaven.
The title so shocks the high priest, that he rends his own garments and declares that Jesus has blasphemed by equating himself to God. And that leads us to the third point.
III. Omnipotence – Since we have already read the text from Daniel, it is clear to us that Jesus is speaking of the glory of his reign, and his great omnipotence. They will one day see him seated at the right hand of God in heaven, and also coming on the clouds of heaven, whether they like it not. For this is who he is, the Lord and King of glory, and of his kingdom there shall be no end. And he shall come on the clouds in judgment on the nations; he will judge the world by fire.
But what does it mean to say that he will come on the clouds? Too many of us moderns think of this only in literal terms. Such a literal interpretation is surely not impossible for God. In fact, the Lord Jesus may very well be seen on the last day coming in the clouds.
But we ought not simply reduce it to this. For Jesus was also speaking to the men of his day about something that they also would see and experience. Thus we ought not simply see his reference to coming on the clouds as some early form of airline travel or a kind literalistic insistence that they would one day be able to look up in the sky and see him just to the right of a large cumulonimbus cloud.
The ancient Jews used expressions in their day just as we do today. And while these expressions express truth, they often use images, similes, metaphors, and allegories, which in and of themselves need not always be taken literally. For example, we moderns often speak of being “star struck.” But of course we don’t literally mean that stars struck us. Rather we mean that we are struck by something that awed us in the way that looking up and seeing the stars at night might do. Sometimes we also speak of something coming from “out of the blue.” We do not mean literally that it came out of some blue section of the sky and hit us over the head. Instead, we mean that whatever it was, it came to us as if out of nowhere. More recently, we speak of storing our information “in the cloud.” But of course we don’t mean that our data is literally in the condensate zones of upward turbulence that we call clouds. We are using a metaphor to describe our data being “up above us” somewhere and accessible and able to be seen in many places “below.”
And thus, when Jesus speaks of coming on the clouds, we need not interpret this in a merely crude and literalistic way.
To the ancient Jews, the clouds were an image of glory, an image of heaven, and were also an image of God’s judgment. As an image of glory, the clouds both revealed and hid God’s glory. In the Exodus, God led them in the pillar of cloud by day, which appeared as a column of fire by night. This cloud revealed God’s presence yet also hid it. In the desert, the presence of God was indicated by the Shekinah, the glory-cloud that the descended on the tent of meeting. It both revealed God’s glory and presence, and yet also hid it from the people could not withstand God’s glory in all of its fullness.
So on one level, Jesus, in saying that the men of his day would see him as the Son of Man coming on the clouds, is saying that they would see him in all of his glory. He is saying that they would see and experience his powerful Kingdom breaking into this world, whether they liked it or not. The Temple and an exclusive Israel was going away. The fulfillment of ancient Israel, the Church, God’s Kingdom, was breaking in. The Temple, the symbol of ancient Israel, was going to be swept away.
In another sense, the clouds also show forth God’s judgment. Throughout the Scriptures, the clouds are often a symbol of God’s judgment come down on Israel, or on other nations. The clouds symbolize God visiting judgment on the people and the nation. Here are a few examples:
- Zeph 1:15 Near is the great day of the LORD, Near and coming very quickly; Listen, the day of the LORD! … That day will be a day of wrath– a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness..
- Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. …. There has never been anything like it, Nor will there be again after it To the years of many generations. (Joel 2:1-4)
- For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near– a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations….Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes when I break the yoke of Egypt; there her proud strength will come to an end. She will be covered with clouds, and her villages will go into captivity. (Ex 30:3, 18)
- As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (Ex 34:12)
And thus, in saying that he was coming on the clouds, Jesus was saying that they would experience his judgment on the nation for having rejected His saving love. In a sermon called the Mount Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), Jesus had already tearfully lamented the great destruction that was coming upon Jerusalem for lack of belief. And exactly forty years after his death, the great destruction he predicted came to pass. Jerusalem and the temple were utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. The temple was never again to be rebuilt. The Lord did indeed come in a great cloud in judgment upon ancient Israel!
So much in such a short few lines! As you can see, the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas was dramatic and has much to teach us.
In past years on the blog, I have generally published the schedule of the Lord’s final week according to the Scriptures (on the Monday of Holy Week). Since I have done this in years past, I presume most of you have seen it by now. If you haven’t, you can read it here: A Chronology of Jesus’ Holy Week
For this year, I thought I might look at some of the moments in the Passion Narrative (this year from St. Matthew) and highlight them.
The first moment occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane and presents a very good stance for Holy Week, indeed for the whole of our life. Jesus was at prayer, and returning to his disciples found them asleep. He says to Peter and the others (and to us),
Watch and pray so that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 26:41)
Let’s examine the saying, and explore what it has to say for us, and to us.
