March 20, 2016
Is 50: 4-7
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
“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” (Is 50: 4).
The 1st reading for Palm Sunday’s Eucharistic liturgy is always the same; only the passion account changes from year to year. This 1st reading is one of the so-called Servant Songs from the 2d part of the book of the prophet Isaiah. There are 4 of those songs, and we’ll hear the other 3 on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday of this week, plus today’s song repeated—and lengthened by 2 verses—on Wednesday.
Obviously the Church considers these 4 great poems to be significant during this particular week, this week we call “holy.” Obviously the Church links the Servant Songs to Jesus the Messiah, particularly to his passion and his work of redemption. As you know, that’s a link going back to the earliest days of the apostles’ reflections on their experience, if not to Jesus himself, who asked the 2 disciples on the way to Emmaus, “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer, and so enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). As we read the preaching of the apostles in Acts, and the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), we find the connection stressed over and over.
Jesus Crowned with Thorns
medieval fresco in lower church
St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
The song that we heard a few minutes ago begins with a reference to the Servant of YHWH’s preaching and reminds us of how Jesus announced his mission in the synagog at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21), quoting a different passage from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord” (61:1-2).
But today’s song quickly turns somber, speaking of the Servant’s faithfulness in the face of torture, and of his total confidence in God’s faithfulness.
Reading that passage, we think 1st of all, like the early Church, of Jesus’ faithfulness and his trust in his Father, right up to the commendation of his spirit to his Father (Luke 23:46). But I couldn’t help thinking also of the faithfulness of the Body of Christ, his Church, under persecution, under beatings and disgrace before men (cf. Is 50:6-7). Christians in China defy the local government that attacks their church buildings. Christians in Latin America are assassinated for defending the rights of the poor. Christians in our country risk fines and imprisonment and loss of their livelihood for asserting conscience (as they did also in the ’60s). Christians in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere face every day the danger of physical assault, the burning of their churches, the confiscation of their goods, oppressive taxation, arrest, beheading or a bullet to the head—or risk perilous exile rather than deny Jesus. Even now, Salesian Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil has been missing since March 4 when he was taken away by the terrorists who butchered 16 people at the Missionaries of Charity home in Aden. Our fellow Christians say things like, “They may destroy our churches and seize our homes and our goods, but they can’t take away our faith in Jesus.”
“I have not turned back; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame” (Is 50:5,7), indeed. The Suffering Servant still suffers, is still faithful to the Lord God.
Our persecuted fellow believers don’t despair of God’s help. But they are mightily discouraged by the seeming indifference of the Christian West, or the formerly Christian West that pays loads of lip service to human rights—to “reproductive rights” and gay rights and the right to vote, but not so much to religious rights. They plead for us to hear their cries, see their suffering, feel their pain—and do something to rescue them, to allow them to continue to live in their ancestral homes and practice their ancestral faith.
Sisters, I know that, like Pope Francis, you’re mindful of our beleaguered and persecuted sisters and brothers. Continue to pray for them and, when possible, advocate for them, the 21st century’s suffering servants of YHWH.