Palm Sunday: The Perfection of Preaching

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

MK 11:1-10; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MK 14:1-15:47

Our second reading this Palm Sunday, from the Christ hymn in Philippians, says, “he humbled himself, becoming obedient.”  The Letter to the Hebrews says it more boldly: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8).  He, the all-knowing, learned obedience . . . .

What exactly does Christ accomplish in Holy Week?  He is already God – what more can the work of the Cross add to that?


Our first reading tells us first about the development of Isaiah the prophet himself – but also about what happens to Christ.

First he says, “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”  The prophet must know – must learn – how to speak to those who need his message.

Next he emphasizes the learning: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear.”  The prophet has to listen – and even that listening is itself a gift from God.  Lord, teach me how to speak to the weary!

But then we hear what method he learned: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”  This method was suffering.  To speak to the suffering, the weary, the beleaguered, the prophet had to become like them, to enter into their darkness.  Perhaps, even, he had to let those who were beaten beat him – then they could hear him.

Finally, he tells how he can do this: “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint.”  Isaiah “learns” to “speak” more than words.  He learns how to suffer for the people, because he learns – and so can teach – that God is all-sufficient.


What does Jesus “learn” through suffering?  He has nothing to learn, he knows all.  But he learns how to preach, how to bring his Gospel to the people.  He learns, even, how to call them in, to let them share with him.  He enters into their suffering to be near them.  He brings his nearness to God into their darkness to enlighten them and raise them up.


Jesus, then, says the hymn in Philippians, “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.”  He who knew all joy learned to say in the Garden, “my soul is sorrowful even to death.”  He whose very existence was joyful obedience to the Father learned to say, “Take this cup away from me – but not what I will but what you will.”

He who was revelation itself learned to speak the words of the Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  What Christ our light “gained” through the Cross was union with us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

“Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”  Already he was Son, God from God, light from light: above every name.

But now he achieves a new name: Jesus.  Right there at the beginning of the Gospel, the angel told Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” and “they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Mt. 1:21 and :23).  He gained nothing – but closeness to us.

On the Cross, he who as God had everything “adds” to that possession the name “God with us.”  He who is fulness itself “adds” the title “he will save his people from their sins,” the name of that “name above all names,” Jesus.


How can we comment on the endless fullness of the Gospel of the Passion?  He learned how to preach – and there is no commentary we can add to match the nearness of that preaching through suffering.

In the spikenard and the ransom to Judas we see the inversion of our relation to money.  We see the inversion of Judas’ greed and the gentle generosity of Jesus giving bread.  We see Jesus turn politics upside down as he lets Pilate condemn him to being named King.

In the stories of Peter we see Jesus “learn” what it means to be abandoned.  But most marvelously, we see that Peter too learns – learns that Jesus knows abandonment, and so learns Jesus’s nearness to him in his sin.  What Jesus “learns” is the perfection of preaching, by emptying himself and taking the form a slave.  And so we, with Peter, learn to enter into his divinity by entering into his humility.

Where do we need to empty ourselves to let Jesus draw near?

St. Joseph

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectMarch 19, the feast of St. Joseph: deep in Lent.  But more to the point, a week before the Annunciation.  Recall what we said at the beginning of Lent: the real deepest mystery here is not the Cross, but the Incarnation, God-with-us.  God has entered into our life, with all its sufferings.  The Cross is the fulfillment, but the Incarnation is the beginning – and indeed, if God does not fill man with his presence, the suffering of the Cross is meaningless.

In short, it is right, here, deep in Lent, leading up to Good Friday, to have a little reminder of Christmas.  Emmanuel: God is with us.!

So a few Biblical reflections on St. Joseph, largely culled from a Christmas sermon by Msgr. Ronald Knox.


“Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  At first glance, and in most of our translations, the picture we get is this: Joseph is law-abiding.  He finds out his betrothed is pregnant, presumably by another man.  He wants none of her – but fortunately the angel convinces him it’s okay.

Did Joseph really distrust Mary?  Was Joseph, the “just man,” that obtuse?  Was Mary’s goodness so unclear that he thought she was sleeping around?

As happens surprisingly often, the King James is a more literal, better, translation: “not willing to make her a publick example, he was minded to put her away privily.”

First: the word is not necessarily “divorce.”  (How could he divorce someone he hadn’t married?)  The Greek is more like “let her loose,” send her away.

His reasoning – not willing to “put her to shame” or “make her a publick example” – is a Greek word that just means he doesn’t want everyone looking at her.  Far from publicly rejecting her (which a divorce would surely have done), to the contrary, he wants to get her out of sight, to preserve her dignity.  This is from Matthew, but it’s interesting that in Luke, she runs away to her cousin’s house for six months.

