Sunday, March 24, 2013

Homily for Palm Sunday

Homily for Palm Sunday
March 24, 2013
Luke 23: 1-49
Ursulines, Willow Drive, N.R.

“A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him” (Luke 23: 27).

Luke’s Gospel in some ways is the most personal of the gospels; he pays attention to individuals in ways that Matthew, Mark, and John don’t.  In his passion narrative, for instance, we have details about Peter’s betrayal, repentance, and leadership role unique to Luke; the interaction between Herod and Pilate; a detail about Simon of Cyrene lacking in Matthew and Mark (altho Mark gives us personal details the others don’t; John doesn’t mention Simon at all); amid the crowd, the mourning women; the repentant criminal (or “evildoer,” depending on your translation); Jesus’ prayer asking for forgiveness for his killers; Jesus’ handing his spirit over to his Father.
Simon of Cyrene and Jesus, by Titian
The detail about Simon is telling:  when the soldiers press him into service to carry the crossbeam to which Jesus will be nailed, Luke tells us, “They made him carry the cross behind Jesus” (23:26).  All the Synoptics record Jesus’ teaching that anyone who would follow him must take up his cross and do so (Luke 9:23; Matt 10:38; Mark 8:34).  This innocent bystander, the fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time, comes to exemplify discipleship by carrying a cross after Jesus, walking in Jesus’ steps.  If we read Mark’s Gospel correctly, the experience led to Simon’s becoming a disciple, “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21), presumably 2 men well known in Mark’s church.

Simon’s experience invites us to ask ourselves how carrying Jesus’ cross affects us.  When we’re unexpectedly handed our crossbeam, our piece of the cross, do we fight it, bemoan our fate, protest our innocence, make sure the people around us will suffer too because we’re suffering or upset or inconvenienced?  Or do we look for how God is intervening in our lives and calling us to a closer relationship with Jesus?

Jesus takes notice of the “many women” who are “following him,” “mourning and lamenting” what’s happening to him.  They don’t intercept him; he “turns to them.”  We know that Jesus had women disciples from Galilee—another personal Lucan detail, incidentally, found in 8:1-3—who accompanied him as he went about preaching, and unlike the Twelve followed him all the way to Calvary, which Luke mentions in the last verse of our reading this morning (23:49).  But Jesus addresses these women as “Daughters of Jerusalem”; so they’re a different group.  Are they following him as disciples?  That certainly could be the case; he did have followers who lived in the holy city, e.g., Mary, the mother of John Mark mentioned by Luke in Acts (12:12), and, we may assume, whoever owned the house where the upper room was located.

In the opinion of some commentators, these women’s mourning for Jesus seems to reflect a prophetic passage about people mourning for the Messiah:  “They shall look on him whom they have thrust through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a first-born” (Zech 12:10).  I’m sure you recognize the 1st part of that passage, which John cites with reference to the soldier’s spearing Jesus’ side (19:34-37).  If that prophetic allusion is indeed Luke’s intention, then we have a yet stronger case that these women are followers of Jesus in the sense of discipleship.

But Jesus mildly admonishes them, telling them not to weep for him but for themselves and for their children.  For a horrible fate is in store for Jerusalem their mother, days that will make of feminine barrenness not a curse but a blessing; women who haven’t borne children will not have to witness what the Romans will do to their children.

In so deflecting the women’s sympathy for him, Jesus is acting as the authentic Christian, who feels for others instead of himself.  That his feeling leads to action is evident, of course, in what he’s going thru at this moment, giving his body and offering his blood of the new covenant for his people (Luke 22:19-20).  His words also constitute a final warning for Jerusalem of what will happen to the unfaithful city.

He continues the warning with the equivalent of “You can run but you can’t hide”:  “People will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” (23:30).  There will be no escaping the consequences of the city’s unfaithfulness.

The final part of his words to the women seem to be a proverb of some sort (23:31), which the commentators interpret in various ways.  One way is that Jesus is the “green wood,” the innocent man suffering an unjust punishment.  If God so permits innocence to perish, “what will happen when it is dry?”  What will happen to those who really are guilty in God’s eyes?

The words that Jesus addresses to the women are meant also for Luke’s readers.  We are guilty; we are dry wood.  What will be our fate if we don’t turn to God, if we’re as faithless as the inhabitants of Jerusalem?  There will be no hiding from God’s judgment on the Last Day:

            Behold the trembling sinners rise
          To meet the Judge’s searching eyes.
          Then shall with universal dread
          The Book of Consciences be read
          To judge the lives of all the dead.[1]

We are warned, then.  But we also note the mercy offered to us:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:34).  How often are our sins the result of some fully deliberate and studied choice, and how often the result of some dumb impulse, only half chosen?  May the Father forgive us thru Jesus’ intercession!

When we see how Jesus treats the repentant criminal—who represents all of us “evildoers”—we have unlimited hope:  “You Who did … mercy for the robber find,/Have filled with hope my anxious mind.”[2]

May our following of Jesus, then, include his cross, his compassion for others, true repentance of our sins, and finally, his total trust in our heavenly Father, so that our last breath may be the same prayer he uttered:  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46).

        [1] Dies irae, St. Joseph Daily Missal (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1961), p. 1243.
        [2] Ibid., p. 1244.

No comments: