A More Awful Thing – Jesus’ Lament on the Culture of Death as He Is on His Way to the Cross

8th-stationIn the Gospel we read on Palm Sunday, Jesus says a rather extraordinary thing as He is on His way to the cross. He addresses it to the women who have gathered to lament Him:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, “Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.” At that time people will say to the mountains, “Fall upon us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:28-31)

As awful as the crucifixion would be, as mightily sinful as it was for us to have condemned the Lord, Jesus says that something worse is coming, something even more awful. What was He talking about? Is it a prophecy for our times?

When we read any biblical text, we should ask three questions: What did it mean then? What does it mean now? What does it mean for me? Too often today an almost exclusive focus is placed on the historical meaning of a text. While this is interesting it is also important to apply the text to our own times and to our own self. This is usually the goal of good preaching. Let’s look at this passage with all three questions in mind.

1. What did it mean then? Jesus had often spoken of a great destruction soon to come upon Jerusalem for her lack of belief. He did this primarily in the Olivet Discourse, which is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 24:1-51; Mk 13:1-37; Lk 21:5-36). Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies, nation will rise against nation, the temple will be destroyed and there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again (Mat 24:21). Many misinterpret this discourse as referring to the end of the world, but Jesus is clearly referring to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (which in fact took place in 70 A.D.) (cf Matt 24:2-4; Mark 13:2-5; Luk 21:5-7). In many ways, the Jewish war with the Romans was one of the bloodiest and most awful wars ever fought. Josephus indicates that 1.2 million Jews lost their lives in this devastating war. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was thrown down, never to be rebuilt.

Jesus seems to be saying to the women, “Women of Jerusalem, though you weep for me in my suffering, be aware that something far worse will come upon you and your children. It will be so awful that people will actually call those who died ‘blessed’ and those who never existed ‘lucky.’ It will be so awful that people will long for death.”

He then refers to green wood and dry wood, in a sentence that basically means, “If I, who am innocent, meet this fate of crucifixion, what will be in store for the guilty?”

Hence, what this passage meant then was that Jesus was summoning the women to prayer, to a deep and mournful prayer that would call people to conversion. Otherwise, difficult days would lie ahead.

2. What does it mean now? Jesus spoke not only to his times but to ages yet unborn. His words fit our times like a glove. For indeed these are times when many say, “Blessed are the wombs that have borne no children. Blessed are the wombs that bear fewer children. Blessed are those who practice contraception. Blessed are the surgically sterilized.”  In other words, Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore, the breast that never nursed. Throughout the Western world, birth rates have plummeted; in some countries they are dangerously low. Some Western Christian nations and societies are practicing contraception and inflicting abortion to the extent that they are approaching a point of no return. Years of fear-mongering about overpopulation, extolling the virtues of contraception, and preferring the single life to marriage and family has led to a dramatic shift in the attitudes of many Westerners toward children, who are now seen as more a burden than a blessing. Sterility and barrenness were considered a terrible curse until quite recently. But in what Pope John Paul II termed a “culture of death,” many have come to say “Blessed are the barren.” And although nations such as Germany, France, and Italy are practically begging their citizens to have more children (even providing tax incentives) it seems that most Western Christians can’t be bothered with such things as marriage and family.

In addition, many in the radical environmentalist movement today see humanity as a great scourge on the planet and would seem to prefer that “the mountains fall on us and the hills cover us.” There are bumper stickers that say, “Earth First.” There is a show on The History Channel fantasizes about “Life after Humans” (actually, it’s a rather creative show).

In looking forward to our times, perhaps Jesus’ words to the women would be: “Women of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for your descendants. For the days are actually coming when people will say ‘Blessed are the barren.’ The days are actually coming when people will prefer not to have children at all or at least to have as few as possible. The days are actually coming when children will be aborted in the womb and the ability to do this will be called a ‘right,’ when women in difficult situations will be taken to abortionists by people who they are doing something good. The days are actually coming when depression, self-loathing, hopelessness, and misplaced priorities will so consume your descendants that they will prefer nonexistence to existence, when death will become a kind of ‘therapy’ through abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and stem-cell research. Yes, dear women, prayerful weeping may push off these grievous times for a while, but the days are coming when these things shall come to pass. For if you think things are bad now when the wood is green, what will happen when the wood becomes dry?”

You may think that the picture I paint with those words is a bit extreme. But there is a stunning quality to Jesus’ words as He warns these women of very difficult days ahead. They are just as stunning in our times. Though our historical moment is different, it actually seems to be a more literal fulfillment of Jesus’ words!

