Apr212014
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APRIL 1, 2012: PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD'S PASSION

Readings: 

Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

During my final Licentiate exam 47 years ago, I started sweating when my Gregorian University professor (and world's expert on Jesus' divinity) Bernard Lonergan pushed a copy of the Christian Scriptures across the table and asked me to prove Jesus is God from one of the three Agony in the Garden passages.

I couldn't.

After I finally confessed, "I can't prove he's God from this passage," Lonergan smiled and said, "Correct! No one can. In Gethsemane Jesus is a human being."

After Lonergan's segment of the exam ended, he shook my hand, asked where I lived in the States, then gave me an unexpected piece of advice. "When you get home, forget a lot of the stuff I taught you about the Trinity and Jesus' divinity. Preach Jesus' humanity, it's the only part of Jesus with whom your people can identify."

We who preach during this holiest of weeks should keep Lonergan's words in the back of our minds. Most of the authors of the Christian Scriptures we'll hear during the next few days agree with him. We especially see Jesus' humanity breaking through in today's second and third readings.

Notice first how, once our four gospel Passion Narratives begin, Jesus' miraculous powers cease. Except for restoring a servant's lopped-off ear in Luke's Gethsemane account, Jesus works no miracles during a time we'd expect him to work lots of miracles. He faces suffering and death as any of us would face them - with only his humanity to fall back on.

Second, though we still have Deutero-Isaiah's reflection on his physical torture ringing in our ears, we're given a different picture of Jesus. No one doubts he endured great physical pain during his passion, but our evangelists rarely zero in on that aspect of his suffering. In today's Marcan account, for instance, the first mention of any physical pain comes only half-way through the narrative when his Jewish guards strike him and say, "Prophesy!" His actual crucifixion is described in just four words, "Then they crucified him. . . .”

On the other hand, Jesus' psychological suffering is constantly front and center. He's betrayed by one of his Twelve, all his disciples desert him in the garden, his own people reject him, and the leader of his small band of followers caves into pressure and swears, "I do not know the man." When push comes to shove, the Jerusalem Passover crowd even chooses a murderer over him.

There can be only one reason for this consistent emphasis on Jesus' psychological suffering: that's the kind of pain most of his followers endure every day in their imitation of him. Rarely does being another Christ demand physical suffering. But we can never avoid the mental pain and stress which accompanies our giving of ourselves to others. And, like the gospel Jesus, we can't expect God to miraculously take it away. Only by going through it do we eventually reach the life Jesus attained. Instead of thanking Jesus for dying for us, we should be thanking him for showing us how to die for others.

We should listen to our well-known Philippians against this same background. Instead of hearing this early Christian hymn in the context of John 1, which speaks of Jesus' pre-existence as God, we should be hearing it in the context of Genesis 1, which speaks of all humans being created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus never falls back on a prerogative all of us share: our likeness to God. On the contrary, only by taking the "form of a slave" - by identifying with the most powerless - does Jesus eventually receive the "name above every name:" Yahweh.

Unless we humans mentally become one with Jesus this week, his being one with us won't make any sense.