16 April 2011

Dominica in Palmis de Passione Domini

First Reading, Isaiah 50:4-7
Certainly Isaiah and all the true prophets of God had well-trained tongues because they were taught by their Creator. Later, their Teacher would clothe Himself in flesh and become Man to speak the infallible words of everlasting life. Prayer in the morning is vital so that we can put on the armor of Christ before we venture off to another day on the battlefield. Through prayer, ears are opened and prepared to hear the Voice of the Master. A life without prayer is a life that rebels; a life that turns back. Pious souls, however, are not exempt from stumbling. Sin leads to humbling experiences for the devout Christian. It shows us that we're not always a top-notch player for the team. Sometimes we are in dire need of other team players to stop us from turning back. This is the work of the various body parts going to bat for the sake of the entire mystical body. Our enemy is a tempter and knows exactly what can take our focus away from God. Our shame, failures and disappointments, however, can be visualized on a willing Victim in the form of a scourged Back, a Face of spittle, a Head wearing a crown of thorns, Feet and Hands with nails driven through them, and finally death. And yet "finally" is a bad word choice because, fortunately for our undeserving souls, death is not where it ends. The final verse expresses the suffering Servant's inalterable confidence in God. That confidence is something that every disciple of Christ strives for. Saint Paul teaches us about our different callings and the gifts we possess as individuals (cf. Ephesians 4:11). Having a "well-trained tongue" does not necessarily mean the tongue as a physical body part. Certainly for liturgical readers and homilists it could mean the physical tongue; but as Saint Francis of Assisi said to use words if necessary, then certainly tongues can be metaphoric and points to the old adage: Actions speak louder than words. And for many of us our gifts of service are displayed by our actions and not necessarily our words. Gifts used in service help to build up the body of Christ.

Second Reading, Philippians 2:6-11
The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that by attributing to Jesus the divine title "Lord", the first confessions of the Church's faith affirm from the beginning that the power, honor, and glory due to God the Father are due also to Jesus, because He was in the form of God, and the Father manifested the sovereignty of Jesus by raising Him from the dead and exalting Him into His glory (cf. CCC 449). Our hearts would implode if we fully understood the love that compels Christ's actions described here in this letter from Saint Paul. First, consider God as the Creator. Look all around and see His created beauty. At night, look at the sky and know that out there is an infinite universe full of countless stars, galaxies and planets. And yet, the Creator of all that is known and unknown joined the ranks of humanity, mere specs of dust in this vast universe, subjecting Himself to our lower nature and becoming a willing Victim for that fallen nature because He loves us far beyond any love that any human being is capable of expressing. His Sacrifice for us because of His love for us is summarized here in this Reading; but also contemplate how close our Savior must surely keep us to His own Sacred Heart by reflecting on the fallen angels. They are often referred to as demons. Their arrogant ambition to be gods rendered them fallen from grace with an eternity to think about their actions. In other words, God never became one of them to redeem them. Unfortunately, our lack of comprehension of God's love for us will for this lifespan make us fall short in expressing our gratitude to God for saving us. What we can do is strive to follow the example Jesus gives us in the Gospels and remain in a state of grace to partake of His precious Body and Blood which He commands us to do in memory of Him. And like the example of Jesus depicted in this Reading, follow the exhortations of Saint Paul by placing the interests of others before our own (cf. Philippians 2:3-4).

Gospel, Matthew 26:14---27:66
Without question the Church has been scarred by the priestly abuse scandal. Most likely you've overheard or perhaps even have been engaged in conversations that go something like this: "I'm never going to Confession again! Why should I confess my sins to a priest when they're doing things far worse?" Yes, some heinous acts have been committed by men wearing clerical collars but we're not in the business of reading hearts. Jesus Christ, however, can read hearts and He knew what He was getting when He made Judas Iscariot an apostle. Because of this, the only conclusion than can possibly be reached is that Christ elevated Judas to the office of apostle as a reminder to all of us that the flock will not find faith in every shepherd. Let us not forget, though, that Holy Orders and Confession are both Sacraments which mean that they were not only instituted by Christ, but Christ also is present in the Sacrament. When a priest absolves you of your sins, Christ absolves you of your sins regardless of the current spiritual state of the priest. Sin, not even mortal sin, can compete with Christ's mercy. As Catholics, we know the risks of walking around with wounds punctured into our souls caused by our own doing. Is avoiding Reconciliation really worth the risk of potential danger to our souls simply because of the actions of a small percentage of priests? "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mark 8:37). Our Holy Father of blessed memory, Pope John Paul II, defined Lent as a season for intense prayer. In the spiritual life, what is more intense than meditating on the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ? Saint Matthew's version begins with Judas being paid off to betray Jesus. The scene then shifts to the apostles preparing for the Passover. Something worth reflecting on here is how we prepare ourselves for Mass. Compare the two scenes: Eleven apostles are preparing in the way that Christ would have them prepare. Judas, on