3. What does it mean for me? Now do you really think I am going to do your work for you? It remains for each of us to answer this question for him/herself. What do we weep about? Do we weep about things that really matter or merely over worldly losses—things that will be lost anyway? What kind of a world are we bequeathing to our children? Do we love life? Is new life a sign of hope for us or is it a burden? Do we speak prophetically about the culture of death? Do we encourage marriage and praise childbearing? Do we help young parents through some of the difficulties of raising children? The Lord surely has many more of these personal questions for us. Ponder the text slowly and consider what the Lord might be saying to you.

As a child, I remember being taught in school to fear overpopulation; we were told that the Earth would soon run out of room. The video below is a clip from “The Mark of Gideon,” a 1969 episode of Star Trek that showcases the overpopulation anxiety of the time. In this episode, Captain Kirk is abducted by Ambassador Hodin of the germ-free, overpopulated planet, Gideon. Hodin has a plan to use Kirk to introduce a deadly virus (which Kirk carries but to which he is immune) to Gideon in order to reduce the population. Kirk exhorts Hodin to instead encourage the population to use contraceptives and sterilization. The segment goes on to paint the inhabitants’ love for life as somewhat pathetic. Kirk even gets angry when they demonstrate respect for life from conception until natural death.

The Seating Plan at the Last Supper

Most of us who live now think of the Last Supper in terms that are familiar to us. In our imagination Jesus and his apostles sit around a square table on chairs. Jesus is a the center and his apostles arrayed around him. The famous painting of Leonardo Da Vinci (See right) is uppermost in most modern minds when thinking of the Last Supper.

But the real Last Supper was different in many significant ways.

Some of the following I am about it present is still a matter of debate other aspects of it are undisputed.

1. Jesus and the Apostles did not sit on chairs at a table. Rather they reclined on ground or on mats and pillows, leaning on their left elbow (leaning either forward or on their left side) and eating with their right hand. Their legs were stretched out behind them. (See picture at left, click to get a bigger size) This was the typical fashion for eating in the ancient world. That they reclined to eat is made plain in the Gospel of Mark: While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me–one who is eating with me (Mk 14:18).

This setting also explains some things that seem strange to us moderns. First of all why did John lean back on Jesus’ chest to ask him a question? (Jn 13:25; 21:20) This would be strange and physically awkward in a modern upright table setting. But reclining on one’s side on a mat meant you had to lean back to talk to the person next to you. Thus, while many see the act as a tender one, it may also have had a practical dimension.

There is also explained another strange scene (to us moderns) where Jesus is reclining to eat in the home of a Pharisee and and a woman begins to anoint his feet (Luke 7:38). In a modern upright table setting this would mean she’d have to be under the table. Strange indeed! But in the ancient setting, the posture was such that one’s feet were behind and thus the woman could approach Jesus from behind and begin to anoint his feet without his prior knowledge.

2. The Place of honor in modern western settings at a typical long rectangular table is either at the center or at one end. Everyone is seated upright and facing in to the center and can generally see all the others well. However, in the ancient meal setting the table was “U” shaped, either as a half circle, or with 90 degree arms. Instead of sitting at the center of the table (as in DaVinci’s painting above) the host or honored guest sat at one corner. Further, everyone sat on one side on the outside of the table allowing the inside of the table to open for servers.

The picture to the right is from a very early mosaic in Ravenna, probably made well before the 5th Century. At this early time, artists still had access to more of the memory of the actual practices at the time of Jesus and thus depicts the Last Supper as it was more likely arranged. Notice that Jesus is at the head of the corner and his disciples are arrayed in a sloping ark behind and sloping to his left. This was the usual setting for the ancient meal and especially something as formal as a passover meal.

It would seem however, for John to have been able to lean back on Jesus’ chest to ask him the question, that Jesus would have to been on the opposite side of the “table” from that depicted in the Ravenna mosaic. But we still get the basic point of what ancient meal settings looked like.

3. It would seem (though this is debatable) that the place of second honor was at the other end of the U shaped table on the opposite corner. This would help explain why Peter is not at Jesus’ immediate side and has to motion to John across the room to lean back and ask Jesus a question (Jn:13:24-25). Since Peter would like have had the other place of honor it makes sense that he would be across the room and unable to ask Jesus himself.

Here too the Ravenna Mosaic seems instead to picture Peter right next to the Lord, which would not comport with the likely biblical evidence that John was in fact to the Lord’s right. But the mosaic does capture well the reclining at a U shaped low table.

Thus the whole setting of the Last Supper was rather a different setting that most modern people imagine. Leaning on elbows and eating with one hand would all be very awkward to us. But I suppose they’d think what we do strange as well. Nevertheless, the ancient practice, DaVinci and modern notions notwithstanding was that people reclined to eat.

