Palm Sunday

If anyone asks you why you are untying it [the ass the disciples were sent to find], this must be your answer, ‘The Lord has need of it’ (Lk 19:31). Perhaps no greater paradox was ever written than this: on the one hand the sovereignty of the Lord, and on the other hand his ‘need’. His combination of Divinity and dependence, of possession and poverty was a consequence of the Word becoming flesh. Truly, he who was rich became poor for our sakes, that we might become rich. Our Lord borrowed a boat from a fisherman from which to preach; he borrowed barley loaves and fishes from a boy to feed a multitude; he borrowed a grave from which he would rise; and now he borrows an ass on which to enter Jerusalem. Sometimes God pre-empts and requisitions the things of man, as if to remind him that everything is a gift from him.

Fulton Sheen, The Life of Jesus

The scene depicted in today’s Gospel seems like a triumph. Jerusalem is celebrating: those gathered treat Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the triumphal entry of the Messiah. People lay down their clothes and wave palm branches. The crowd cry out for God to save them, and that is exactly what he will do in a few days time, upon the Cross. This is a God who keeps his promises and who also defies human expectations. The masses in Jerusalem are expecting a king of the Davidic line. One who would be seen as a challenge to the ruling élite, the status quo. But in, Christ, God gives Israel something else: a King of the line of David, yes, but one who rules with love, who has no desire for power, or honour. Leaders and those in authority are threatened by him: Jesus turns their world on its head. He is an awkward inconvenience. Jesus does not want their power. He has come to be and do something completely different. What is seen as a potential political coup is in fact a renewal of religion, the fulfilment of prophecy, and a new hope for Israel.

In riding into Jerusalem Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah: 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)

The King of Israel comes riding on a donkey: a humble beast of burden, which carried his Mother to Bethlehem for his birth, and carried the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. It is an act of humble leadership which fulfils what was foreseen by the prophets. It shows us that Jesus Christ is truly the one who fulfils the hopes of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the deliverance of Israel, which is enacted in front of their very eyes. God is saving His people, but they cannot see it. In a few days time all will have changed, love will turn to hatred; joy to sadness. 

This is why today, and throughout Holy Week, we will have readings from the prophet Isaiah, which are known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. This morning we see the servant being mistreated. He is struck on the back, his beard is torn out, he is spat at and insulted. This will all come to pass as Our Lord goes to the Cross on Good Friday. It is the fulfilment of prophecy. God will show us how much he loves us by enduring such treatment.The events of Holy Week demonstrate what humanity is capable of: anger, hatred, bitterness, mob rule, and the desire to have a scapegoat, someone to blame. This is fallen, sinful humanity at its worst, and we will see more of it over the coming days. It should shock us, we should feel sick to the pits of our stomachs, because it shows us why Christ had to die — to overcome human sin, the world, and the Devil with the redemptive power of God’s Love. 

And so it begins: Our Lord and Saviour makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is hailed as the Messiah, and it is a cause for celebration and joy. But, this is a week which will see Jesus betrayed by a close friend, arrested, abandoned, tried and killed as a common criminal. Strangely enough, the world around us can still be just as fickle, just as quick to turn someone from hero into persona non grata. Lest we think that somehow we are better, more advanced, more civilised people, the plain unvarnished truth is that we are not. We need the annual reminder which the Church gives through its liturgical year — a chance to be confronted by stark realities, and to be brought up short by them. What Christ says and does in this coming week, He says to us, He does all this for us — to Heal us, to Restore us. Jesus says and does these things so that we can live His risen life here and now, as the people of God, sharing in His Death and Resurrection though our baptism, trusting in Him.

In our pilgrimage through Lent, through our prayer, and our fasting, we hope to increase our closeness to Christ. By following Him, and meditating upon His Passion, we are transformed by His love, we follow in His footsteps, and enter into the mystery of God’s love poured out on the world. In the next few days we will go to the Upper Room, we will watch and wait with Christ, we will walk the way of the Cross, and we will gaze upon Christ crucified. Doing so, we will see just how much God loves us — the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate that love, and make it a reality in our lives. This is how we prepare to celebrate Easter: Our Lord’s rising from the tomb, His conquering death, so that we may have new life in Him. 

In his Letter to the Christians in Philippi, written in prison in Rome in ad62, St Paul lays great stress upon the Humility of Jesus Christ. Humility is not a popular virtue these days, in fact the world around us would have us be quite the opposite: full of ourselves, with a high opinion of ourselves. Ours is a world which is more and more characterised by the sin of selfishness. The individual is all that matters: me and what I want, that is all that counts. At the root of it all is pride, thinking that we are more important than we are, making ourselves the centre of things, whereas we need to put God at the centre of things, and learn to be thankful. 