the other hand, is concerned with conducting his business, albeit a rather shady form of business. Prayer at home and at church before Mass should be part of the routine to prepare ourselves for the holiest hour of the day. When the time draws near our hearts and minds need to be eased from all those concerns that weigh them down all week. It's very difficult for a cluttered house to properly receive our Lord in Word and Sacrament. While they were at table eating, Jesus revealed to the apostles that one of them will betray Him. Certainly sin is a form of betrayal. Lent is a time for renewal, a time for recommitment to our Lord, a time to let go of the pride that would have us say: "Surely it is not I, Rabbi?" Not a good question! If we could audibly hear Christ's Voice, He would undoubtedly respond by saying: "You have said so." Sadly, it is I, Lord. But hear the Lord's words: "Return to Me, for I have redeemed you" (Isaiah 44:22). "This is My Body -- This is My Blood." What do these words mean? They are perhaps the most mysterious words in the universe, not necessarily by definition but more so by how it is possible. Officially, these words define the Eucharist, one of the seven Sacraments of the Church and perhaps the most crucial Sacrament to Christocentric living. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Eucharist as the "Sacrament of sacraments" (cf. CCC 1211). Jeremiah prophesied about a new covenant: "Behold the days shall come, says the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31). The Eucharist frees us from bondage because the Eucharist is the Bondsman. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a contemporary of some of the apostles, defined the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death, by which we always live in Christ. In the encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" Pope John Paul II wrote the following words about the Eucharist: "It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became Man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One Who made it from nothing. He, the Eternal High Priest Who by the Blood of His Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father, all creation redeemed. He does so through the priestly ministry of the Church, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity. Truly this is the mysterium fidei [mystery of faith] which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the Hands of God the Creator, now returns to Him redeemed by Christ. The Eucharist, as Christ's saving Presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual Food, is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history." Sadly, not everyone believes what we Catholics believe about the Eucharist. For scholarly unbelievers, the one verse in scripture that is usually avoided like the plague is found in Saint John's Gospel when Jesus says: "My Flesh is real Food and My Blood is real Drink" (John 6:55). The word "real" is translated from the Greek word "alethos" which means, "truly" or "in reality" or "most certainly" or "literally". There's just no convincing means to explain away, water down, or bend and twist "alethos" to make our Lord's Body and Blood appear to have a symbolic application. When Jesus went to a place called Gethsemane, He prayed to His heavenly Father and concluded His prayer with the words: "Not as I will, but as You will." As Christians, surely we all want to follow Christ's example and pray these very same words, but these words can be frightening. There's something inside of us that needs to call our own shots. Trusting God above ourselves is very difficult. Oddly enough, the saints may very well have something to do with that feeling of uneasiness. Undoubtedly we honor them and applaud them for their holy example; but even if you've never read the life of any saint, you're still likely to be familiar with the "high profile" saints. A common thread which seems to run through the lives of a great deal of the saints are the sufferings they've endured. There's Padre Pio and the stigmata he bore for fifty years; there's Thérèse of Lisieux and her holy acceptance of tuberculosis; and then there's the legends of the bible like Saint Paul and the sufferings which he never seemed to be without. And, of course Moses, who made this plea to God, as translated from the Hebrew: "I am not able to bear all these people alone because it is too burdensome for me. And if You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray You, out of hand, if I have found favor in Your Eyes; and let me not see my evil" (Numbers 11:14-15). Perhaps the inability of Moses "to bear all these people alone" points towards the Messiah Who would alone bear the burdens of everyone. There's a fear factor in letting go and letting God take over. In fact, it was Saint Teresa of Avila who said, "Dear Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!" While suffering uniquely and very intimately unites us to Christ, in many cases, and understandably so, suffering actually flickers the flames of faith. When suffering arrives, hear the Voice of Christ: "You will have your faith in Me shaken." While that might not be the most comforting words to ever come from our Saviour, they do teach us that He is with us and thus we're never alone. The psalmist writes: "Where can I go, then, to take refuge from Your Spirit, to hide from Your view? If I should climb up to heaven, You are there; if I sink down to the world beneath, You are present still. If I could wing my way eastwards, or find a dwelling beyond the western sea, still would I find You beckoning to me, Your right Hand upholding me" (Psalm [138] 139:7-10). Shortly after the tragic tsunami of 2004, a Mass was offered in Rome for the tsunami victims. The Celebrant and Homilist was at that time the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. During the homily Cardinal Sodano proclaimed in his native Italian: "Dio è sempre vicino a noi! -- God is always close to us!" Cardinal Sodano then went on to tell a story in which a wayfarer falls in the mud; and as he is sinking into the mire he cries out: "Where are you, O my