Category Archives: Inspiration

When Does the Passion of Jesus Begin?

Bethany, East Jerusalem

We usually begin the story of the Passion of Jesus with his agony in the garden and end it with his crucifixion, but it’s seen differently in our liturgy. The Passion of Jesus begins on Palm Sunday– also called Passion Sunday– and continues through all the days of Holy Week. The entire week tells the story of his Passion.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he comes to the city he loves; he’s never afraid here, it’s a Holy City to him. From childhood its temple was “ his Father’s house,” where he sat with learned teachers, “listening to them and asking them questions.”(Luke 2, 41-52) Now, those teachers are deciding to put him to death.

In these early days of Holy Week, Jesus stays in Bethany, an enclave of Jerusalem, where he usually stayed, the scriptures indicate. Bethany was where the Galileans encamped when they came for the feasts. He would be surrounded by friends here. Here he raised Lazarus from the dead; they honored him at a meal here. It was hard for the temple police to reach him here.

But suddenly:

“One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26, 14-15)

Betrayal fell like a dark cloud upon Bethany. He’s no longer safe. His own friends would abandon him, a disciple would betray him.

No need to speculate on what Jesus was thinking; our scripture readings tell us. Like the Prophet Isaiah he has second thoughts: “Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength.”

Wouldn’t Jesus have thoughts of futility, loss of trust, disappointment? Still, like Isaiah he says:
“Yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.” (Isaiah 49, 1-6)

“I have become an outcast to my brothers,
a stranger to my mother’s sons,
because zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.” (Psalm 69)

But he doesn’t turn back; he doesn’t turn away.
“The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

In these early days of Holy Week Jesus faces death in many forms. He faces rejection and betrayal and the prospect of a cruel execution. Before the soldiers roughly treat him, before he’s scourged and mocked and crowned with thorns, before nails are pounded into hands and feet and he dies on the cross, he turns to his Father and sets his “face like flint.” He will go to the Upper Room, near the temple, and give himself to his disciples, in the signs of bread and wine. He will offer them his love. He will go into the garden and earnestly pray to do his Father’s will, because that is why he came.

For commentary on the Passion of Christ see

Lent Means Looking Again

Our readings this week began with Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel calling us to reach out to “the least”–the stranger, the prisoner, the sick, the naked. Christ reaches out to them, and he says we will find him in them.

But what about those people? Don’t some of them– perhaps many of them– deserve to be in prison or sick or out of a job? That’s what the 1st reading today from the Prophet Ezekiel asks. Why pay attention to them? Let’s take care of the good people.

In Matthew’s Gospel today Jesus takes up the same question, calling his disciples to go beyond the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees, who permitted killing someone as an act of God’s judgment. Jesus returns to the ancient command, “You shall not kill.” Leave someone’s judgment to God.

And he goes further. Avoid any killing judgment against someone by anger or words. They can destroy people too. Leave ultimate judgment to God. 

Does that mean we shouldn’t judge others at all? Jesus never hesitated to judge others, but before judging others he says we have to remove “the splinter in our eye.” That can be anger or arrogance or pride or a lack of self-knowledge or even an ignorance of human nature. It can come from not loving others. Make sure they’re not splinters clouding your judgment, Jesus says. (Matthew 7, 1-5)

When he came among us, some early Christian saints said, Jesus went in search of the lost image of God in every one of his creatures;  he welcomed tax collectors like Matthew and others society condemned. In them he saw “the lost image of God.” He came to call sinners. 

Are we meant to search for the lost image of God in others and to welcome sinners too? But how?

“Respect” is a wonderful word. It describes a wonderful virtue that I’m afraid is more and more ignored in today’s judgmental world. “Respect” comes from a Latin word meaning “to look again”, to look again at someone or some thing to see a value we didn’t see before or denied too quickly.  Respect keeps looking, searching. It’s a permanent way to see others as long as we live, never losing hope of finding the image of God there. 

God’s image is there. We need to see it. Lent means looking again.

The Journey to Jerusalem

Jesus begins to set out for Jerusalem in today’s reading at Mass from the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. Matthew offers a similar account in the 19th and 20th chapters of his gospel.

Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem alone, he invites others to go with him. It’s a journey to resurrection and life and more than a couple of days, but as they hear Jesus describe the way to Jerusalem, people react like people do,

You can’t miss human weakness in the journey stories of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the Pharisees. I suppose they represent human doubt and questioning that’s always there. The disciples rebuked the women bringing their children forJesus’ blessing, and Jesus rebukes them. Be like children to make the journey, Jesus tells them.

