|The Sánchez Archives
PALM / PASSION
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
A Week of Passion
Holy Week 1998 begins today and Christians the world over are called to their special annual sharing in the story of salvation. More than a mere historical remembrance of one mans movement through a week that began on a high note of praise and acclamation only to end on the bitterest note of rejection, suffering and execution, Holy Week provides the gathered assembly with what should be an existential and multi-dimensional experience of passion.
Of course, the primary focus of these days is the passion of Jesus Christ. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the passion was comprised of the suffering, both interior and exterior, endured by Jesus from his last supper with his friends and followers until his death on the cross. From the earliest centuries of the church, Christians have sought to better realize and understand the intensity of Jesus passion; to that end, the second century C.E. Melito of Sardis, in a homily on the passion exhorted, Listen while you tremble! He that suspended the earth was hanged up; He that supported the earth was supported upon a tree; the Lord was exposed to ignominy with a naked body; God, put to death!
During the Middle Ages, the efforts of the faithful to concentrate on the mystery of Jesus saving death took the form of plays or dramatic reenactments of the gospel passion narratives. Performed in the vernacular, these plays brought home to young and old alike, the circumstances surrounding Jesus passion and death.
In the readings for todays liturgy, these circumstances are sketched for the contemporary gathered assembly in vivid verbal portraits. Deutero-Isaiah (first reading) prepares the scene by describing the determination of Gods saving servant: Passionately intent upon carrying out the mission given him, and fully reliant on Gods strength and support, he did not yield until his work was completed. Paul, in the second reading from Philippians, takes us behind the physical pain, buffets and spitting to understand the inner attitude of obedience and self-giving which motivated Christs passion. In the gospel, Luke guides us through the last hours of Jesus earthly life, portraying the passion and death of Jesus as a gift freely given by a forgiving brother (Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing) and loving Son (Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit!).
However, there are also other passions which are to be experienced during this Holy Week. Believers cannot look upon the crucified Jesus or listen to the proclamation of his passion without also being aware of the passionate love which motivated such a sacrifice. This week is much more about blessing, loving and giving than it is about cursing, rejecting, taking and killing. Jesus passion was contingent upon and prompted by the incredible love of God for all peoples.
In addition to the passion of Jesus and the passionate love of God, this week is also about the ongoing passion of humankind. Rather than simply steer our energies into sympathizing with Christ or with his mother, Mary, by remembering what was, no doubt, the most trying and painful period of their lives, this week, which we call holy, also challenges us toward a personal share in the passion of Christ. Karl Rahner (The Great Church Year), Crossroad Pub. Co., New York: 1994) suggested that we do this by bearing the burdens of our life with simple fortitude and without ostentation. For we share by faith in the passion of Christ precisely by realizing that our life, with all its joys and sorrows, is a participation in his destiny. These burdens also give us a mysterious share in the destiny of all human beings. However, believers must take care to avoid the deadly danger of egoism, thinking only of ourselves and our own pain. When we can freely accept our own sufferings as a participation in those of Christ and as our contribution to the destiny of all people, then the burdens of others will be lightened.
During this week of passion, passionate suffering, passionate grace, passionate love and passionate forgiving, each of us is called to remember the Christ of Calvary and then to embrace and lighten the burden of the Christ whose passion continues to be experienced in the hungry, the poor, the sick, the homeless, the lonely and the outcast.
Among the Greeks, the classic story of Pheidippides is told and retold as an example of endurance in the face of hardship. A champion runner, Pheidippides was sent from Athens to Sparta ca. 490 B.C.E., with a request that the Spartans come to the aid of the Athenians who were soon to be attacked by Darius I of Persia. For two days and two nights, the brave messenger ran the 140 miles, scrambling over rocky paths, through forests and rivers, until he arrived in Sparta. To his dismay, the Spartans refused Athens request for military support. Exhausted and distraught, but aware that his countrymen needed to know that they would stand alone against the Persians, Pheidippides ran back to Athens. Immediately upon delivering his message, the runner grabbed his shield and spear and marched out with his fellow Greeks to confront the Persians who had already made their way to the plain of Marathon, about twenty-five miles from Athens. Although they were greatly outnumbered, the Athenians were not to be overcome. By the end of one days battle, they sent Darius and his army fleeing to their ships and back to Persia, whereupon, the Greek general dispatched Pheidippides to Athens to announce their victory. Spent from the battle but always obedient, the runner covered the twenty-five miles without stopping, made his way through the anxious, waiting crowd and gasped: Rejoice! We conquer! As the Athenians shouted their joy and relief, Pheidippides sank to the ground, dead.