God?" Immediately he hears a mysterious Voice from on High responding: "I am with you in the mud!" A comforting thought but admittedly there are times when God seems so far away. To assure us of His closeness, though, our Savior taught us something when He was only twelve years old when He said to His Blessed Mother: "Did you not know that I must be in My Father's house?" (Luke 2:49). Jesus waits for us at His Father's house in the Tabernacles of every Catholic Church in the world, longing for us to visit Him and pour out our hearts to Him. Our Lord was betrayed by Judas and arrested. Our mixed bag of being human contains life experiences of both Jesus and Judas. We have been betrayed -- we have betrayed. Pride, however, is that one ungodly ingredient which wreaks havoc. Pride makes it equally difficult to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Knowing how difficult it is to ask for forgiveness might make the process of forgiving simpler. When Jesus is apprehended, violence breaks out when one of His disciples severs the ear of the high priest's servant. Jesus says to His disciple: "Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon My Father and He will not provide Me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels?" Consider the sword to be the reluctance to forgive. If we cannot forgive, it would be bold to think we are forgiven. What Jesus says about the legions of angels could help soothe the whirlwind of emotions caused by suffering. When suffering occurs, do you believe that Christ could stop it? Why, then, are there times when He doesn't stop it? The saints had such a pious acceptance of suffering. They trusted that a greater good would come from it because God permitted the suffering to take place. One thing that is seldom, if ever thought about is the amount of times that suffering has its sights set on us but our Lord stops it in its tracks. Of course there's no way of knowing how many times this happens but no doubt "the devil, who is your enemy, goes about roaring like a lion, to find his prey" (1 Peter 5:8). As our Lord's captors led Him away, Peter followed at a distance. In the spiritual life there are several ways to follow Jesus at a distance. Perhaps the most common example is to go to Mass every Sunday, then leave the Lord alone all week and not give Him another thought until the following Sunday. But a way that is more closely related to Peter's distance is when Mass is attended weekly or even daily, there's a daily devotional life as well; but when that faith is challenged, and suddenly there's a risk of mockery or friendships are jeopardized, you back off a little from being a living witness and defending your faith just to avoid being the talk of the town, so to speak. You may still attend Mass and continue with the daily prayers but you've abandoned your evangelistic example and thus your faith becomes a very private matter. This also is very much likened to Peter's thrice denial of Jesus. Peter knew Who Jesus was and had faith in his Teacher but when he felt threatened by others because of his relationship with his Lord, he was suddenly out of his comfort zone and wanted quickly to avoid what could be a tense situation. During the initial interrogation Jesus tells the high priest Caiaphas that he will see the Son of man seated at the right Hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. In the Book of Daniel are the prophetic words: "I beheld therefore in the vision of the night, and lo, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven" (Daniel 7:13). Judas regretted betraying Jesus but his anguish lacked true repentance and thus can be defined more as despair. He seemingly denied himself the opportunity to plunge into God's ocean of mercy and therefore saw no hope for himself, thus taking his own life. Jesus said: "Woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed. It would be better for him if that man had not been born" (Mark 14:21). Our Lord does not say this because Judas betrayed Him. After all, our Savior did teach that whoever speaks a word against the Son of man shall be forgiven (cf. Matthew 12:32). It would seem to the naked eye, however, that Judas diverts himself from God's mercy which is a sin against the Holy Spirit; and in that same passage from Matthew Jesus says that speaking against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. In the Book of Psalms are found the words: "An ill master let him have, and an accuser ready at his side; let him leave the court of judgment a doomed man, pleading with heaven in vain. Swiftly let his days come to an end, and his office be entrusted to another" (Psalm [108] 109:6-8). Are these the words of prophecy concerning Judas? Maybe -- maybe not. But who can possibly determine if Judas was mentally stable when he took his own life or if he perhaps repented at the last breath of life and embraced the mercy of God? Through the process leading up to beatification, the Church makes the determination that a soul is in heaven. God's saving grace can never be underestimated and for that reason the Church will never determine that any soul has been eternally condemned. When Jesus was questioned by Pontius Pilate and accused by the chief priests, much to Pilate's amazement, our Lord remained silent. Silence is such a tremendous gift but is a foreign notion in today's world. Silence speaks a trust in God louder than any words. A Carthusian monk, Augustin Guillerand (1877-1945) wrote: "There are times when we do not need any words of prayer, neither our own nor anyone else's, and then we pray in perfect silence. This perfect silence is the ideal prayer." Shouting, on the other hand, can be used to try to deaden the truth as evidenced in this Gospel when the crowd shouted to have Jesus crucified. Pilate knew the truth that Jesus did nothing wrong but the crowd shouted even louder: "Let Him be crucified!" Shouting is forceful vocalization and thus can be used to brainwash the other party into believing that their lie is the truth; or be intimidated into accepting what they know to be untrue. Pontius Pilate was intimidated into accepting a lie when he said: "I am innocent of this Man's Blood. Look to it yourselves." In the release of Barabbas is seen our own release from bondage and Christ's willingness to serve our sentence. In Simon of Cyrene is found a very literal response to Christ's command to take up our cross and follow Him (cf. Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, & Luke 9:23). But since Simon was pressed into this service, what is also seen is a very human hesitancy to accept the cross. Our Lord does not ask us to seek out a cross in which to bear, but only to accept it when it comes. When Jesus is crucified and His garments divided, there is the fulfillment of what is written in the Psalms: "They parted My garments amongst them; and upon My vesture they cast lots" (Psalm [21] 22:19). On the Cross was placed the written charge against our Savior: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews". A better English translation is: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews". The Latin words are: "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudæorum" which explains the "INRI" inscription found on most Crucifixes. Isaiah prophesied about a servant who would be counted among the wicked (cf. Isaiah 53:12). Christ fulfills this by being crucified with two revolutionaries, one on His right and the other on His left. The two revolutionaries on the cross could easily be you and I. It matters not if we're on the left or right, but the comforting thought we can take with us is that Jesus comes to meet us on our cross. The psalmist writes: "They stare at me and gloat" (Psalm [21] 22:19). Those who reviled Jesus and the mockery He received from the chief priests, scribes and elders is the fulfillment of this passage. Little did our Savior's enemies know that as they tempt Him and try to force Him to show His Divine Power by coming down from the Cross, in reality His love for them is what kept Him on that Cross. We hear those same voices in our lives as we look for a way out when a cross has entered into our lives. "About three o'clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' which means, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'" These are the opening words to Psalm [21] 22. Most likely Jesus finished the remainder of the psalm in the silence of His Heart. Those who were Christ's followers must have been amazed to hear that even He could bellow out such words. Most scholars believe that these words are our Savior's way of placing His Human Nature into our human circumstances and showing us that He understands our occasional feelings of abandonment. Nevertheless while He is hanging from that Cross, He also shows us that He is willing to be with us even through the most hellish experiences. There are some, however, who have theorized that during this torturous crucifixion, Christ's Human Nature blocked out His Divine Nature and He actually felt abandoned by His heavenly Father. One can only speculate on the mystery of the interior life of a Divine Person Who possesses both a Divine and Human Nature. At Mass when the priest elevates the Host and elevates the Cup and our eyes move upward to behold our Eucharistic Lord as we're kneeling in the shadow of the Cross, this brief glimpse into eternity allows us to look at Him from the same vantage point as His Blessed Mother saw Him when He said to her: "Behold your Son" (John 19:26). What a marvelous opportunity to contemplate Jesus Christ through the eyes of the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking her to reveal that which scripture says she keeps in her heart (cf. Luke 2:19 & Luke 2:51). "Jesus cried out again in a loud Voice, and gave up His Spirit." During Mass we will kneel and pause in a moment of silence after these words have been proclaimed. The veil of the sanctuary being torn in two from top to bottom signifies God's call to end all sacrifices according to the law of Moses because our heavenly Father has accepted Christ's one and eternal Sacrifice for the redemption of humanity. Saint Matthew tells us that the earth quaked and the bodies of the saints were raised. The rising of the saints probably did not occur until after Christ's Resurrection. Most likely it is mentioned here to point out that the earthquake was the alarm to prepare the saints to depart from death forever. "The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, 'Truly, this was the Son of God!'" It is doubtful that these men truly understood the magnitude of the words "Son of God" but their brief lapse from their Roman paganish ideals was enough time for the Holy Spirit to enter into the depths of their being and cause them to speak the words that would be heard for an eternity. Logically it would have been somewhere around four o'clock when Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate for the Body of Jesus. By Jewish law Jesus would have to be placed in the tomb before sundown which begins the preparation for the Sabbath. In the eyes of the chief priests and Pharisees, Christ's claim to be the Messiah makes Him an impostor. His Crucifixion, however, effectively supports our Savior's claim and fulfills what has been foretold by the prophets. If His Body were to be missing from the tomb after three days, it would be difficult for the chief priests and Pharisees to falsify our Lord's prediction that the Temple would rise in three days. Therefore, they ask Pilate to have a guard placed at the tomb. Pilate's tone seems to be one that has grown weary of the whole Jesus saga and thus grants their request as if to say: "Yeah, whatever!" The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is a love story, the love that God has for His people. Our Lord's Passion is the most loving, charitable act in human history. And now it's our turn to follow in His Footsteps and love Him by our selfless acts of charity towards one another. The hymn, "Where Charity and Love Prevail" says it well with these lyrics: "With grateful joy and holy fear God's charity we learn; let us with heart and mind and soul, now love God in return. Forgive we now each other's faults, as we our faults confess; and let us love each other well in Christian holiness."