I. Problem - Jesus comes to his disciples and finds them sleeping. Note that these are the leaders of the Church, and this is the most crucial moment in all of human history. A great showdown between light and darkness, between good and evil, between Satan and the Lord, is about to unfold, is unfolding! But the disciples, the first leaders of the Church, are sleeping.
It is a disgraceful reality that is too often still the case, even today. And lest you think that this is simply a way of bashing popes, bishops, priests and deacons, let it be clear that the leaders of the Church include parents in families and elders in communities as well.
Regarding the clergy, too often while our people are undergoing severe trials and exposure to terrible sin and error, we remain sleepy and quiet. Well does the Scripture describe many of us clergy when it says, Israel’s watchman are blind, the lack knowledge; they are mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. (Is 56:10)
But many parents too, the leaders of the domestic church, are also woefully out of touch with the struggles of their children. They have little idea what their children are actually watching or listening to; they seem to have other priorities than to monitor their children carefully and teach them with clarity.
Yes, for all of us Church leaders, at the parish level and at the domestic level, we too easily doze off, and dream away, seemingly unaware of the great cosmic battle that is going on all around us, claiming our people and our children.
Or perhaps we do have some sense of the awful battle, but know little about what to do. Overwhelmed and stressed out, we medicate ourselves. Perhaps like the disciples we drink some wine and doze off in the garden while the critical battle unfolds around us. We are overwhelmed, so we tune out; we veer off to diversions, watch fantasies on television, or lose ourselves in virtual Internet relationships while our real relationships languish. Reality is too painful, so we medicate ourselves, and go off to sleep, a spiritual sleep, a moral sleep, even a physical sleep.
Only the pure mercy of God can save us. If the Church or the world were depending on human leaders, we’d be doomed. If the Church were solely dependent on human beings to keep her together, she would’ve lasted 20 minutes, max! Yes, only the pure mercy of God can see us through. Without Jesus awake and sober in the garden, we’re surely lost.
Yes, a serious problem is described here: while the cosmic battle between good and evil unfolds all around us, too many of us are asleep. And while God’s mercy can help close the gap, we must be willing to do what Jesus commands, what he now prescribes.
II. Prescription – Jesus says, Watch and pray! That is to say, “Wake up; come to your right mind; be sober!” To be sober is to have a clear mind, a mind that is aware of what is going on, and that can clearly identify the signs of the times. The sober mind is able to identify the tactics of the enemy, the drives of sin, and know their moves. The sober mind is also in touch with the remedies of Grace and how to apply them prudently. We simply have got to watch and pray!
In particular, our prayer needs to be rooted in the Scriptures and the revealed truth of Jesus Christ. There’s just too much stinking thinking in our world today to think that our mind is going to be anything but polluted if we don’t cleanse it every day with the Word of God.
Our minds are like a sponge. Put a sponge in muddy water and, don’t kid yourself, the sponge is going to come out muddy. How then is the muddy sponge to be cleansed? It is plunged into clean water and rung out; it is plunged back into the clean water and rung out again, and again, and again. Thus our minds, like sponges muddied by the polluted, confusing, and erroneous thinking of the world, must be cleansed daily by being plunged into the clear, clean water of God’s Holy Word.
It is a sobering fact that if you and I are not praying daily and being deeply rooted in God’s Word, it is very unlikely that we will make it.
The Lord’s prescription is bluntly simple: wake up, and keep watch by praying! We somehow find time for everything else. It’s time to wake up and keep our eyes focused on the Lord, to watch him, to listen to him, and to be deeply rooted in the relationship of prayer and obedience to his Word. Otherwise, a terrible peril is upon us which the Lord next describes.
III. Peril – We are told to watch and pray lest we undergo the test, lest we give way to temptation. The Greek word for temptation here is πειρασμόν (peirasmon) and almost sounds like the English word “peril.”
Now don’t let temptation become something abstract. Temptation is the work of Satan to drag you to Hell. Are you clear on that? If you’re not watching and praying, you’re defenseless; you’re an easy target; you’re low hanging fruit; you’re probably not going to make it. If you do not pray, Jesus warns that you will give way to temptation, that is, that Satan will be able to drag you off to Hell, and probably others along with you.
If you don’t even care enough about yourself to pray, at least get right for the sake of others who are probably depending on you in some way for teaching and example! No priest goes to Hell alone; he takes others with him. And no parents go to Hell alone; they take others with them.
It’s time to wake up and recognize the peril. You will give way to temptation if you’re not even going to watch and pray. Satan can and will drive you to Hell. This peril is real. If you don’t think so, talk to Jesus. He said it, I didn’t.
IV. Prevailing priority – Jesus goes on to say, The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.
Sadly, most of us interpret this saying as an excuse, as if Jesus were permitting us to say, “Well, deep in my heart I really want to do what’s right, but I’m really not able to do it because of my weak flesh. So it’s really not my fault. I should get credit for having good intentions in my heart.”