The following clip is a humorous scene from the Passion of the Christ. Mary is puzzled over Jesus making a tall table to eat at. She cannot imagine that anyone would want to eat sitting up. She says, “This will never catch on!”

Spy Wednesday Annual Reflection on the Sins and Shortcomings of the Clergy

In some ways its been a tough year for clergy on the blogs. A lot of what I consider to be bishop bashing has been going on, and lots of wrath and venom for the Catholic clergy in general. While I expect this from the secular world, most of it of late has come from certain segments of the Catholic laity.

For many on the right, we clergy don’t take up their agenda with sufficient zeal or follow it to last detail. Hence we are a grave disappointment. For many on the left we have long been dismissed as an outdated “boys only club” with an out-dated and irrelevant doctrine.

In all this we clergy are not merely innocent victims. Though the doctrine of the Church we teach is not flawed, we who preach it are flawed. We have sins and shortcomings. Sins of omission, and of commission.  I am not sure we deserve as much venom as we get, and I remain very alarmed at the open hostility to bishops who are, after all, our shepherds and fathers. My own earthly father was not perfect but I had been schooled to appeal to my father with respect and do air my differences with him privately and with deference to the fact that he was my father.

But the fact is we clergy do need your mercy and forgiveness, your prayers and understanding, your patience and encouragement and also your kind but clear rebuke. For we do fall short in many ways and are sometimes unaware or insensitive to the negative impact of our personal shortcomings.

If there ever was a golden age when the clergy were all we want them to be, I am not sure when it was. For even at the beginning the apostles showed forth sin, ineptitude, and the struggle to live perfectly the life they proclaimed. Even after Pentecost any reading of Acts or the pastoral epistles shows some divisions and shortcomings of the clergy. Paul’s advice to Timothy and Titus to be careful before laying hands on men also suggests that there had been troubles.

Wednesday of Holy Week is traditionally called “Spy Wednesday” since it is this day when Judas conspired with the Temple Leadership to hand Jesus over. He would accomplish his task the evening of the next day, but today he makes arrangements to hand Jesus over and is paid.

One way to reflect on this terrible sin is to reflect that Judas was among the first priests called by Jesus. We see in the call of the Apostles the establishment of the ministerial priesthood. Jesus called these men to lead his Church and minister in his name. But one of these priests went wrong, terribly wrong, and turned against the very one he should have proclaimed.

Among the other “first priests” we also see great weaknesses evident. Peter in weakness denied Jesus, though he repented later. All the others except John fled at the time of the passion. And so here we see the “sins of the clergy” made manifest. Christ did not call perfect men. He promised to protect his Church from officially teaching error but this does not mean that there is no sin in the Church and among those who are called to lead. The story of Judas shows that even among those who were called, one went terribly wrong.

In recent years there has been much focus on the sins of Catholic Priests who went terribly wrong and sexually abused the young. The vast majority of priests have never done such things, but those who did so inflicted great harm.

There are other sins of the clergy that have nothing to do with sexuality that may also have caused great harm. Maybe it was an insensitive remark. Perhaps it was the failure of a priest to respond at a critical moment such as a hospital visit. Whatever it might be that has caused you harm or alienation, please don’t give up on God or the on the Church. If a priest or Church leader has caused you grief or to feel alienated please know that there are other priests, deacons, and lay leaders who stand ready to hear your concerns and offer healing. Let the healing begin. Ask among your Catholic family and friends for recommendations about helpful and sensitive priests or Church leaders who can listen to your concerns, address them where possible, and offer another opportunity for the Church to reach out to you with love.

On this “Spy Wednesday” pray especially for priests. We carry the treasure of our priesthood in earthen vessels. As human beings we struggle with our own issues. We have many good days and some less than stellar moments too. The vast majority of Priests are good men, though sinners, who strive to do their very best. But some among us have sinned greatly and caused harm to the Body of Christ, as did Judas. Some of us may have caused harm to you. Please accept an invitation to begin anew.

If you have stayed away through some hurt or harm caused by any leader of the Church, strive on this “Spy Wednesday” to still find Christ where he is found. Among sinners and saints too, in the Church he founded: Perfect in her beauty as the Bride of Christ but consisting of members who are still “on the way” to holiness.

As usual, after all my verbiage, a music video offers this message better than I ever could. Allow this powerful video to move you if you have ever been hurt or know someone who has.

