Preparing Well to Enter into the Lord’s Passion, Passion Sunday (EF), April 2, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Passion Sunday
April 2, 2017
Heb 9:11-15, Jn 8:46-59

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided today’s homily: 

The Purpose of Passiontide

Today the Church celebrates with Passion Sunday the beginning of the brief liturgical season called in the extraordinary form Passiontide, during which the Church turns all of her attention more explicitly toward the betrayal of the Lord, toward his sufferings and death. It’s meant to help us to prepare well to enter deeply into the mystery of the Lord’s salvific death for us. Its goal is to open us up to receive more fruitfully than ever before what the Lord accomplished for us during his passion, death and resurrection. Regardless of how the Season of Lent has gone — whether it’s been what it should have been, a season of more intense prayer, fasting, and sacrifice, or whether it’s been a series of missed opportunities — now is the time the Church wants to help us to focus, to get serious, to change our priorities, to make sure we’re not just bystanders of the sacred mysteries we’re preparing to mark, but active participants, zealous recipients, and passionate sharers of Christ’s saving work.

Jesus’ Singular Work as Eternal High Priest

The readings today help to set our coordinates. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we see clearly what Jesus accomplished through his Passion: he obtained our “eternal redemption” by his blood, so that “our consciences [may be cleansed] from dead works to worship the living God” and we might “receive the promised inheritance.” The letter contrasted what Jesus did with what happened on the Jewish Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, there were two ritual sacrifices: a bullock and a goat that the high priest, following the Book of Leviticius (16:15,21-22) offered in the Temple for his sins and the sins of the people respectively. It also contrasted what Jesus achieved in contrast to the Jewish sacrifice of a red heifer, according to the Book of Numbers (19), when a red heifer was led outside the camp of the Jews in the desert as a scapegoat to make the Jews ceremonially pure so that they might enter tent tabernacling God’s presence to worship him. The blood from the sacrificed heifer would be sprinkled in front of the tabernacle area and the ashes were placed in a clean place outside the camp. The Jews believed that those sacrifices, both the Yom Kippur ones in the Temple, and the oblation of the red heifer during the days in the desert, were sufficient for taking away their sins.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, “If the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ!” It adds, contrasting Jesus to the Jewish High Priest, that “when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, … he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood.” The tabernacle Christ entered was ultimately the tabernacle of the holy of holies of heaven, which was anticipated in his own body, in which God — in the accurate translation of “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” from St. John’s prologue that we say at the end of every Mass —  “tabernacled” himself among us.

And so the Letter to the Hebrews helps us to appreciate what Jesus accomplished as our high priest: he made forgiveness of sins possible for us by himself becoming not only our high priest but making himself the victim, the sacrifice, by whose blood that atonement was achieved. But it also makes clear for us what our response has to be: Jesus by his Passion has cleansed our consciences from sin, from dead works, precisely so that we might use our freedom to “worship the living God.” And so, as we approach Holy Week and examine our life as a whole in the light of how precious our life was that Jesus would die to save it, we need to examine whether worship of the living God is really the center of our life or just a small part of it. We’ll return to this later.

Jesus’ Authority, Credibility, and Self-Revelation

In the Gospel, we hear Jesus’ contentious dialogue with many of the scribes, Pharisees, chief priests, and others in the Temple area in the eighth chapter of St. John, which begins with Jesus’ saving the life of the woman caught in adultery whose life they were using as a prop in order to try to entrap Jesus. The conversation only grew in intensity after that showdown, in which those who had made themselves Jesus’ adversaries were going back and forth between challenging his credentials and accusing him of all sorts of the nastiest things and Jesus was responding by calling out their hyprocisy, that they were claiming to be faithfully worshipping God while they really didn’t know who he was, that they claimed to be good sons of Abraham while, instead of doing the deeds of Abraham, they were plotting to kill Jesus. They were children not of Abraham, Jesus insisted, but of the devil, because they were willingly, though unwittingly, carrying out the devil’s schemes. As obedient sons of the father of lies, they were stubbornly opposing the truth Jesus was witnessing and enfleshing. That sets up today’s passage.

