Today’s reflection is on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, April 14, 2019, and the readings can be found by clicking here.
Today’s Gospel is the saddest moment in human history—namely, the death of God on earth. The narrative could have gone a thousand different ways. If Pilate had been courageous enough to stand up for what he knew was true about Jesus’ innocence things would have been different. If Herod had cared as much about God and the Messiah as he did about wealth and power things could have been different. If the religious leaders were open to the possibility that they didn’t have it all figured out, and that as much as they believed otherwise, Jesus could indeed have been their long-awaited king. If Jesus had not gone to Jerusalem; if Judas had not betrayed him; if any one of the soldiers stood by Jesus’ side and said, “Enough!”
But none of those things happened, and in today’s Gospel we see ridicule, sadness, brokenness, arrogance, violence, selfishness, suffering, and the death of innocence, righteousness, purity, and holiness. And sometimes that’s just the way life goes. Life is indeed difficult and often unfair. Here is your cross. It’s no wonder Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (MT 16:24).
I’ve had experiences in my own life where there was no light—only darkness. In the midst of my suffering I did not see answers, only questions. I did not feel the presence of God in those moments, and I can identify very strongly with the Psalmist today, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” When we are in the midst of that darkness we cry out to God but do not always hear an answer. We are in our Holy Week. We find ourselves on our way of the cross.
There were fourteen stations on Jesus’ way to his tomb. There may have been more, but certainly not less. Sometimes our via de la cruz seems not to have fourteen, but rather a hundred! But fourteen or a hundred, the truth is that the cross, and the way of the cross are essential to salvation. We know it’s true of Jesus, and we believe it true for ourselves—that without the cross there is no resurrection. And so, we do not lament our journey of suffering, we embrace our cross, and journey to the tomb in joyful hope in the resurrection. Jesus told his disciples, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (JN 12:24)
I know that the cross is necessary for salvation, but to be honest, I don’t often accept it well. Like Jesus, my prayer is to avoid the cross! And like Jesus, I do accept God’s will and that it be done in my life. But quite unlike Jesus, in the midst of my trial, I do not remain silent when others plot against me, when my friends betray me, when others wrongfully accuse me, when haters mock me, and when my cross is thrust upon me. More often than not, I am entirely unwilling to forgive those who persecute me, and when others see my sadness and suffering, I seek first their prayer for me, rather than to think to pray for them. I need to be a lot more like Jesus—that’s for sure!
Jesus’ attitude given to us in the letter to the Philippians, and his example in today’s Gospel, can teach us what to do to get through tough times. Philippians tell us, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:6-8) I think being found in human appearance we too need to humble ourselves. Humility reminds us that we are but servants with a job to do. We are not promised anything in this life of service, though because of God’s goodness, we sometimes get more than we deserve. We need to start with humility.
Our humility teaches us that we cannot do this alone. We need the power of God to see us through our darkness and pain. Knowing that we need God to get us through, opens us up to prayer. When we go through our trial, it’s helpful to remain in prayer as Jesus did. I think Jesus’ prayer kept him close to God his father at all times. I know as Catholics we have lots of memorized prayers, but sometimes, we just need to talk to God, with regular words, about the truth of our experience. Just close the door and talk to God who always hears us.
It was the presence of his father and his faith in his father that allowed him to hope in his vindication and restoration. When we know that our God is with us, walking and talking with us, encouraging us, living within us, and providing his strength to see us through, then we have confidence and hope in whatever happens or however it turns out. That’s called Christian hope! It’s an attitude of insurmountable optimism. We always look ahead, never down and never behind. God is good and will see us through.
And I think that’s how Jesus was able to love and forgive even while he suffered. Sometimes when we are hurting we lash out, feel sorry for ourselves, and become bitter with others. We love when life is easy, but when hardship comes we turn inward and close ourselves off, if not to God, sometimes to the world. But Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus never stopped loving, praying for, encouraging, and forgiving all the way to his death. We cannot be people who love only when we are loved. If so, we become little more than leaves blowing in the wind. If someone is kind then so are we. If someone is mean then so are we. This is not who we are! We are children of light and love. Period. That’s who we are in good times and in bad. We are called at all times and in all places, like Jesus, to love God and neighbor. And it’s our hope, rooted in faith that will make it so.
And so, as it turns out, only these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. So, as we journey through this holy week, may we be the people of prayer that makes us people who love in spite of our cross. Amen.
When I suffer, do I go to prayer or do I complain, become bitter, and lash out at others?
What cross have I carried in the recent past? Do I recognize the presence of God who was able to see me through?
Is there some way that God is calling me to be Simon of Cyrene, helping someone I may not even know to carry their cross?