The just man knows the dignity of Mary, and wants to preserve it.  The just man wants to do it all right.


The angel tells Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus.”  Joseph has a task.  Joseph is the namer.  He is not the biological father, but he does need to act as foster father.  The genealogy of Jesus, which Matthew has just given, traces his descent from King David through Joseph.

Msgr. Knox points out something funny about the census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Today, a census determines how many people are in each house on a given day.  But back then, the census was done genealogically.  What Joseph needed to do was to go at some point to Bethlehem – to City Hall, as it were – and say, “I am Joseph, the son of Jacob son of Matthan; I live in Nazareth with my wife Miriam and one child.”

But that picture of the census changes the story a bit.  It’s not clear Mary even needed to go to Bethlehem with him.  There’s no indication in the text – and lots of indications to the contrary in the history – that Joseph needed to be there on a particular day.  In short, it was not Caeasar’s fault that they were in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth.  It was Joseph’s choice.

But Joseph is the namer, and the descendent of David – how proud a lineage!  How much he might have considered the importance of his task!  No, it’s not an unfortunate accident that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Joseph wanted that to happen.  The just man, attentive to detail, made it so.  He wanted everything to be just right.


Finally, if there was no mad rush for everyone to be in Bethlehem on December 25, the “no room for him in the inn” looks a little different.  Translated literally, it says, “there was no place for him at the journey’s end.”  Or as John says, “he came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”

When the heir of David came home, it was not the busy inn that turned him away.  It was his friends and relations who made no space for him – or had nothing better to offer Joseph and Mary than the shed where they kept the cattle.

I don’t think it bothered Joseph and Mary much: they had Jesus.  They did “receive him, and believed in his name.”


This Lent and Holy Week, let us imitate St. Joseph.  Let us receive Christ, make him the best space we can, do our best to love his holy name.  Let us welcome him into our human family, and accept the poverty and work and suffering that come with him, not so much because God wants us to suffer as because we count the suffering as nothing, for the joy of being with Jesus.

Are there earthly comforts you value more than the presence of God in your life?

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Saving Punishment

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

2 CHR 36:14-16, 19-23; PS 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; EPH 2:4-10; JN 3:14-21

This past Sunday’s gospel begins with a very strange idea – very central to our faith: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”  In the original story, “The people spoke against God . . . . Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:5-6).  God sent punishment – and it was by their acceptance of that punishment, by looking on the serpent that killed them, that they were saved.

Our Sunday readings help us to understand this strange dynamic, and what it reveals to us about Christ and Christianity.  And by teaching us the saving value of punishment, these readings give us not only a preview of Good Friday, but also a glimpse of what we are about in our Lenten penance.


The first reading, from the very end of the Chronicles of Israel, summarizes the exile.  “Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion.”  But for the wickedness of the people, “there was no remedy.”

So God gave them the Exile: the Babylonians destroyed their city and their kingdom, and “Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon.”

The prophet nicely sums up the drama of sin: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,  during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest.”  The people had refused to give up their projects, to set aside their work for the Lord’s day.  So God set their work aside for them.

But then, beyond all expectation, “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!”

The Lord takes away, and then the Lord gives back.  There is absolutely nothing Israel does to gain this redemption: they do not earn it, and they do not fight for it themselves.  It is purely miraculous.


Our reading from Ephesians puts this drama into the language of the interior life: “God, who is rich in mercy,  because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”

Sin is death: death for the land, death for the kingdom, death for our souls.  And there is no natural resurrection from that death, no possible way for the sinner to become just.  Christianity is not about trying harder.  It is about resurrection: a miracle.

“By grace you have been saved . . . and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”  The Israelites cannot pat themselves on the back when Cyrus rebuilds their temple – nor have we anything to boast about when Christ saves us by grace.

Yet we are truly saved: “we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance.”  It’s not that good works don’t matter.  It’s that the good works are a gift: just as God created us without any contribution from us, so he makes us good as a pure gift.  And so, just as we do truly exist even though we are not responsible for our existence, so we truly become good, even though we did not make ourselves good.


“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” says our Gospel, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

“By grace you have been saved through faith,” says our reading from Ephesians.

Faith is the recognition that we are saved by grace.  That recognition matters; it is the foundation of our holiness.  This is the lesson the people learn in the Babylonian exile: they learn that salvation is God’s free gift.  It is the lesson Moses’s people learned in the desert: we need God, and God wants to save us.

