March 28, 2015

Homily for Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Christ betrayed by Judas
(Click here for today’s readings)

There, you said it. You all said it. You all repeated it, six times, in the Responsorial Psalm. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In the Passion, Jesus’ words are translated, “Why have you forsaken me?” It’s the same. Maybe some of you even thought: “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like.”

It is really hard to take this in. Did Jesus, of all people, really despair on the cross? We know he is quoting Psalm 22, composed when a distressed psalmist was desperately begging for God’s help. In Luke’s Gospel, the crucified Jesus quotes a different Psalm, number 31, also composed in a time of trial and persecution, but the verse he recites is of a totally different kind: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” But today’s Passion is Mark’s; and he and Matthew have none of the other “Seven Last Words,” just the one we have heard and recited, the bleakest of them all! How are we to make sense of it? It’s a dilemma.

If nothing else, we are reminded of what we profess in the Creed, namely that Jesus, “true God from true God... became man.” We might add: “true” man. In his humanity he truly suffered. He experienced the depths of grief and discouragement to which any of us can fall. As we read in Hebrews 4:15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”

Another approach is this. There is a text in 2 Corinthians 5:21 in which St. Paul says that God made Jesus, who did not know sin, to “be” sin. In other words, Jesus on the cross took our sins upon himself so completely that he “became” sin. The Father as it were turned away from the sight of all that evil, and Jesus experienced abandonment.

It is important, however, to read that verse in its entirety: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Notice: “For our sake.” We find this too in the Creed, which reminds us that the Son of God became man “for us men and for our salvation,” and that “for our sake he was crucified.” 

Here we find the best solution to our dilemma. This explains what we read today in Isaiah: “I have not rebelled, have not turned back,” and in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Why? Because, as we read in John’s Gospel, “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).

The Twenty-Second Psalm is not an expression of total despair. Although it is filled with piteous lamentation, it concludes on an exultant note of hope. We saw this in the Responsorial Psalm: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” Isaiah and St. Paul likewise look beyond the suffering and the cross, to ultimate triumph and vindication.

On March 28, 1515, exactly 500 years ago, St. Teresa of Avila was born. While she was reforming the Carmelites, she faced her share of hostility. At one point, her enemies prevailed and her life’s work came crashing down around her. She knew what it was like to feel abandoned, all the more so because her enemies were mostly other Carmelites, opposed to the reform. Hearing the agonized words of Jesus on the cross, she too could have thought: “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.” She, too, “humbled herself.” And she never truly despaired. Remember her famous poem:

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.

So the next time you find yourself beset with troubles, don’t hesitate to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Then stop, and in the silence hear Jesus’ response: “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.”

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