This is not only an incorrect interpretation of what Jesus says here; it is a sinful interpretation. Jesus is not saying that our flesh excuses us. He’s saying that our spirit is willing, that our Spirit by his grace has the capacity to prevail over the weakness of the flesh!
We are going to have to battle against our flesh; that is true; that much is clear. But our spirit, the part of us that is open to God, has the capacity to prevail, if we will permit God’s Holy Spirit to strengthen our human spirit.
In other words, our spirit is to be our number one priority, over and against our flesh. And having this priority, we open our spirit to God’s Holy Spirit, and we will be strengthened. We will prevail over temptation; we will be victorious over Satan’s attempts to drag us to Hell.
Therefore, there should be no excuses here. Jesus says that although the flesh is weak, and we will battle against it until the day we die, our spirit can “will” to overpower the drives of our flesh; our spirit can and must have a priority that will empower us to prevail over the flesh, and any incursions of the evil one.
We must make a decision; our spirit must be willing to watch and pray. We cannot allow the emphasis to fall on the weakness of the flesh. The emphasis must always fall on the prevailing power and priority of the human spirit to be graced by God’s Holy Spirit to win the victory.
Not a bad prescription for life and for Holy Week too!
:Watch and pray that you not enter into temptation. The indeed spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 2:41)
- γρηγορεῖτε καὶ προσεύχεσθε, ἵνα μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς πειρασμόν τὸ μὲν πνεῦμα πρόθυμον, ἡ δὲ σὰρξ ἀσθενής. (Matt 2:41)
- grēgoreite kai proseuchesthe hina mē eiselthēte eis peirasmon to men pneuma prothymon hē de sarx asthenēs (Matt 2:41)
Fr. Francis Martin has been a great teacher of mine. He here comments on the text of Mat 26:41.
The Passion, which we read in today’s liturgy, is too long to comment on in detail. We are only able to take a portion and examine it.
It may be of some value to examine the “middle range” of problems and personalities involved. The usual villains such as the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd that shouted “Crucify him!” are fairly obvious in displaying their sinfulness and are unambiguously wicked. But there are others who participate in the Passion accounts whose sinfulness, struggles, and neglect are more subtle, yet still real. It is perhaps in these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves who, like them, may not overtly shout, “Crucify,” but who are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as the persecutors are unambiguously wicked and bold.
As these behaviors are noted, we must understand that WE do these things. For the Passion accounts are not merely portraits of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me. We do these things.
So, let’s look at this middle range group in three stages.
I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,
This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.
Note that the apostles are reminded of these facts since Jesus has said them before on a few occasions. For example:
- From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matt 16:21)
- When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief. (Matt 17:22-23)
- We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt 20:19)
Thus, we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and to prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end, NOT in death, but in rising to new life. But though he has told them over and over, they still do not understand or see. Thus, he predicts that their faith in him will be shaken.
Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative and forget that he has promised to rise. Since they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment, they will retreat into fear and not accompany him boldly and confidently to his Passion and glorification (for his Passion IS his lifting up, his glorification). Instead, they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see it nor accept it. Thus, fear overwhelms them and draws them back into a sinful fear and disassociation from Jesus. Only a few, Mary his Mother, John, Mary Magdalene, and a few other women would see him through to the end.
But as for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, and miss what is glorious and awesome. Their perception is quite partial and their blindness comes, paradoxically, from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.
We too can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor hearing. For the Lord has often told us that if we trust, our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give way to our fears and fail to walk boldly the way of Christ’s Passion. We draw back, disassociate ourselves from Jesus, and exhibit some of the same tendencies and problems we will now observe in the people of that day.
So let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from the “partial perception” and forgetful fear of many of the disciples and others.
II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated in not trusting Jesus’ vision and refusing to see it. We can consider them one by one. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. But there’s no need to take everything here personally.
A. They Become Drowsy - One of the common human techniques for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to just go numb and drowsy. We can just doze off into a sort of moral sleep. Being vigilant to threats posed to our souls by sin, or the harm caused by injustice, (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful. So we just tune out. We stop noting or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like creature comforts, meaningless distractions, alcohol, or drugs. We go into a kind of moral sleep and we begin to lack a prayerful vigilance. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions. So we just tune out and daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing, or what the latest sports stats are.
In the Passion accounts, Peter, James, and John are personally asked by the Lord to pray with him. But they doze. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). But unwilling or unable to deal with the stress that the Lord is clearly under, they just tune out, go numb, and drowse away. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep on. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation. But still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much. So they just tune out, much as we tune out at the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing. It’s too painful, so we tune out.
The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). For drowsiness is a significant and serious spiritual problem.