On Being Willing to Die With Christ. A Holy Week Meditation for Increasingly Hostile Times

The Gospel from Monday of Holy Week presented an interesting a challenging picture for those of us who wish to be disciples of the Lord. For a brief moment the focus shifts to Lazarus. Lets consider the text and ask some questions of our selves:

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead….The large crowd of the Jews found out that he was there and came, not only because of him, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him. (Jn 12:1, 10-11)

Now here are some the questions that come to mind for us, especially in the Holy Week, wherein we are summoned to walk with our Lord to the Cross and unto the resurrection. Let’s consider the questions in a kind of reverse order from the text on Lazarus.

  1. The text says of Lazarus, many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him. Is anyone you know turning away from the world and believing because of you?
  2. The text says of Lazarus, And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too. Is any one plotting to kill you, or is anyone persecuting you? I suppose the answer to that question would be based on the answer to the first. For if we are effectively witnessing to Christ and the teachings of his Gospel, we will experience some degree of hatred. But if we are watering down the Scripture, hiding its controversial moral demands, or striving to please this world, we will likely be loved by one and all. Jesus said, Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26). And again Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. (Jn 15:18-21) So again the question: are you persecuted at all? Are you hated at all? Is anyone plotting your downfall? That will likely depend on whether you strive to fit in with this world, or to be a sign that will be contradicted (as was Christ and Lazarus). We are not looking for a fight, but if we are authentic to the Gospel, dislike and hatred will find us.
  3. The text says of Lazarus that Jesus had raised him from the dead. Has Christ raised you from the dead? What made Lazarus a threat was that he was alive. Are you alive? And here is a critical point: Many were coming to Jesus by way of Lazarus because Lazarus WAS ALIVE. So again the question, Are you alive in Christ Jesus? Would anyone look to you and see and understand what it means to be alive in Christ? Can you testify, like Lazarus, “I was dead, but Christ has given me life, He has put sin to death in me and raised me to new and more abundant life!”

So to stitch the questions together: Has Christ given you life and joy, and thus made you an effective witness, that turns many from the sinful and confused world to Christ? And has this witness been so effective that some hate you for it? Has your witness been so effective and joyful, but also clear and contradicting of the world’s agenda (power, sex, pleasure, vengeance, possessions, popularity etc) that many also hate you for your contrary witness and would like to undermine it and you?

Jesus did not die because he was a conformist who worked at fitting in and pleasing everyone. He is God and Lord who demanded repentance and summoned us to a faith that believed in the good news of deliverance from the sin we repented of. To a faithless generation he summons us to faith and offers it. To and unchaste and sexually confused world he summons us to chastity and offers it. To a greedy world he summons us to generosity and offers it. To an unforgiving and vengeful world he summons us to forgiveness and love of enemy and offers the grace and gift to do it.

And we killed him for it. He just didn’t fit it to this world’s agenda. Frankly, he irked just about everyone: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the Zealots, even the Romans. These political and worldly groups all hated each other but they all agreed on this: Jesus must go.

Outside the Gate: Scripture says, Jesus, in order to sanctify the people by his own blood,  suffered outside the city gate. Therefore go to him outside the camp and endure the insults he endured (Heb 13:12-13). Yes, outside the city gate. No city, no “polis” no “city-state” no political organization could contain him or tame him. So he died outside the gate, rejected by all. And only a very few had the courage to join him at the foot of that cross.

And so here is a question for Holy Week. Are you and I willing to suffer with Christ, and if necessary die with him, outside the gate? The world is becoming increasingly hostile to Biblical faith. Many of the ancient truths contained right in our Catechism are called bigotry, hatred, intolerance, foolishness and superstition by the world, and those indoctrinated in and enamored of the world’s ways. Are you and I willing to be humiliated, excoriated and hated for the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Are we willing to have even our heartfelt and joyful defenses of the faith be laughed at, misrepresented and called hateful? Are we willing to be hated by most?

The Gospel is increasingly “out of season” and we are sure to have greater challenges in the years ahead. Here too the Book of Hebrews calls us to courage:

Recall the days gone by when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a great contest of suffering. At times you were publicly exposed to insult and trial; at other times you associated yourselves with those who were being so dealt with. You even joined in the sufferings of those who were in prison and joyfully assented to the confiscation of your goods, knowing that you had better and more permanent possessions. Do not, then, surrender your confidence; it will have great reward. You need patience to do God’s will and receive what he has promised. For just a brief moment, and he who is to come will come; he will not delay.  My just man will live by faith,  and if he draws back  I take no pleasure in him. [But] We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and live (Heb 10:35-39).

Yes, are you and I willing to die with Christ? Holy Week is not just a distant memory. It is now. And if we walk with Christ on the way of the Cross, walk with him outside the city gate, we too will rise with him victorious over this world.

But for now the Cross seems clearer every day, but so does the crown that waits:

In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be courageous; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

This video shows how the martyrs suffered far more than we. The first verse of the song says,

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, whether darkness or the light
.

