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MARCH 16, 2008: SUNDAY OF THE LORD'S PASSION

Readings: 

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

Many of us have been raised in such a way that after we hear today's Passion Narrative we believe our proper response is simply to say, "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you for dying for me!" Our four evangelists (and all other Christian sacred authors who describe Jesus' suffering and death) are looking for a different response. They anticipate we'll say, "Thank you for showing me how I can die for others."

If Matthew, for instance, wanted to inform us about the physical pain Jesus endured for us, he did a lousy job. He mentions almost nothing about it. Unbelievably, he describes Jesus' actual crucifixion in just one small, dependent clause: "After they had crucified him . . . ." Nothing about the horrendous pain of nails piercing his wrists, or the horrible torment of a raw, scourged back scraping against rough wood for three hours.

Our sacred authors always have their readers before their eyes. They write for them. Remember the old Williams Lectric Shave commercials? They ended with the newly shaved man slapping each side of his face and exclaiming. "Thanks! I needed that!" Except for the face slapping, our biblical writers are looking for the same response. They want their communities, after reading their works, to thank them for hitting them where it hurts; the point in their faith which is the most vulnerable, the issue they'd prefer not to address.

Jesus' followers have one goal in life: to imitate Jesus' dying and rising. We presume everyone longs for life - a content, fulfilled existence in this world, the next, or both. Christians are convinced this longed for life can be attained by walking down the road Jesus first explored; by dying throughout their earthly lives. The question is, "How do we pull that off?" Do we actually give ourselves over to the physical pain and death the historical Jesus endured late Holy Thursday night and Good Friday morning and afternoon?

No doubt for some, such physical pain and death will be necessary. But for the majority, our suffering and dying for others will consist of the psychological pain and death we willingly endure for those we love. That's why Matthew and his co-evangelists downplay the physical in their Passion Narratives and emphasize the psychological. It's the kind of suffering we most need to hear about, the kind of suffering we'll most likely face.

Listen carefully to Jesus' pain in today's gospel pericope: betrayed by a trusted friend and deserted by his most committed followers, tormented about his mission, misunderstood by those he wanted to help, falsely accused and condemned by his religious and civil leaders. Yet in spite of all these obstacles, he never stops loving, never stops giving himself.

Paul zeroes in on the same loving characteristic when he quotes a well-known early Christian hymn in our Philippians passage. "He (Jesus) emptied himself . . . . Humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." No one empties oneself for others without experiencing pain.

Deutero-Isaiah discovered this 500 years before Jesus' birth. Though Yahweh wakes him each morning, opening his ear to prepare him "to speak to the weary a word that will arouse them," it's those "weary" who seem eventually to have killed him. They're the very people who beat him, plucked his beard and spit on him.

Both Jesus and Deutero-Isaiah were convinced that one only reaches life by giving, even if the giving is misunderstood, rejected and the source of one's daily dying.

Again I remind you of Fr. Ed Hays' comment: "Jesus' first followers imitated him long before they worshiped him."