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APRIL 13, 2014: PASSION SUNDAY

Readings: 

Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The late Carroll Stuhlmueller always stressed that the best biblical definition of a follower of God is contained in today's first reading. Reflecting on his prophetic ministry in his third Song of the Suffering Servant, Deutero-Isaiah mentions, "Morning after morning Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear."

According to Stuhlmueller, true disciples hit the floor every morning with ears wide open, listening for what God is asking of them today that God didn't ask of them yesterday. The well-known and loved Scripture scholar also mentioned that the Hebrew word for "open" which the prophet uses here is the same word our sacred authors normally employ when they're talking about someone drilling out a well. It implies God's opening of our ears is a rather violent process.

As the song continues, it's clear that those whose ears are open are in for a lot of suffering.

Both Paul and Matthew agree.

In his famous Philippians "emptying" hymn the Apostle recalls how Jesus' listening to and carrying out God's word eventually led to his death.

Matthew's Passion Narrative certainly dovetails with Paul's insight about Jesus' humbling himself. But, as I always point out, none of our four Passion Narratives stresses Jesus' physical suffering. We Catholics especially must distinguish what we learned about Jesus' suffering and death from the Stations of the Cross from what we learned from the gospels. There's nothing for instance about Jesus' three falls in Scripture, the gospels never mention him meeting his mother or Veronica, and in no description of his actual crucifixion is it ever mentioned that he was nailed to the cross. (He could have been roped.)

Even Mel Gibson, in defending the gory scenes in his movie The Passion of the Christ, eventually had to admit that much of what he put on the screen came from private visions, not from the gospels.

Jesus certainly suffers in today's gospel, but almost always, it's more psychological than physical. He must endure betrayal by a best friend, his disciples' constant misunderstandings, their inability to just "watch and pray" with him, and the horrible experience of seeing his followers run away when he most needs them.

Things get psychologically worse as the narrative continues. Jesus is unjustly condemned to death by his fellow Jews, the Passover crowd chooses a murderer over him, the Roman governor first declares him innocent, then hands him over to be crucified, the person he put in charge of his followers denies he even knows him, and in the end, the only people who identify with him are some of his women disciples "looking on from a distance." When this former Galilean carpenter first began listening, shuttered his job and embarked on his itinerant preaching ministry, I don't think he had any idea of the psychological suffering it would entail.

The reason our evangelists downplay Jesus' physical suffering is clear: they're writing for people whose imitation of Jesus entails much more psychological suffering than physical. If they're serious about becoming other Christs, they'd best check their pain threshold.

Though, as far as I can tell, no gospel writer ever saw a segment of Hogan's Heroes, I'm certain they presumed there were many in their communities who could play the role of Sergeant Schultz; they especially had no problem echoing his best-known line, "I hear nothing!"

Our Scriptures were composed for people with open ears, people who listen every day to what God is asking of them. Holy Week is for listeners, those willing to become one with Jesus psychologically. On Easter Sunday morning, it might be good to reflect on what God told us this Holy Week that we didn't hear last year.