Where is Jesus Between His Death and Resurrection?

Where is Christ after he dies on Friday afternoon and before he rises on Easter Sunday? Both Scripture and Tradition answer this question. Consider the following from a Second Century Sermon and also a mediation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

An Ancient Sermon:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” [From an Ancient Holy Saturday Homily ca 2nd Century]

Nothing could be more beautiful than that line addressed to Adam and Eve: I am your God, who, for your sake, became your Son.”

Scripture also testifies to Christ’s descent to the dead and what he did: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison….For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 3:18; 1 Peter 4:6).

Consider also this from the Catechism on Christ’s descent to the dead, which I summarize and excerpt from CCC # 631-635

[The] first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell [is] that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.

But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there [1 Peter 3:18-19; 1 Peter 4:6; Heb. 13:20]. Scripture calls [this] abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew, or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God [1 Peter 3:18-19].

Such [was] the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they awaited the Redeemer: It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior …whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”[cf Psalms 89:49; 1 Sam. 28:19; Ezek 32:17ff; Luke 16:22-26]

Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

[So] the gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”[1 Peter 4:6] Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying, destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” [John 5:25; Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9].

Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”[Heb 2:14-15; Acts 3:15]

When a Curse Becomes a Blessing – Only God Can Do That

Here in Holy Week we ponder the events that led to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Among the things to ponder is a dramatic moment in the trial before Pilate when the people who were present  utter a curse upon themselves. We read of it in Matthew’s Gospel:

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!” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:24-25).

Now of course the people did not intend or think of it as a curse since they were convinced of their righteousness in the matter. Nevertheless, a curse of this sort becomes operative if they do in fact act unrighteously, which they do. Hence we have here a self-imposed curse.

Some care is necessary not to associate this curse merely with the Jewish people. In the past some have used this passage to assert that the Jewish people have suffered rightly for what “they” did to Christ. But of course the Jewish people were divided over Christ. Many followed Jesus and accepted him as Messiah. All the first converts were Jews. Other Jews rejected Jesus. So, which group speaks for “the Jews” and which has the power to bring a curse upon the Jewish people? It seems untenable that a small group of Jews would be able to cause all Jews to be thus cursed.

A better and more personal understanding of the text is that the group represents not the Jewish people per se, but the whole of humanity. For, truth be told, we have all crucified Christ. It is something WE did, not merely some vague group of others called “they.” And this self imposed curse: His blood be on us and on our children!, is something we have all somehow said, we are collectively guilty of the blood of Christ.

So we are cursed! Or are we? Consider the following passage written by the Pope in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (Vol 2)

When in Matthew’s account the “whole people” say: “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. . . God put [Jesus] forward as an expiation by his blood” (Rom 3:23, 25). Just as Caiaphas’ words about the need for Jesus’ death have to be read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith, the same applies to Matthew’s reference to blood: read in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning. (Jesus of Nazareth P. 187 )

So the intended curse becomes a blessing! As the people (i.e., we) say His Blood be upon us and on our children one can almost hear God say:

You don’t know how right you are! For unless my Son’s blood be upon you, you have no hope. Only if his blood be upon you and your children will you ever be healed and saved. You mean these words for a curse, but I mean them for a blessing! Yes! His blood be upon you! Amen, so be it.

And thus God writes straight with crooked lines. He makes a way out of no way and when we curse, he returns a blessing instead.

This of course is not the only time that God has so acted to bring blessings out of things where curses are really deserved.

1. The most obvious parallel is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers acted wickedly in staging his death and selling him into slavery. But that very act led to their salvation from famine. For having been sold downstream Joseph end up in Pharaoh’s household and becomes Prime Minister of Egypt. Interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to mean a coming famine after a time of plenty he orders surplus food  to be stored. This saves not only Egypt, but also surrounding lands, to include Canaan. Joseph’s brothers and their families are saved by the very man they sold downstream. Realizing this they fell at his feet prepared to become his slaves. But Joseph said to them regarding their wicked act: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen 50:20). And so Joseph was a type (or prefigurement) of Christ. God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way.

2. Another example from scripture illustrates how, although we may mean one thing by our words, God means another. It is in John Gospel where the High Priest declares that Jesus must die. Note in this passage how he says one thing, but God means another:

But some of them went to the Pharisees, and told them the things that Jesus had done.  The chief priests therefore, and the Pharisees, gathered a council, and said: What do we, for this man does  many miracles? If we let him alone, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.  But one of them, named Caiphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: You know nothing.  Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.  And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation.  And not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God, that were dispersed. (John 11:46-52)

Yes, indeed, when Caiphas spoke of it being better for Jesus to die than the whole nation perish, he meant it as a death sentence on Jesus, but God meant it for salvation. That Jesus should die rather than all of us be lost, never a truer word was spoken! Caiphas meant it for ill but God meant it for good. Yet again, God writes straight with crooked lines, he makes a way out of no way.