Gratitude is characteristic only of the humble. The egotistic are so impressed by their own importance that they take everything given them as if it were their due. They have no room in their hearts for recollection of the undeserved favours they have received.

Fulton Sheen, On Being Human, 1982: 325

We need to have the mind of Christ, a mind devoted to love and service of God. Christ doesn’t just do what He wants to, but everything He says and does is the will of God the Father. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane for the strength to do God’s will. He demonstrates humility and obedience in action: embracing the most shameful death possible, for love of us. Thus we should love Jesus, we should worship Him, because He is God, and He loves us. The Saviour of the World scorns majesty. He embraces shame and sin, total utter degradation to save us. Jesus does this to heal the wounds of sin and division, so that we might have life, and life in all its fulness, with Him, for ever. This is why Jesus is willing to suffer, to be vulnerable, to take our human frailty and to redeem it through His suffering. Through His vulnerability, He shows the World that God’s ways are different from ours. This is the example for us to follow — the way of suffering love and humility

Today, and in the coming week, we will see what God’s Love and Glory are really like. It is not what people expect. It is power shown in humility, strength in weakness. As we continue our Lenten journey in the triumph of this day and looking towards the Holy and Life-giving Cross and beyond to the new life of Easter, let us trust in the Lord. Let us be like him, and may He transform our hearts, our minds and our lives, so that they may have live and life in all its fullness. We are fed by the word of God and by the Sacrament of His Body and Blood to be strengthened, to share in His divine life, to fit us for Heaven. Forgiven and forgiving, may all that we say, or think, or do, may all that we are be for the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

Lent V

Our readings this week continue our journey towards the Cross. The Cross is important because it is first and foremost a demonstration of God’s love for humanity. God loves us enough to die for us, to wipe away our sin, and to restore our relationship, with Him and each other. It is central to who and what we are as Christians, people transformed by the love of God. 

In our first reading this week, from the prophet Jeremiah, we see something truly amazing. Through the prophet, God promises to make a new covenant with His people. Israel broke the first covenant through disobedience and sin, and yet God offers a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning. God promises that:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’ (Jer 31:33)

Rather than being something external, something done to comply with the letter of the Law, this new covenant will be written on our hearts through faith, and lived out in our lives. It is a promise which finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who teaches love of God and love of neighbour. This He lives out in His life, and He encourages us to follow His example. It is a hopeful message, as God promises: 

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:34)

The Law of Love, which God makes real in Jesus Christ has genuine transformative power, because it is rooted in forgiveness and healing, something which only God can provide. Our loving Father does this on the Cross, where He gives His Son to die for us, to heal our wounds, and to offer eternal salvation to all who believe in Him. 

In our Gospel today we have reached the events just before the Passover. Passover is the central feast of Israel, commemorating the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. There are some Greeks, who may or may not be Jewish converts, that approach Philip, who has a Greek name. He, along with Simon Peter and Andrew, was first a disciple of John the Baptist, before following Jesus. These Greeks ask Philip a simple question:

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”(Jn 12:21)

This is the longing of the human heart, a desire to see Jesus, to have an encounter with the divine. Philip tells Andrew, and they both go to see Jesus, who says this in reply:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.” (Jn 12:23-26)

Jesus’ reply should strike us as strange. He doesn’t say, ‘Of course, bring them here’, or ‘I’d be delighted to meet them’. Instead He starts talking about His forthcoming Death. This is glory. It is not the human idea of glory, but quite the opposite – dying the death of common criminal. This doesn’t make sense, in human terms, and it isn’t supposed to. As it says in the prophet Isaiah (55:8), ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.’ The point is that we need to do things, God’s way, and not ours. Christ is the grain of wheat who dies, and who yields a rich harvest, in the Church, saving the souls of countless billions of people over the last two thousand years. 

Jesus calls us to follow Him, and not to care for life in this world — Heaven is our home, it is what we prepare for here on earth. If we want to share in Christ’s glory, then we need to follow the same path of suffering love which takes Him to His Cross, and will take us to ours. As sales pitches go it isn’t going to win plaudits from any Advertising Agency! That’s the point. It is honest, and it is the truth, plain and unvarnished. This truth changes the world, and sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32). We are free because He hung on a wooden cross and died and rose again for us. That is God’s glory — dying for love of us, to set us free, free to live for Him, and with Him, forever.

Our responsibility as Christians is that people might see Jesus in all we do, say and think. We need to be living, breathing, walking advertisements for the Good News of Jesus Christ here and now. We can use this time of Lent to consider significant aspects of our lives. Being under lockdown has made us realise what is important, what really matters. It is vital that we live in such a way that people might see Jesus in who and what we are, and what we do.

