Sunday, April 1, 2012

Homily for Palm Sunday

Homily for
Palm Sunday
April 1, 2012
Mark 15: 1-39
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’” (Mark 15: 39).

I’d like to reflect with you on some of the minor characters in the story of Jesus’ passion that we just read: on Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, and the centurion; and some of the major characters: on Pontius Pilate and the chief priests and scribes.

Barabbas, in Mark’s telling, is one of “the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion” (15:7). Even tho all 4 gospels mention him, both the rebellion and this particular man are otherwise unknown to us. In fact, we don’t even have a personal name for him because “Barabbas” is a patronymic, i.e., an identification in terms of who his father is, like “Johnson.” Barabbas means “son of Abbas.” As you know, Abbas or Abba means “father.” This rebel, this murderer, is called “the father’s son.” It’s not hard for us to see this criminal, this sinner, as representing every child of God the Father. The Son of God goes to an undeserved death while another “son of the Father” goes free. Jesus dies, setting free one of God’s children. The Lamb of God is sacrificed to redeem all God’s children.

Simon of Cyrene surely didn’t expect to meet Jesus or to have anything to do with him. He’s named in the 3 Synoptic gospels in this role of helping Jesus carry the cross thru the streets to Golgotha. Only Mark identifies him further as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21), who must have been Christians well known in Mark’s community. One theory about Mark’s gospel is that he wrote it in Rome; if that theory’s correct, it could identify this Rufus with the Rufus among the people whom St. Paul greets at the end of his Letter to the Romans (16:13). Be that as it may, Simon of Cyrene is unexpectedly “pressed into service” to carry Jesus’ cross. Aren’t our lives filled with unexpected crosses, crosses that we’re pressed to carry against our wills? If Simon of Cyrene’s sons indeed became well known disciples of Jesus, was this unique encounter with Jesus on Simon’s part the beginning of his own discipleship? Can our own burdensome crosses deepen our relationship with Jesus and make us better disciples?

Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross (Titian, 1547)

All the Synoptics mention the centurion and some form of a profession of faith from him; St. John doesn’t mention a centurion specifically, but only a detail of soldiers, one of whom gives the coup de grace with a lance. Christian legend—insufficiently substantiated to merit inclusion in the latest edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints—identifies this soldier as a centurion named Longinus, who became a believer and a martyr; there’s a big statue of him in St. Peter’s Basilica. As far as we know from the gospels, the execution of Jesus is the 1st encounter of this soldier with Jesus. Whatever he sees and hears from Jesus and from the surrounding people and events profoundly affects him. Mark says simply, “When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last….” No preaching; no miracles. Only the suffering of Jesus; Jesus’ patience; Jesus’ complete self-emptying, indicated by that last breath—somehow the centurion sees in all this testimony on Jesus’ part that he’s “the Son of God.” One observation is that thru what was done to Jesus, God’s identified with human suffering. God shows his love for humanity not in words or even in miracles but in his sharing our pain and our death. Another observation is that who we are in our suffering and pain, and in our dying, reveals who we really are, and it can be powerful testimony to the unbelievers of the world—the centurion was, presumably, a pagan—that God is real, and that we truly are his children. The martyrologies have many tales of the effect of such witness—which is what martyr means—on prison guards and bystanders. Catherine de Hueck Doherty says that we are icons of Christ, his visible representations. Our lives, day in and day out, in joy and in sorrow, eventually in our dying, are the most powerful preaching of the Gospel to the world, of letting the world know that Jesus truly is the Son of God.Statue of St. Longinus with his lance in St. Peter's Basilica,close to the high altar (Bernini, 1635)
Pontius Pilate’s role is so crucial to the entire story of our redemption that he is remembered forever in our profession of faith: Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Roman procurator of Judea from ca. 25 to 35 A.D. He was supposed to represent Roman justice and keeper good order in this piece of the Empire. Perhaps he was a selfish and cruel man, as Josephus and Philo describe him. Perhaps he was a reasonably capable politician and administrator but was temperamentally unsuited to the responsibilities of this particular imperial outpost—an early embodiment of the Peter Principle. But, like Barabbas, he stands for each of us, in a sense. Whatever our responsibilities, whatever our temperament, we sometimes come up against difficult choices and pressures in the situations we find ourselves in and from the people around us. Like Pilate, we’re supposed to stand for something, to defend and enact justice, to be protectors and builders of peace, to have the courage to do what’s right. Like Pilate, we sometimes fail: we look for an easy out, try to please everyone, put ourselves, our careers, our comfort zones ahead of what we know we should say or do. Historically, we don’t know what became of Pontius Pilate after he was recalled to Rome in 35. We still have a chance to write the stories of our own responses to the challenges that life brings to us.
Ecce Homo (Antonio Ciseri, 1880)
The chief priests and the scribes have heard Jesus’ preaching. They’ve heard reports of his miracles, even of his raising the dead (cf. John 11:1—12:11), and perhaps some of them have witnessed some of his healings. Unlike the centurion, however, they aren’t open to the plain evidence before their eyes and ears. “He saved others,” they acknowledge (Mark 15:31), but Jesus’ saving acts carry no weight with them. They are, rather, weighed down by their own political, financial, religious, and familial agendas. If “the Christ, the King of Israel,” did indeed “come down now from the cross,” would they really “see and believe” (15:32)? We may be skeptical about that. How easy it is for our own ideas, our personal goals, our own wishes to influence how we see other people, how we see events, how we see reality. We may know people whose philosophy of life and/or politics is governed by the adage, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Are we adept at reading the signs of the times, at finding God in all things (to use an Ignatian phrase), at looking for how God is speaking to us today thru the people around us, thru public and private happenings? If so, we’re more akin to the pagan centurion than to the pious priests and learned scribes; and we’ve got a chance of meeting Jesus in our crosses, like Simon; of making better choices than Pilate; of being saved as true children of the Father by the One who suffered crucifixion in our place.
What Christ Saw from the Cross--with priests and scribes at right
(James Tissot)

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