Truly This is the Son of God
As I write this, it is Palm Sunday. We also call this Passion Sunday in the Catholic Church, because our custom on this day is to begin with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and carry this all the way through to the bitter end of the crucifixion. We begin by taking up palm fronds and processing joyfully into Mass together to welcome our Lord into our midst, and by the end of the service, we have witnessed his lifeless body placed in the tomb, as he is taken from us. This always touches me deeply, as our emotions run the full range from the joy that comes from joining the crowds that welcome our Lord, to the ultimate and crushing despair of his death. We fail him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then, watching in utter horror, he is beaten nearly to death and then led away to be slaughtered in the most hideous form of execution man ever devised.
This is always a good time, as we wait in anticipation of the joy that will be ours again on Easter Sunday, to ponder all the ways in which we, his modern disciples, are so much like the originals. Like Judas, we betray him by believing we know the answers on our own, and so we become self absorbed and self indulgent, and we learn from his example how truly self destructive this kind of sin can be. We also deny our Lord as did Peter, by believing that on our own we have the strength and the courage to follow him to the cross and offer ourselves up in the same way. And so Matthew 26: 40-42 takes on a special and personal meaning for each of us:
“And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.’
It is at that point at which we believe ourselves closest to him that we fall away. It is when we believe we have the strength to be there for him when he needs us most that, instead, we fall asleep in our faith, and the terrible truth is revealed in us that it is Christ alone who is the one among us worthy to drink the wrath of God for our sin. So he accepts this on our behalf while we sleep. And soon Judas appears with the temple guard so as to betray him to his persecutors: the crowd in the courtyard of the praetorium that shouts, "Barabbas!" as we stand silent; afraid of what the world might think of us, and so unable to shout the name of Jesus: the man we claim to love as the Son of God he is. No wonder the cross breaks our hearts!
The betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter are solitary acts that teach us that when we act alone we are not worthy to be his disciples. We are instead only worthy to die as the thieves rightfully crucified alone on either side of our Master. And so we hang there condemned for our own sins as he dies for the sins of us all. In this one last chance, we have the choice to decide which of these thieves we want to be. Are we like the world and more worldly thief, Gestas, who alone in his sin mocks the Lord, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" Or are we the like the good thief, St. Dismas, who begs the Lord to join his disciples in the last hour of his life, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The lesson is that our lives are never wasted, and, right up until the moment we draw our last breath, salvation is ours but for the asking: a gift paid for with the highest price there is -- the life of God Himself. And the point of free will is that this gift is also ours alone to reject. God chooses us and offers to us, at the last possible moment, "This day you will be with me in paradise." The decision to accept and join his kingdom is ours and the truth is, therefore, that God condemns no one to hell, but merely gives each of us alone the option to choose it by choosing the kingdom of the world. And, tragically, most do.
Then the moment that all history to that point had anticipated, and all history since has marveled at, occurs. In our Saturday evening Mass, as this moment came in our service, the cold, spring rain that fell outside gave way to lightning and rolling claps of thunder that punctuated the Word commemorating this, the moment of our salvation. This occurred as theses words were read from the 27th chapter of St. Matthew's gospel:
“And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
“When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’”
These events were such that even the battle-hardened pagan soldiers with St. Longinus, the man who pierced the Sacred Heart of our Lord, recognized in Jesus the Holy Son of God. Read again what occurred at the moment his human life left the body of Jesus, and ponder the awesome nature of what has truly happened.
Through the corrupt and worldly politics of the high priest and the temple, which compromised the faith, and feared the power of the world more than that of God, the long awaited and most beloved Messiah has been condemned. By the corrupt and worldly politics of the pagan Roman province, which worshiped death and called it justice, the Holy Christ, who Pilate himself proclaimed innocent, has been executed. Of the Twelve, Judas has betrayed him, Peter has denied him, and, save that disciple whom Jesus loved in the person of St. John, the rest have deserted him. In the 19th chapter of his gospel, this same John tells us that beside himself, "...standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene." Of the multitudes who hailed him as king on Palm Sunday, it is these few who remain to see him proclaimed as such by heaven at the climax of Good Friday.