How do we do this? We do it through the Grace of God, and by trying, by co-operating with that Grace. We do it by making a conscious effort to live out our faith together, as a Christian community. We do it by being filled with love, and filled with grace, in the knowledge of the forgiving power of Christ’s blood which was shed for us. We cannot save ourselves, only Christ can do that. Salvation is not just an individual matter. Christ came to change the world. This He doe, one soul at a time, through the Church, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist,. These outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, are the free gift of God to his people.

We will often fail to practise what we preach, and people may call us hypocrites, but the point is that we keep on trying. God will not abandon us. He dies for us, bearing the burden of our sins, so that we might become like Him. That is why Jesus was born for us, lived, died, and rose again for us.

As Christians we live no longer for ourselves, but for the God who loves us. We can offer the world around us an alternative to the way of selfishness and sin. We need to trust Jesus’ words, and fashion our lives after His example. Together, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and carrying our own cross, we trust in His grace and proclaim His truth. We do this so that the world may believe and follow God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot The Gentiles Ask to See Jesus (Les gentils demandent à voir Jésus)

Are you fasting?

Cyberdesert

Are you fasting?
Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see someone who is poor, take pity on them.
If you see a friend being honored, do not be envious.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eyes, and the feet, and the hands and all the member of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of greed.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at what is is sinful.
Let the ears fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?

— St John Chrysostom

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Lent IV

Last week, in the Gospel, Jesus talked about the destruction of the Temple. This happened a few decades later when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD70. Today, our first reading takes us back to the first destruction of the Temple, by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC. The people of Israel have not been faithful to God, they have broken the First Commandment by adopting the religious practices of their neighbours. But God sent prophets to remind Israel of its obligations to worship God, and God alone. This message is not heeded, and disaster ensues. Israel is led away to captivity in Babylon for seventy years, until Cyrus, the king of Persia allows the Israelites to return. Captivity represents the most terrible thing that could happen to the people of Israel: a loss of everything, being deprived of freedom, and the destruction of their religious life, focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. We should, however, remember that God was patient ‘until there was no remedy’ (2Chron 36:16), and the destruction and exile are not permanent, only temporary, and after seventy years Israel would return. 

While Israel is not faithful to God, God is faithful to Israel, and does not desert her. Thus, in the Gospel, Jesus explains His forthcoming Crucifixion with a reference to Israel’s wanderings after the Exodus:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ (Numbers 21:8-9)

The people of Israel were moaning about the journey, the lack of food and water, and that God has led them out into the desert to die, so God sends fiery serpents which killed them. The people then relented, and asked Moses to pray to God to take the serpents away. God listened to Moses, and provided a means for Israel to be saved. Jesus uses this example to explain why the Son of Man must be lifted up. Just as the bronze serpent saved people long ago, Jesus’ being lifted up on the Cross will save those who believe in Him. The mention of being bitten by serpents reminds us of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, where the Lord God says to the serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Being bitten by snakes is understood as a consequence of sin, which Christ will deal with by taking our sins and those of all humanity upon himself, bearing our burden, and reconciling us to the Father once and for all. Thus, whoever believes in Jesus, and the redemption He brings about, has the promise of eternal life.

There then follows one of the most well-known verses in the Bible:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:16-17) 

This is the heart of our faith as Christians. Christ was born for us, lived and died for us, and was raised to new life, so that we might have the promise of eternal life in Him. This is why we follow Christ into the desert of Lent for forty days, so that through prayer, fasting and charity we may be prepared in body and soul to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the ultimate embodiment of God’s generous Love towards humanity. God loves us, you and me, each one of us, so much that He gave His only Son to die for us, on the Cross.

God, in Christ, does not condemn us, but rather saves us, out of Love. God is a God of love and generosity, who offers Himself to reconcile us to Him, and to each other. This generosity is at the heart of our faith as Christians, we worship a generous, loving God, and invite others to receive the free gift of God’s grace, and enter a relationship with the God who loves us. 

This relationship explains the joyful hope which St Paul has when he writes to the Church in Ephesus in our second reading this morning. Paul’s central message is that:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,’ (Eph 2:8)

Grace is unmerited kindness, something which we do not deserve, or earn. It is by the grace of God that we are saved, through faith, believing and trusting in Jesus Christ, who was born for us, died and rose again for us. We can put our trust in the God who loves us, and who shows us that love in His Son. It is not about what we can do, but about what God can do for us. Our relationship with God is the result of a gift, which we can receive and which can transform our lives, if we only let go, and let God transform us, more and more into the likeness of His Son. 

