Sunday, April 17, 2011

Passion will move men beyond themselves

A single tear shed at the remembrance of the Passion of Jesus is worth more than a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or a year of fasting on bread and water. - St. Augustine

Today begins "Holy Week." The Lord wants this week to be unlike any other week in our lives — a week of grace, sorrow, repentance, and love. The week begins with the praises of Palm Sunday, changes into the screams of the crucifixion, and ends with the dead silence of the tomb. Throughout the week, we hear the sounds of crying, whipping, hammering, and blaspheming. The sounds of Holy Week are piercing and thunderous. "Jesus cried out in a loud voice, and then gave up His spirit. Suddenly the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, boulders split, tombs opened" (Mt 27:50-52).

Eventually the roar subsides, and it's our turn to join the choir. What sound will we make? Will we be sound asleep? (Mt 26:43) Or will we betray Jesus with a quiet kiss? Will we cry: "Crucify Him"? (Mt 27:23) Or will we make an act of faith and say: "Clearly this was the Son of God!" (Mt 27:54)

This easily marks one of the most important Gospel passages (Mt 26:14-27:66 or 27:11-54) we must read throughout the entire year. Yet, at the same time, it is one of the most difficult.

What strikes me most about Jesus’ Passion is his forgiveness. He knows what his fate will be, yet he still, somehow, finds the strength to carry through with God’s plan. First, Jesus enters Jerusalem with much fanfare from the crowds that have been following him during his public ministry, but those in Jerusalem are not so impressed. Within days of first encountering him, the city turns so against him, they are willing to kill him.

Then he knows his closest friends, those he had hand-chosen to follow him, will all abandon him. It is almost a defeatist attitude Jesus shows when he tells the apostles he knows they will all fold under the pressure of staying with him that fateful night. Who could blame Jesus if he had that attitude? How much must it have pained Jesus to hear Peter’s bravado, how the apostles would all stay with Jesus even to the point of dying themselves? He knew they would disperse. Then Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake with Jesus for one hour in the garden. To top it off, Judas finally comes with soldiers to take Jesus away. But after all of this, how does Jesus refer to Judas? He calls Judas “Friend.”

We can find so much of ourselves in this snippet of the Passion. Like Peter, I have talked a big game. I think I have this unshakable faith that can help me sum up the strength necessary to back it up with action. When the time comes, though, when I am truly tested, I fall. What I thought was conviction, was really a hopeful prediction. I have a great prayerful experience, a time of fulfillment at Mass, and I think I am ready for the test. To make matters worse, sometimes this test comes quickly after what I thought was a “life-changing experience.” The result? Failure. Not only could I not stick to my beliefs with actions, but I turn my back on Jesus and betray him through sin. And yet Jesus knew this would happen. He knew about each of my failures, even before his crucifixion. He knew I would falter.

But Jesus still did what was necessary. He went all the way. Even though he must have been deeply discouraged, to put it mildly, he still found the strength to do God’s will. And after all of this, he still turns to us, after we betray him through sin, and calls us “Friend.” How is that possible? It’s possible because Jesus believes in us. It’s possible because he never fails to forgive us. But it’s up to us to seek that forgiveness and receive his mercy.

How can we do this? How can we face Jesus after betraying him? We must remember Jesus is there, waiting for us in the confessional. And he wants to meet us there. Before this Easter Triduum, let us take Jesus up on this offer of forgiveness and mercy. Let us commit ourselves to the sacraments, especially Reconciliation, and prepare ourselves for this incredibly important time of year.

If we can do this, if we can commit to seeking God’s mercy, we will have the strength to back up our faith. Then when Jesus turns to look at us, we won’t feel the need to flee into the night as Peter did during that first Holy Thursday. No, Jesus will turn to us and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the master.”

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