In todays first reading, Deutero-Isaiah has immortalized the story of another messenger, whose obedience to the one who sent him and whose dedication to his mission enabled him to endure, until the word that he was sent to deliver and the work that he was sent to do had been accomplished. Known as the Suffering Servant, the role of this special messenger of God was described in four songs (42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:12) which were included in the sixth century B.C.E. prophets message of consolation for his fellow exiles in Babylonia (Isaiah 40-55). Many scholars believe that Deutero-Isaiah intended Israel to identify with the role of the Servant-messenger, and thereby, to understand the exile as a communal passion, suffered for the sake of its own deliverance, as well as for the salvation of all other peoples.
Other scholars suggest that the prophet likened his own task as messenger to Gods people to that of the featured Servant. Like the Servant, Deutero-Isaiah and his prophetic colleagues had been graced by God with the ability of speaking a rousing word to the weary (v. 4). Wearied by their own sin and its consequences, those exiled from their homeland also felt exiled from God; it was the prophets special burden to rouse his contemporaries from their hopelessness. Like the Servant, the prophet was to listen to God, morning after morning (v. 4) and to persevere despite every rejection and suffering. With face like flint (v. 7), i.e., with unrelenting stamina, the prophet, like the Servant and like the ancient runner, Pheidippides, was to see his mission through to completion. In the fourth Servant song, which will be read later during this week, it will become clear that the Servant-messengers obedience would ultimately cost him his life (52:13-53:12).
The early Christians recognized that these four prophetic songs were fulfilled in the person and through the message and mission of Jesus. Spoken by God into the world, Jesus was sent to rouse weary sinners and to move them to repentance; he was unswerving in his task, and in the end, gave his life that it might be accomplished.
In remembering Jesus passion today, we are to be moved, not only by the manner in which he died but also by the passion with which he lived. The same God who inspired that passion within him, awaits us with the gift of a well-trained tongue and with a message that is new, morning after morning. That same God is our help, our grace and the cause of our passion as we attempt to live in faithfulness to him who is both the message and messenger of our salvation.
Shel Silversteins parable, entitled The Giving Tree (Harper and Row Publishers, New York: 1964), chronicles the interaction between a tree and a boy, who grows to old age as the story unfolds. In what can only be described as a one-sided relationship, the tree was content to give everything she had to the boy, including a frolic in her leaves, the shade of her full branches and her apples. As the story progresses, and the boys appetite turned toward things more material, the tree willingly offers her fruit to be sold, her branches to construct his house and eventually her entire trunk with which to build a boat in which he sailed away. Decades pass and finally, the boy, now an elderly man, returns. The tree which he left as a barren stump greets him with a mixture of joy and sadness, joyful at seeing her beloved friend once again, but saddened that she has nothing left to give. When the aged and wizened boy says that he only needs a place to sit and rest, the tree offers her stump to him. The story ends with a sketch of the man resting on the stump and the caption, And the tree was happy. Silversteins beautiful interpretation of the gift of selfless giving could be understood as an analogous illustration of the passionate love of Jesus for all of humankind which Paul has described in todays second reading.
Not original to Paul, this early Christian hymn, first written in Aramaic, may have been composed for liturgical use at the communitys eucharistic gatherings. A summary of Jesus entire mission, this hymn represents the movement of Jesus, from his equal status with God (v. 6) to his incarnation, to his acceptance of the status of a slave (v. 7), to the ignominy of his death on the cross (v. 8). The totality of Jesus self-giving has been defined by the Greek word kenosis, which means an emptying (v. 7). Kenosis implied a purposeful, positive and voluntary gift or renunciation of every right and privilege. Like Silversteins tree, Jesus had given everything he had, withholding not even his life. Because of this, God was pleased to fill him with glory, raising him to life, and with him, all who had been the beneficiaries of Jesus perfect giving.
While this hymn is beautiful in itself, as a celebration of Jesus gift of salvation, it should be appreciated within the context in which it was quoted by Paul. By introducing the hymn with the exhortation, Your attitude must be Christs, Paul indicated that he was offering the passionate and selfless giving of Jesus as a model which the Philippians and all believers were to emulate. As Joseph Fitzmyer (According to Paul, Paulist Press, New York: 1993) has noted, it is a distinctive pattern of Christian life that no other New Testament writer has so forcefully proposed.