God cares so much about the world and its people that he takes flesh, and lives a life of love, amidst the messiness of humanity, to show us how to live lives filled with love, life in all its fullness. God, in Christ, comes among us not to condemn the world but to offer it a way of being, of being truly alive in Him. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. The spiritual needs and searching which characterise people in the world around us can be satisfied in God and in God alone, through the church.

We continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross, where God shows his love for us most fully and completely, giving his body to be broken and his blood be shed for us, to strengthen us to live the risen life of Easter. So may we join the Angels in our song of love and praise to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Christ Crucified, Diego Velázquez, (1632) Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Lent III: The Cleansing of the Temple

It is hard for us to imagine just how important the Temple in Jerusalem was. It was, quite literally, the centre of the world, the most important place on earth. At its centre was the Holy of Holies which contained the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the Ark were the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, some of the manna from the desert, and Aaron’s staff. That is why, to this day, Jews continue to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This is all that remains of the Temple after its destruction by the Romans in ad 70. At the time of Jesus, Passover was the busiest time of year in Jerusalem. As the central festival of Judaism, Passover marks the journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, Israel. Likewise, for Christians it is the time when we celebrate our freedom from the slavery of sin through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In our first reading this morning from the Book of Exodus, God gives the law to Moses on Mount Sinai in the desert. It describes both how to honour God, and how humanity should live. Our duty towards God and our neighbour is clearly shown. When Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God, the first is:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ (Exod 20:2-3)

The temple traders, in their desire to profit from people’s religious observance, have broken this first and most important commandment. Their desire for making money and profit has got in the way of what the Temple is supposed to be about: namely, worshipping God. It has become a racket, a money-making scheme to fleece pilgrims who have come from far away and who do not have the right money or the correct sacrificial animals with them. This is no way to worship God, a God who loves us, and who showed that love by delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who will deliver humanity by His Son.

Jesus is angry when He sees this and drives out both the money-changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. Those who sell sheep, oxen, and pigeons, represent the status quo, a sacrificial system where animals and their blood are used to honour God. Jesus has come to do away with this system by offering Himself, as the true sacrifice. When John the Baptist first sees Jesus in John’s Gospel, he says:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!.” (Jn 1:29)

Jesus is the true Lamb, foreshadowed in the story of Abraham and Isaac. He will be the true Passover sacrifice, as He will be crucified and die at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. This is a sacrifice which will not need to be repeated, as Jesus will die once, for the sins of the whole world. 

The Jews ask Jesus, 

What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (Jn 2:18)

Jesus makes a cryptic reply:

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2:19)

His audience cannot understand what Jesus means. It took almost fifty years to build the Temple. The idea of destroying it and rebuilding it in three days is crazy. However, Jesus is talking about His own Death and Resurrection. His Body is the true Temple, the True Sacrifice, and He is both Priest and Victim. God will, in the person of His Son, bring about true worship. Likewise, the Temple is supposed to be a house of prayer for all the nations (Isaiah 56:7 & Mark 11:7), but the Court of the Gentiles has been filled with stalls for money-changers and animal-sellers. By clearing them out Jesus has made room for the old Temple to be used for prayer, while prophesying that a newer, greater Temple is here, in Him.

The Jews demand a sign, and Christ prophesies that if they destroy this temple then he will raise it up in three days. He looks to His death and resurrection to show them where true worship lies — in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, ‘I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). The Ten Commandments are not abolished by Christ, or set aside, but rather His proclamation of the Kingdom and Repentance show us that we still need to live the Law of Moses out in our lives: to show that we honour God and live our lives accordingly. In His cleansing of the Temple, Christ looks to the Cross and to the Resurrection, as the way that God will restore our relationship with Him. The Cross is a stumbling-block to Jews, who are obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and it is foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead the Cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, shocking and scandalous though it is, is a demonstration of the utter, complete, self-giving love of God. Here, love and mercy are offered to heal each and every one of us. Here we are restored. 

It is a shock to learn that God loves us enough to do this, to suffer dreadfully and die for us, to save us from our sins. We do not deserve this, and that is the point. Through Christ we are offered the opportunity to become something other and greater than we are. By putting away the ways of the world, of power and money, selfishness and sin, we can have new life in and through Him.

Lent is the opportunity for a spiritual spring clean. It is a time to ask God to drive out all that should not be there, and for preparing for the joy of Easter. In our baptism we died with Christ and were raised to new life in the Spirit. Let us prepare to live that life, holding fast to Our Lord and Saviour, clinging to the teachings of his body, the Church. Let us turn away from the folly of this world with all its hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us. Let us proclaim God’s love in our lives, so that others may believe, and that all may praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

El Greco: The Purification of the Temple