The rich young man wants to hold on to what he has, so he goes away sad. Peter says proudly he’ s given up everything to follow Jesus, but we know how inconstant he is. The story of the brothers, James and John, is obviously a story of human ambition.

1 Hundred Guilder Print
Rembrandt Hundred Guilder Print

Matthew offers Mark’s stories in chapter 19 and 20 of his gospel. The artist Rembrandt drew a remarkable picture of the 19th and 20th chapter of Matthew called the Hundred Guilder Print.

Jesus stands at the center of Rembrandt’s work, bathed in light, his hands outstretched to the crowds before him.

Peter stands at Jesus right, close by. Other disciples, probably James and John, are next to him. Women and their children, whom the disciples told to go away, are next to them. The rich young man is also there in the crowd. Is he reconsidering?

Some of the enemies of Jesus who plotted against him and argued with him are also there, talking among themselves, but they’re still in the picture. Rembrandt even pictures the camel, back by the city gates.

Jesus sheds his light on them all. His arms are open to them all. Rembrandt has it right. Grace is more powerful than human weakness. It’s everywhere.

St. Gabriel Possenti, CP

gabriel

St. Gabriel Possenti, whose feastday is today, was born on March 1, 1838, the 11th child of Agnes and Sante Possenti, governor of Assisi, Italy. Gabriel was baptized Francis after that city’s famous patron. He had everything a privileged child could hope for.

In 1841, the Possentis moved to Spoleto and Gabriel fell under the spell of that city’s bright social world. Spoleto was influenced by the Enlightenment, a movement that preferred what’s new to what’s old.

Lively, headstrong, intelligent, he was educated by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits. Popular, usually head of his class, he embraced the city’s latest fashions, plays, dances and sporting events. Gabriel was charmed by it all.

Yet, something else kept calling him. A year after moving to Spoleto his mother Agnes died. Her death and the death of two brothers and three sisters made him think seriously about life. A couple of times he almost died himself. He heard Jesus calling him to give up everything and follow him, but then the call seemed to fade away.

In the spring of 1856, a fierce cholera epidemic struck Spoleto and Gabriel’s favorite sister died in the plague. Overwhelmed by the tragedy, the people of the city processed through the streets with an ancient image of Mary, praying that she intercede to stop the plague and help them bear their heavy cross.

It was a transforming experience for Gabriel, who was drawn into the presence of Mary, the Sorrowful Mother. Passing the familiar mansions where he partied many nights, the theater and opera that entertained him so often, he realized what little wisdom they offered now. He took his place at Mary’s side and at her urging joined the Passionist Congregation.

In a letter home, Gabriel described his new life as a Passionist to his father: “ I would not trade even fifteen minutes here for a year or any amount of time filled with shows and other pastimes of Spoleto. Indeed my life is filled with happiness.”

Gabriel died on February 27, 1862 and was canonized in 1920. He’s a saint for young people looking for the pearl of great price, but sometimes in the wrong place. May St. Gabriel help them find it in the right place. Interested in becoming a Passionist?

Lord God,

you hide your gifts “ from the learned and clever,

but reveal them to the merest children.”

Show your love to the young of today,

and call them to follow you.

Give them the grace you gave St.Gabriel,

grace to know you as good.

grace to judge life wisely,

grace to be joyful of heart.

Amen

Building a City

babel
Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 16th century

After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else happens: human beings, desiring to be together, join in building a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place favorable for human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

img_1960

Noah and the Ark

Where did the story come from?

A few years ago Nova on PBS featured a program called“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark.” In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent,” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. Floods, sometimes great floods, occurred, so the people had to be ready. You had to keep your boats handy, and a big boat also– you never knew..

But people then, as now, had short memories. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests then– meteorologists and story tellers of the age– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story in Genesis, to keep people on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in shape and make sure a big boat’s around for ‘the big one.’”

Jewish priests and scribes in 6th century Babylon saw the story a perfect fit for the story of human origins they were telling their people. For them the take-away from the story was not to keep a big boat handy, but to be faithful to God like Noah and Abraham and their families. If they were faithful, God would save them from the flood and bring them  to the Promised Land.

The Nova program showed evidence from today of those big boats there “just in case.”

The story gave hope to the Jews driven from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon where, “By the rivers of Bablyon, we sat ad wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm 137)  Christians– the pictures in the catacombs remind us (above)– saw Noah as a sign that the waters of baptism saved them from death and brought them the promise of paradise lost by Adam and Eve.

So the story of Noah and the ark is more than a myth.