Pauls appeal for harmonious and mutually loving relationships within the community also challenges each member of the community to empty himself or herself, in selfless giving to all others. If this quality of love were to be realized within the life of each community member, then factions, greed, rivalries and conflict would cease along with hunger, need and loneliness. A true challenge for Christians living in a societal atmosphere that asks, Whats in it for me? or that offers, Ill scratch your back if you scratch mine, this hymn calls for radical recommitment to the selfless, ever-giving love of Jesus Christ.
Although the four passion narratives appear at the end of each of their respective gospels, these special literary witnesses to the saving death of Jesus were actually the first elements of the gospel to be formulated. Scholars, who have traced the process whereby these passion narratives were developed, agree that the transition from the earliest and simplest creeds, such as Jesus is Lord! and Jesus lives! to a full-blown narrative of Jesus arrest, trial, condemnation, execution and burial was prompted by the growing needs and ever-deepening understanding of the community. Besides being an expression of its faith in the salvific character of Jesus death, the passion narratives addressed the churchs apologetic, liturgical and catechetical concerns. Apologetically, these narratives represented the communitys understanding that the passion and death of Jesus were an integral aspect of Gods saving plan. With frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, the evangelists affirmed the fact that the shocking and unexpected manner in which their messiah fulfilled his mission had been foreknown and preordained by God. Liturgically, the narratives enabled the community to remember and proclaim the saving death of Jesus, particularly within the context of their eucharistic celebrations. Catechetically, the passion traditions clarified Jesus death not as scandal or stumbling block but as the cornerstone on whom the living stones of the church are founded.
While each of the evangelists included the essential elements of Jesus passion in their narratives, each of them also shaped their accounts in accord with their own unique sources and pastoral concerns. Luke, for example, portrays Jesus in death as he had been all during his life, viz., in deep communion with the Father, forgiving and healing, and willing to give his life in atonement for the sins of others.
As Raymond E. Brown has noted in his excellent two volume work, The Death of the Messiah (Doubleday, New York: 1994), Lukes depiction of Jesus at prayer on the Mount of Olives lays less stress on his being troubled and sorrowful (as in Mark) and more on his union with God. Indeed his prayer to his Father is answered in the form of an angel sent to strengthen him. This strength saw him through to the end, such that, just before he died the Lucan Jesus prays, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (23:46).
Luke also affirms the fact that the healing and forgiving power of God were already at work in Jesus before his death. At his arrest, Jesus healed the ear of one who came to seize him. During his trial, the antagonism that had existed between Herod and Pilate was put to rest. On the cross, Jesus forgave those who put him to death and promised paradise to one of the criminals who died with him. That Jesus understood his death as an atonement for sin was evidenced in his statement at the last supper, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you (22:10).
From the outset, Luke also established Jesus death as an innocent martyr. Only in Lukes narrative does Pilate pronounce Jesus innocent three times (23:4, 14-16, 22). Only Luke has Herod also declaring Jesus innocence (23:6). Notice that Luke departs from his Marcan source and changes the centurions statement, Clearly, this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39) to Surely, this was an innocent man (Luke 23:47). Even one of the criminals crucified with Jesus attests his innocence, we are only paying the price for what weve done, but this man has done nothing wrong (Luke 23:41).
In addition to all of these special insights, Luke has also presented the passion and death of Jesus as a model to be emulated by all would-be disciples. Following his gospel with its portrayal of Jesus mission with a second volume (Acts), in which he portrays the continuing mission of Jesus by the church, Luke parallels the death of Stephen with that of Jesus. Both knew persecution, both forgave their enemies, both commended their spirits to God (Acts 7:59-60). Jesus set the pattern, Stephen followed suit; all who hear the narrative of Jesus passionate love for humanity proclaimed today are challenged to do likewise.
[NOTE TO USERS: This archive is available for use without charge, but it remains the property of the author and under copyright with Celebrations Publications. Users are permitted to print individual Sunday commentaries for pastoral use, but are prohibited from downloading or copying files or printing any portion of this for sale or distribution.]
e-mail the Celebration editor at email@example.com
Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
The National Catholic
Reporter Publishing Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111