So consider well the curse that turned out to be a blessing: His blood be on us and on our children! Never a truer word was spoken. And by it we are saved.

This song says, What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the Blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus

A Daily Chronology of Jesus’ Last Week

At the heart of our faith is the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. All of salvation history leads up to and goes forth from these saving events. The purpose of this post is to describe Jesus’ Final week. We call this “Holy Week” for Jesus’ public ministry culminates with his suffering, death and resurrection.

What follows is a brief description of each day of Holy Week. It is hoped that you might print out the pdf flyer (Walking-with-Jesus-In-Holy-Week) and read it each day of this week. Prayerfully walk with Jesus in his most difficult and yet glorious week.

I realize that some scripture scholars scoff at the idea that we can construct a day-by-day journal of Jesus’ last week. There ARE historical gaps and things in the accounts that don’t add up perfectly. Further, St. John, posits a whole different scenario (perhaps as a theological interpretation) of the Last Supper and how it relates to Passover. The following sequence follows primarily the synoptic (Matt, Mark and Luke) accounts, in terms of timing. Despite certain scholarly doubts, the account really do add up pretty well if we use a little imagination and see the differences not as differences in fact, but only in the level detail.

So read this Chronology as a likely but not certain scenario of the the last week of Jesus. It is still a great blessing to consider the Lord’s last week and walk with him.

Plan to attend some or all of the special liturgies of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday and Saturday at your parish. By celebrating them in community, we make them present today and learn again, in a new way, the reality of our Risen Lord alive in our midst.

PALM SUNDAY – Our celebration of Holy Week begins this Sunday as we remember and make present the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem to begin his final week and initiate his Passion. All four Gospels recount this triumphant entry that Sunday Morning so long ago, but made present to us today. As you receive your palms, consider that you are part of that vast crowd. How will you journey with Jesus this week? Let the palm remind you to praise him with your prayerful presence during the sacred Triduum. According to Mark 11:11 Jesus returned that evening to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Perhaps he stayed with his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Pray with Jesus this evening as he considers the difficult days ahead of him.

Monday of Holy Week According to Matthew 21, Mark 11 and Luke 19, Jesus returns to Jerusalem today and, seeing shameful practices in the Temple area, he cleanses the Temple. John’s Gospel also records that he rebuked the unbelief of the crowds. Mark 11:19 records that he returned to Bethany that night. Pray with Jesus as he is zealous to purify us.

Tuesday of Holy Week According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus again returns to Jerusalem where he is confronted by the Temple leadership for what he did yesterday. They question his authority. He also teaches extensively using parables and other forms. There is the parable of the vineyard (cf Mt 21:33-46), the parable of the wedding banquet, (cf Mt. 22:1). There is also the teaching on paying taxes (cf Mt 22:15) and the rebuke of the Sadducees who deny the resurrection (cf Mt. 22:23). There is also the fearful prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem if the inhabitants do not come to faith in him. He warns that not one stone will be left on another (cf Mt 24). Continue to pray with Jesus and listen carefully to his final teachings just before his passion.

Wednesday of Holy Week. Traditionally this day was called “Spy Wednesday” for it was on this Wednesday before the crucifixion that Judas conspired to hand Jesus over. For this he was paid thirty pieces of silver (cf Mt. 26:14). Jesus likely spent the day In Bethany. In the evening Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with costly perfumed oil. Judas objects but Jesus rebukes him and says Mary has anointed him for his burial! (cf Mt 26:6). The wicked are besetting Jesus and plotting against him. Are you praying?

HOLY THURSDAY, marks the beginning of the sacred Triduum, or “three days.” Earlier this day Jesus had given instructions to the disciples on how to prepare for this most holy meal, which will be his last supper. Through the day they make these preparations (cf Mt 26:17). In the Mass of the Lord’s Supper conducted at our parishes, we remember and make present that Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples. We are in the upper room with Jesus and the Apostles and do what they did. Through the ritual of washing the feet (Jn 13:1) of 12 parishioners, we unite in service to one another. Through our celebration of this first Mass and Holy Eucharist (Mt 26:26), we unite ourselves to Jesus and receive his Body and Blood as if for the first time. At this Eucharist, we especially thank God for his gift of the ministerial priesthood. After the Last Supper (First Mass) the apostles and Jesus made a short journey across the Kidron Valley to the Garden where he asks them to pray and he experiences his agony (cf Mt 26:30). We too will process in Church with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to a garden (the altar of repose) which has been prepared. The liturgy ends in silence. It is an ancient custom to spend an hour before the reposed Blessed Sacrament tonight. We are with Jesus in the Garden and pray as he goes through his agony. Most of our parish churches remain open until close to midnight. It was near Midnight that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, was arrested and taken to the house of the High Priest (cf Mt. 26:47).