As the Holy Lance pierces his Sacred Heart, the Most Precious Blood of our salvation, and the Holy Water of our baptism, pours forth upon these first converts, and the Church age so begins. As Jesus hangs lifeless on the cross, the curtain of the temple is rent, and we see the Holy of Holies, the Most Blessed Sacrament, exposed before our eyes. Upon his head is the crown of thorns with which the world has mocked him, and which for us is now the coronet that crowns him, King of kings and Lord of lords. The earth itself has trembled and shook, the rocks have split, and the tombs of the netherworld have opened so as to reveal the ancient saints. It is they who will arise with him and, by their mere presence, give shocking testimony to this wretched holy city that the Christ they mocked is King. And darkness and terror fell upon this city that had rejected him, as this world and all who chose it now stood condemned.
While this small band, and even the Roman soldiers who witnessed this, understood at this moment who Jesus truly was, those disciples who knew him best, and had promised him the most, were also doubters in heart like most of us in these postmodern times. They would require more proof even than this. And so it would not truly be brought home to all of them until they had seen the risen and living Jesus in the upper room for a second time. And so John relates to us in chapter 20 of his Gospel:
“Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.
“So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
“Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you.’
“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’
Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’
This is where Easter brings us:
We revisit the moment of our salvation and we witness in our hearts what those present witnessed with their eyes, and so we too believe. And our response can be no different than that of Longinus, who became his disciple in the anguish of that moment, and, with the Precious Blood of Christ upon him, cried out at the cross, "Truly, this was the Son of God!"
The end result of this belief is for us, therefore, the same as it was for St. Thomas and the other ten who remained: through our fears and our doubts, through our human imperfection and arrogance, beyond our denial of him and in spite of our betrayal, Jesus has come to once more stand in our midst in the upper room of the hearts of those who truly love him. It is here where he first gave himself to us in the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist, and so revealed in us the mighty truth, and eternal glory, of his Real and Holy Presence. And it is here he invites us to come again and again, that we might know him in this same and most intimate way. He invites us to put our finger in the nail prints of his hand, and place our hand where his Sacred Heart was opened for us. And he tells us to be not faithless but believing.
It is at this moment we cease to merely believe and come to actually know who this Jesus is and what he has done for us. He has truly saved us from ourselves, and out of the world which has condemned us to death as surely as it has him. From the bottom of our sin blackened hearts, now touched by this greatest love, and in our sin tainted souls, now washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb so offered by God for us, we finally recognize who this Jesus is and what he truly means to us. And so our own hearts are rent as we exclaim with our ancient brother Thomas, with all who came to know him then, with all who have come to know him since, and with all who will come to know him yet, "My Lord and my God!" It is at this moment we know that his kingdom is not of this world. And, because we belong to him, neither is ours.
When the corrupt and worldly politics of the Church compromises the faith and fears the power of the world more than that of God, then so Jesus is once again condemned by his own people. When the corrupt and worldly politics of our postmodern, pagan world condemns the innocent to death, and worships death and calls it justice, so is he executed again in the least of these so persecuted. And when we choose to sacrifice our own faith in Christ by compromise with the world that has thus rejected him, then we may hail him on Palm Sunday, only to find that we have betrayed him and denied him on Holy Thursday, and then deserted him at the cross on Good Friday. And if we do not repent of this, then Easter becomes for us merely the empty celebration of this world God has condemned.
Compromise with the fallen world cannot save us but condemns us. It is Christ, and he alone, who saves us. To receive him in the upper room as our Lord and God means having the courage to stand shoulder to shoulder and shout, "Jesus!" in the courtyard of the praetorium. And to stand by him at the cross and cry out to the world, "Truly this is the son of God!"
Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.
All Biblical quotes from The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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