Monday, March 14, 2016

Palm Sunday Homily: The Passion according to St. Luke

In St. Luke’s Gospel sharp contrasts are drawn between the ‘right’ people and the ‘wrong’ people. Or maybe we should say between the people who  we think are right and the people who  we think are wrong. Just consider the parables in this Gospel:   the self-righteous Pharisee and the penitent Tax Collector, the Prodigal who repents and the dutiful son who can only envy, the Good Samaritan, a pariah among the Jews yet the only one who loves his neighbor. It is in Luke’s Gospel that a sinful woman washes the feet of Jesus causing the Pharisee Simon to be scandalized. The wrong people end up being the right people; the right people end up being the wrong people.

The most striking contrast is found at the beginning of the Gospel: the contrast between Zechariah and Our Lady. Zechariah is a priest engaged in the offering of incense in temple, when the angel Gabriel announces to him that his barren wife will bear a son. Zechariah disbelieves: “How can this be? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The same angel appears to a nobody, a teenage girl, who also asks 'how can this be but  she says finally to the angel “be it unto me according to thy word.”

It is perhaps surprising that there is no mention of the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross in Luke’s Passion. But there is a profound connection between the Annunciation and the Passion of Christ.  Both Matthew and Mark also record the words of Jesus: “not my will but thine be done.” But only in Luke does an angel appear to strengthen Jesus and to connect his fiat with that of his Mother.

The apostles, the right people you would think, manage to sleep that night. In Gethsemane he asks them to watch, but three times he finds them sleeping. And then a fourth time on the Mount of Olives   ‘he found them asleep.’ We might say that they never woke up. They slept through the whole thing.

The irony is not just a matter of being absent at the death of a friend. The irony is that Jesus had told them again and again that they must share his Cross, participate in his Passion and Death. But Jesus makes do with what he has at hand, as usual the wrong people. First Simon of Cyrene, a tourist in town for the holidays, certainly not a follower of Jesus, who is made to carry the Cross. He did not ask for it because crosses are not sought but given. If Peter and the others will not ‘take up his cross and follow Jesus, then some other poor banished child of Eve will have to shoulder the burden. If we will not take up our cross and follow Him, he will find others who will.

So too if we will not preach the Gospel, Jesus will, as he did from the Cross. One man listened and heard, and he turns toward Jesus. One of the criminals crucified with him makes  a genuine request  of Jesus:  “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Another irony: when Jesus sat at the table on Maundy Thursday, he told his apostles to watch for the coming of the kingdom: for, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” The wrong guy gets it; the right guys don’t.

This man who hangs on the cross next to Jesus knows something about participation in the Cross, for he "shares the same condemnation" yet clearly distinguishes between his well-earned suffering and the completely different suffering of the One "who has done nothing wrong". In this situation some of the grace of the pain of crucifixion can overflow into others. And it continues to over flow after Jesus' death: the centurion is affected by that grace, and Luke  even says that the crowd ''All who were assembled for that spectacle returned, beating their breasts."

In Luke, the centurion at the foot of the cross (unlike in Mark and Matthew) exclaims, “Surely, this man was innocent.” If that is true, then we are guilty. Not just the Jews, not just the Romans but all of us and what condemns us is the grace of the  divine mercy which flows from Jesus on the Cross.

Whereas Matthew and Mark report only Jesus' cry of abandonment, Luke's account of Jesus' words from the Cross carries a different tone. It is as if we hear, translated into spoken words, what the Word of God essentially accomplishes and intends by his suffering. First he requests of his Father: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." The Jews are blinded, they fail to recognize their Messiah. The Gentiles do professionally what they have done a thousand times over: crucify a supposed criminal in accord with military orders. We are guilty bystanders. In fact no one knows who Jesus is. His request aims at excusing those who are culpable, and it finds a reason to excuse: 'they know not what they do."  His words to the thief are part of the grace of forgiveness earned on the Cross. His dying words, "into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit" replace the cry of abandonment found in the other gospels. Even if the Son no longer senses the Father, even if the Father's hands have become imperceptible, he has no other place to place himself.  In Jesus' words Luke allows something of the grace so painfully won for us to radiate from the Cross.

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