GOOD FRIDAY, All through the night Jesus has been locked in the dungeon of the high priest’s house. Early this morning he was bought before a Pilate who transferred his case to Herod. Herod sent him back to Pilate who, sometime in the mid-morning, bowed to the pressure of the Temple leadership and the crowds, and condemned Jesus to a horrible death by crucifixion. In the late morning Jesus was taken by the soldiers through the city and up the hillside of Golgotha. By noon he is nailed to the cross where he hangs in agony for some three hours. He dies around three in the afternoon. He is taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb hastily before sundown. Today is a day of prayer, fasting and abstinence. Whenever possible, Christians are urged to keep today free of work, of social engagements, of entertainment, and to devote themselves to communal prayer and worship. At noon many parishes gather for stations of the cross for recollections of the seven last words of Jesus. Many parishes also offer staions of the cross at 3pm the hour of Jesus death. In the evening, we gather quietly in our parish Churches to enter into time of prayer as we reflect on Jesus death on the cross. We also pray for the needs of the world. To acknowledge the power of the cross in our lives today, we one by one come forward to venerate the cross with a kiss. Our hunger from this day of fasting is satisfied with Holy Communion distributed at the end of this liturgy.Consider too how the apostles might have gathered that night together in fear and prayer reflecting on all that happened.

HOLY SATURDAY – The body of Jesus is in the tomb but His soul is among the dead to announce the kingdom. The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear it will Live (John 5:25). Consider what it must have been like for the dead in Sheol to awaken to the voice of Jesus! Meanwhile The Disciples, heartbroken at the death of Jesus, observed the Jewish Sabbath in sorrow. They had forgotten the promise of Jesus that He would rise. We cannot forget His promise. We cannot forget. Tonight in our parishes after sundown we gather for the Great Easter Vigil where we will experience Jesus rising from the dead. We gather in darkness and light the Easter fire which reminds us that Jesus is light in the darkness. He is the light of the world. We enter into the church and attentively listen to Bible stories describing God’s saving work of the past. Suddenly, the church lights are lit and the Gloria is sung as we celebrate the moment of Christ’s resurrection. He Lives! In the joy of the resurrection we then celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist for our Catechumens and Candidates who have prepared for many weeks for this night. As a Church we sing Alleluia for the first time in forty days. Do everything you can to be present on this evening and invite friends and family to join. Our Vigil ushers in an Easter joy that never ends!

Walking with Jesus in Holy Week – A daily Calendar

At the heart of our faith is the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. All of salvation history leads up to and goes forth from these saving events. The purpose of this post is to describe Jesus’ Final week. We call this “Holy Week” for Jesus’ public ministry culminates with his suffering, death and resurrection. What follows is a brief description of each day of Holy Week. It is hoped that you might print out the pdf flyer (Walking-with-Jesus-In-Holy-Week) and read it each day of this week. Prayerfully walk with Jesus in his most difficult and yet glorious week. Plan to attend some or all of the special liturgies of Thursday, Friday and Saturday at your parish. By celebrating them in community, we make them present today and learn again, in a new way, the reality of our Risen Lord alive in our midst.

PALM SUNDAY – Our celebration of Holy Week begins this Sunday as we remember and make present the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem to begin his final week and initiate his Passion. All four Gospels recount this triumphant entry that Sunday Morning so long ago, but made present to us today. As you receive your palms, consider that you are part of that vast crowd. How will you journey with Jesus this week? Let the palm remind you to praise him with your prayerful presence during the sacred Triduum. According to Mark 11:11 Jesus returned that evening to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Perhaps he stayed with his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Pray with Jesus this evening as he considers the difficult days ahead of him.

Monday of Holy Week  According to Matthew 21, Mark 11 and Luke 19, Jesus returns to Jerusalem today and, seeing shameful practices in the Temple area, he cleanses the Temple. John’s Gospel also records that he rebuked the unbelief of the crowds. Mark 11:19 records that he returned to Bethany that night. Pray with Jesus as he is zealous to purify us.

