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