Jesus asks, “Can any of you charge me with sin?” We can hear the pause as Jesus looked around to see if anyone had ever seen him sin, the very people who had to drop stones at the beginning of the Chapter because they knew they were not “without sin” to stone the adulterous woman. Nobody obviously could say that he had. So he continued, “If I am telling the truth, why do you not believe me?” Again, a long pause so that he could allow his words to sink. He added, “Whoever belongs to God hears the words of God” and said, “for this reason you do not listen, because you do not belong to God.” His opponents answered by accusing him of being a devil — that’s what the word Samaritan means in context, because in Aramaic the Jews would refer to the devils as “Shomeroi,” the same word for Samaritan — and being possessed. Jesus replied that he was not possessed, but in everything was honoring the Father who seeks his Son’s glory and that he — not them, not Pontius Pilate, not Herod — will judge.

Then Jesus upped the ante, bringing them and us squarely as to whether we will receive what he sought to accomplish during his passion: swearing an oath he said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” They found that claim ridiculous, since all of the prophets had died, since Moses had died, since Abraham had likewise breathed his last on earth. Jesus said that the Father would glorify him — through his resurrection and ours — and that Abraham rejoiced to see his day. He rejoiced to see it because Jesus would be among the sons prophesied when he counted the stars, would be the one through whom Abraham would be blessed, who would be the fulfillment of the sacrifice of Isaac, carrying his own wood as the Lamb God would provide. His adversaries argued that he was too young for to have known Abraham, who had lived 1800 years before, but then Jesus laid all his cards on the table with a statement pointing clearly to his divinity: “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” He used the same expression God used with Moses from the burning bush. The adversaries picked up stones to try to kill him for blasphemy, but he left the temple area to await what we will ponder next Sunday and throughout Holy Week in the reading of the Passion.

Worshipping the Lord with our Life

Why does the Church have us ponder this passage on Passion Sunday? Not only because it shows the opposition to Jesus that would lead to his death, but also to expose within us any resistance to living by faith in Jesus. Do we resist him in any way? Do we recognize that Jesus is telling the truth and therefore believe in him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Do we listen to the words he says and obey them just like Jesus who knows the Father and keeps his word? Do we honor Jesus or dishonor him in our life? Do we rejoice to see Jesus’ day?

As we draw closer to the reliving of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, the Church wants us pondering these thoughts and making choices. Choices about how we’re going to spend these two weeks. Choices about whether we’re going to put God first and come to each of the events of the Sacred Triduum, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Choices about whether we’re going to receive the atoning fruits of his Passion in Confession. Choices about prayer, about fasting, about almsgiving. Choices about whether we’ll be satisified with checking off boxes in our spiritual life or making our whole life an act of divine worship.

In the Mass, we enter into the saving mysteries of the Lord’s passion. We go up to Golgotha with him as he enters the sanctuary. We are not sprinkled with his blood, but receive his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity within. We not only listen to the words of the great “I AM” who existed before Abraham, but allow that Word-made-flesh to take on our flesh, as the down payment on our receiving through Jesus’ love and sacrifice “eternal redemption!” As we will pray in the Communion Antiphon, Jesus tells us anew today: “This is my body, which shall be given up for you: this is the cup of the new covenant in my blood,” … and … “Do this as often as you receive it, in remembrance of me.” This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. How proud we are to profess it and live it in Christ our eternal high priest! Amen!

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

A reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant: since a death has taken place for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant, those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.

The continuation of the Gospel according to St. John
Can any of you charge me with sin? If I am telling the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not listen, because you do not belong to God.” The Jews answered and said to him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed?” Jesus answered, “I am not possessed; I honor my Father, but you dishonor me. I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the one who judges. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” [So] the Jews said to him, “Now we are sure that you are possessed. Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? Or the prophets, who died? Who do you make yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing; but it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ You do not know him, but I know him. And if I should say that I do not know him, I would be like you a liar. But I do know him and I keep his word. Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad. So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” So they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.