Tuesday of Holy Week According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus again returns to Jerusalem where he is confronted by the Temple leadership for what he did yesterday. They question his authority. He also teaches extensively using parables and other forms. There is the parable of the vineyard (cf Mt 21:33-46), the parable of the wedding banquet, (cf Mt. 22:1). There is also the teaching on paying taxes (cf Mt 22:15) and the rebuke of the Sadducees who deny the resurrection (cf Mt. 22:23). There is also the fearful prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem if the inhabitants do not come to faith in him. He warns that not one stone will be left on another (cf Mt 24). Continue to pray with Jesus and listen carefully to his final teachings just before his passion.

Wednesday of Holy Week. Traditionally this day was called “Spy Wednesday” for it was on this Wednesday before the crucifixion that Judas conspired to hand Jesus over. For this he was paid thirty pieces of silver (cf Mt. 26:14). Jesus likely spent the day In Bethany. In the evening Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with costly perfumed oil. Judas objects but Jesus rebukes him and says Mary has anointed him for his burial! (cf Mt 26:6). The wicked are besetting Jesus and plotting against him. Are you praying?

HOLY THURSDAY, marks the beginning of the sacred Triduum, or “three days.” Earlier this day Jesus had given instructions to the disciples on how to prepare for this most holy meal, which will be his last supper. Through the day they make these preparations (cf Mt 26:17). In the Mass of the Lord’s Supper conducted at our parishes, we remember and make present that Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples. We are in the upper room with Jesus and the Apostles and do what they did. Through the ritual of washing the feet (Jn 13:1) of 12 parishioners, we unite in service to one another. Through our celebration of this first Mass and Holy Eucharist (Mt 26:26), we unite ourselves to Jesus and receive his Body and Blood as if for the first time. At this Eucharist, we especially thank God for his gift of the ministerial priesthood. After the Last Supper (First Mass) the apostles and Jesus made a short journey across the Kidron Valley to the Garden where he asks them to pray and he experiences his agony (cf Mt 26:30). We too will process in Church with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to a garden (the altar of repose) which has been prepared. The liturgy ends in silence. It is an ancient custom to spend an hour before the reposed Blessed Sacrament tonight. We are with Jesus in the Garden and pray as he goes through his agony. Most of our parish churches remain open until close to midnight. It was near Midnight that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, was arrested and taken to the house of the High Priest (cf Mt. 26:47).

GOOD FRIDAY, All through the night Jesus has been locked in the dungeon of the high priest’s house. Early this morning he was bought before a Pilate who transferred his case to Herod. Herod sent him back to Pilate who, sometime in the mid-morning, bowed to the pressure of the Temple leadership and the crowds, and condemned Jesus to a horrible death by crucifixion. In the late morning Jesus was taken by the soldiers through the city and up the hillside of Golgotha. By noon he is nailed to the cross where he hangs in agony for some three hours. He dies around three in the afternoon. He is taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb hastily before sundown. Today is a day of prayer, fasting and abstinence. Whenever possible, Christians are urged to keep today free of work, of social engagements, of entertainment, and to devote themselves to communal prayer and worship. At noon many parishes gather for stations of the cross for recollections of the seven last words of Jesus. Many parishes also offer staions of the cross at 3pm the hour of Jesus death. In the evening, we gather quietly in our parish Churches to enter into time of prayer as we reflect on Jesus death on the cross. We also pray for the needs of the world. To acknowledge the power of the cross in our lives today, we one by one come forward to venerate the cross with a kiss. Our hunger from this day of fasting is satisfied with Holy Communion distributed at the end of this liturgy.Consider too how the apostles might have gathered that night together in fear and prayer reflecting on all that happened.

HOLY SATURDAY – The body of Jesus is in the tomb but His soul is among the dead to announce the kingdom. The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear it will Live (John 5:25). Consider what it must have been like for the dead in Sheol to awaken to the voice of Jesus! Meanwhile The Disciples, heartbroken at the death of Jesus, observed the Jewish Sabbath in sorrow. They had forgotten the promise of Jesus that He would rise. We cannot forget His promise. We cannot forget. Tonight in our parishes after sundown we gather for the Great Easter Vigil where we will experience Jesus rising from the dead. We gather in darkness and light the Easter fire which reminds us that Jesus is light in the darkness. He is the light of the world. We enter into the church and attentively listen to Bible stories describing God’s saving work of the past. Suddenly, the church lights are lit and the Gloria is sung as we celebrate the moment of Christ’s resurrection. He Lives! In the joy of the resurrection we then celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist for our Catechumens and Candidates who have prepared for many weeks for this night. As a Church we sing Alleluia for the first time in forty days. Do everything you can to be present on this evening and invite friends and family to join. Our Vigil ushers in an Easter joy that never ends!