Sadly, God described us well when he remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. (Is 56:10)
We do this, not only because we might be lazy, but also because we fear. And one strategy is to try to not notice, to go numb, to tune out. But, despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake, and the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus, we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear, for the Lord has told us that we have already won, if we just trust him. But the disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days. And so, often, have we. So they, and we, just give way to stress and tune out.
B. They Seek to Destroy - It is said in the text that when Peter finally does come awake, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the High priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11). Jesus goes on to heal Malchus who, tradition says, later became a follower.
We too, in our fear can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. We usually act in this way because of fear. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear and why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But too often, we lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus and saw in him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not, and in fear, lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.
It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak to a confuse world with clarity. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversation with the world. The truth will out; the truth will prevail. We may not win every encounter. But we do not have to; all we have to do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. But in Christ, we have already won. And this confidence should give us a serenity.
But Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days. And so, often, have we. So Peter and we just give way to fear and lash out, driven by the need to win, when in fact we have already won.
C. They Deny - Peter, confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, denies that he knows him or is one of his followers. He disassociates himself from Christ. We too, confronted with the possibility of far lesser things like ridicule, will often deny a connection with the Lord or with the Church.
Someone might say of one of the more controversial passages of scripture (such as commands to tithe, prohibitions on divorces, fornication, and homosexual activity, etc.), “Oh, you don’t really believe that, do you?” And it’s too easy to give way to fear and to either say “No” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or experience the unpleasantry of debate? So we just disassociate, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!
Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. (Mat 16:21). But too easily we ARE ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter was afraid because he had forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He had forgotten that Jesus would rise after three days. So too do we often forget that. So we lack confidence and give way to fear, and we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.
D. They Dodge – Simply put, when Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter, prior to his own denials, had followed the Lord, “at a distance” (Mk 14:54) but that as soon as trouble arose, he scrammed.
And we too can run. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s just our own self-generated fear that following the Lord is too hard, and involves too many sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money since the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor. Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle since the Lord insists on chastity and respect. Maybe we are doing something we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But, rather than face our fears, whether from within or without, we just high tail it out.
The disciples forgot that Jesus had shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he would win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerged and they ran. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to resist and confront our many fears.
E. They Deflect - Now in this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. But the fact is that Pilate was summoned to faith, just like anyone else. “Are you a King?” he asked Jesus. And Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own, or have others been telling you about me?” The fact is, Pilate has a choice to make. Either he will accept what Jesus is saying as true, or he will give way to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. Now the texts all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But, because he feared the crowds, he handed Jesus over.
Now note, PILATE did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but HE did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Mat 16:21). Well actually, Pilate, it is also YOUR responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right, and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.
So too for us. We also will favor our career or our hide over what is right. And in so doing we will often blame others for what we freely choose. “I am not responsible, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two” …etc.
In effect, we are often willing to say, “Look Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe and, generally I obey you. But you have to understand, I have a career, I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company is doing some things that are unjust; I know the world needs a clearer witness from me, and I’ll do all that – after I retire. But for now, well, you know… It’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell bound sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!” And we wash our hands, and we excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.
And all this is done in fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and get focused on the fearful present. We lack the vision Jesus is trying to give us that in three days we will rise with him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of now.
III. The Path that is Prescribed – OK, by now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be! In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true; we get there through the cross. But, never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!
We end where we began with this gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.
Yes, after he has been raised, he goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with him and be reunited with him in Galilee.
So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, and deflect. We’ve already won. All we need to do is hold out.
An old Gospel song says, “I promised the Lord that I would hold out! He said he’s gonna meet me in Galilee!” So hold out; Galilee is not far; in three days we will rise with him!
This Homily was recorded in mp3 format here: Palm Sunday Sermon
In our care for the poor, there are many rewards that we know must wait. Sometimes we are not exactly sure what the help we supplied even did at all!
Scripture does speak of some blessings that will wait until heaven. And thus Jesus counsels us to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal (Matt 6:20). Of course, we do not store up treasure in heaven by putting it in a balloon or a rocket and sending it up there. Rather, what Jesus teaches is that we store it up in heaven by giving it to the poor and needy. Scripture says elsewhere, Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for it will come back to you after many days. (Eccles 11:1)
And thus, some of our care for the poor will have rewards that we will reap later.
But some rewards are now. Perhaps we see what a difference our help has made. Or perhaps, too, we notice how God’s goodness to us increases, since he can trust us to be generous with His blessings. Scripture says, And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (Matt 10:42). Or again, Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38) And yet again, Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done. (Proverbs 19:17).
Yes, some rewards are now, and not just “return gifts” from the Lord, but also the joy of giving itself; the joy of connecting with others.
All of those personal rewards and others besides are seen in this beautiful video. Please enjoy it! And remember, GOD will not be outdone in generosity.
And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men…. (Gal 6:9-10)