And it is the lesson we learn on Good Friday: the wages of sin are death.  We are dead because of our sins.  “People preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.”  The Cross is our lot.

But when we look to the Cross, we find God there, “who is rich in mercy,” and who will bring us new life.

Lenten penance is not about trying out works righteousness; it’s not about how if we just try harder, we can save ourselves.  It is, rather, about learning the depths of our sin, the depths of our foolishness, and longing for Christ to come and bring us to life.

How is this Lent teaching you about your own “preference for darkness,” your own need for Christ?

Third Sunday in Lent: Turning to God’s Wisdom

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 20:1-17; PS 19: 8, 9, 10, 11; 1 COR 1:22-25; JN 2:13-25

This Sunday’s readings began with the Ten Commandments.  The other readings, including the Psalm, are like commentaries on this.

Immediately after the reading came the second part of Psalm 19:

“The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul;

The decree of the LORD is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the command of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eye.”

The Psalmist does not merely obey the Law.  The Psalmist relishes the Law.  Indeed, the Psalmist’s relish turns obedience on its head.  Obedience sounds like we are following something imposed on us.  Perhaps we fear punishment, perhaps we accept the rules out of reverence for the rule-giver, but the rules themselves seem like impositions.

But to the Psalmist, the Law is not an imposition, it is a wonderful gift.  The Lawgiver is more like a fabulous teacher than like a judge.

Some day perhaps we will walk through the many levels of the Law.  But notice the words for the Law in the Psalm above: law, decree, precept, command, also ordinances.  The Tradition reads in these not only the Ten Commandments, but the hundreds of other little rules given in the Old Testament – and prefiguring the detailed guidance the Holy Spirit gives us in the “new law” of grace.  The Ten Commandments are just the beginnings of God’s wonderful teaching.


As the Psalm commended God’s law immediately after the reading of the Ten Commandments, so the last words of the Gospel commended it in another way.  Jesus, it said, “did not need anyone to testify about human nature.  He himself understood it well.”

Pope Bl. Paul VI called the Church “an expert in humanity”; St. John Paul II often repeated these words.  We trust the Church not just out of “obedience,” but because the Church is wise!  But the Church’s wisdom is rooted in a deeper wisdom.  God who made us, knows us.  In Jesus, indeed, the Word (the wisdom!) through whom the world was made enters into human experience: the ultimate expert in humanity.

The first half of Psalm 19, in fact, speaks of God as master of creation.  Only then does it speak of the beautiful wisdom of his law.  We trust in God because God knows what he is talking about!  What a gift to receive wisdom from him – first the written wisdom of the Law, then “not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3).


But there is a problem, identified in our reading from First Corinthians.  Although “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” Jesus seems a stumbling block and foolishness.

Sometimes people read this powerful section of First Corinthians too quickly, and completely miss the point.  It’s not that Jesus is against wisdom – any more than the Cross, followed by the Resurrection, is a lack of power.  He is very powerful!  He is the true wisdom!

No, it is not Jesus who is against wisdom.  It is us.  We are foolish.  So foolish that when we see true wisdom, we reject it.  So foolish that when God, God himself, shows us the way, we think we have a smarter way.  Just as “the weakness of God,” conquering death itself, “is stronger than human strength,” so “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”  It looks foolish to us – because we are fools.


Our Psalm gives us a particular angle on this:

“The ordinances of the Lord . . .

are more precious than gold, than a heap of purest gold;

sweeter also than syrup or honey from the comb.”

Here are two kinds of worldliness: one accumulating gold, the other pursuing sensuality (even in its most innocent kind: syrup and honey!)

The Psalm puts a positive spin on it, but here is the great struggle of sin: mostly, we prefer gold and syrup to the wisdom of God.  That is our foolishness.


And this is the dynamic in our Gospel story, where Jesus drives them out of the temple: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

God calls them to prayer – the ultimate sweetness.  They look for gold (with which, perhaps, to buy syrup).

We can see this even at a higher level: God offers us himself, and even in our relationship with God, we are more interested in spiritual good-feelings (honey) or in how God can make our life on earth better (spiritual gold).  Notice how much of the Ten Commandments focuses on prayer – and how little of our thought turns in that direction.  We just want to fight about murder and marriage.  Well, we should embrace the Lord’s law in those things, too – but then, above all, go to meet him, and receive him, in prayer!

Lent is our time to come to grips with our sinfulness: to see how much we prefer honey (fasting) and gold (almsgiving) to the sweetness of the Lord (prayer), who is wisdom itself.

How has worldliness infected your spiritual life?