Palm Sunday, (B)
(The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark)
In the responsorial psalm today you repeated words that were horrendous, coming, as they did, from the mouth of Jesus:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Such a cry can only have been forced out of Jesus by unimaginably intense suffering, for He was, on earth, the very Son of God made flesh: as a Child He had been loved and taught by Mary, most reverently supported and protected by her husband Joseph; He had grown up in constant favour with God and man, and it had been His ever-deepening delight to learn – through his habit of prayer and with help from the Scriptures both at home and in the synagogue -- to recognize and respond to His heavenly Father ever more and more in all the details of His daily life and experience among men. Having come to know Himself as sent by the Father, Personally commissioned and endowed to save Israel and -- ultimately, through His Church -- the whole of mankind, in all that He did He sought exclusively and whole-heartedly to please and give glory to His Father in Heaven by leading Israel, through repentance, to peace with her God and fulfilment in her calling. How unimaginably intense, therefore, must those sufferings have been which led Jesus to cry out:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Listen again to a little more of the psalm:
All who see me mock at me; they mock me with parted lips, they wag their heads: “He relied on the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, if he loves him.” (Ps 22:7-8)
It is hard to suffer unjust, ignorant, derision; derision from those whose life and actions could not endure any investigation at all; from those ever ready to bend and blend with every prevailing wind because they have no principles, and have courage only to run with the hounds or share in the jeers of the crowd or the violence of the mob.
But even those who find themselves suffering such derision -- when, finally brought low, and their suffering and agony made manifest to all -- will sometimes hear individual voices being raised on their behalf, find some compassion and sympathy from one or two onlookers more humane and tender-hearted than the others. And there were, indeed, some such who witnessed Jesus’ agony; but they had no appreciation of His Person and character, no understanding of His aims and purpose: they lamented His wounds, but as spectators otherwise uninvolved, with the result that His persecutors were able to laugh at His helplessness, and deride His abandonment. Even worse, they abused the very thread of life sustaining Him by saying:
He relied on the Lord, let Him rescue Him, if He loves Him!
Yes, Jesus had trusted in the Lord, His Father! Throughout His life He had trusted Him totally because He alone knew that His Father was totally trustworthy. Now, however, it seemed that, as His life was draining away, He found Himself in a situation unimaginably alien to the ideal for which He had lived and now found Himself dying: He had wanted to lead His fellow Jews and Chosen People to recognise the Father He proclaimed as the one true God Who had originally chosen, liberated, and wondrously blessed their fathers before bestowing upon them the land on which their own feet now most gratefully stood, even though their worship of Him was now lacking love’s true obedience. And here were those to whom He had been sent, and for whom He had laboured long and was suffering much, mocking His Father and their God with that jibe: “let Him save this fellow if this fellow is His friend”.
Compared to this Personal agony the physical torment was as nothing; nevertheless, physical torment it was: He could count every one of His bones, and was wracked by agonizing cramps as He hung there; He experienced a horrible difficulty in breathing, continually having to struggle to raise His rib-cage to find relief from the dreadful and continuous threat of being smothered; and then, from those gaping holes in His hands and His feet, His life-blood was pouring out and leaving Him with a such a terrible thirst!
We know that the psalm which Jesus was reciting went on:
But you, O Lord, be not far from me; O my help, hasten to aid me.
It witnesses to the fact that He trusted His Father to the end; indeed, the psalm closes with words of triumph:
I will proclaim Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, give glory to Him, revere Him, all you descendants of Israel!
However, granting such a final outcome, the question becomes all the more pressing: why did Jesus have to suffer so dreadfully in order to carry out the work God -- His most loving Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- had decided He should accomplish for our salvation? What, precisely, was that work He had set Himself to do in fulfilment of His mission?
It was a work of sublime love, divine love indeed: not simply to save us from the result of our sins, but to give eternal glory and praise to the Father, and to turn us back again to the recognition and love of Him from Whose face and presence we had originally and most wrongfully turned at the instigation of the serpent, the father of lies.
And so, Jesus did not suffer horribly because such much suffering was needed to free us from the weight of our sins; no, He suffered so much to give supreme glory and honour to the goodness of His Father, and to show us, His own brethren, just how far and to what extent He Himself as Perfect Man would, and how we -- though sinners yet disciples – can and should, in and with Him, trust the Father. To that end He willingly allowed Himself to be emptied entirely of physical and emotional strength, of all awareness of any remnant or residue of former sources of comfort and relief, of any hope of possible escape or deliverance other than His Father’s love and faithfulness which, however, He could no longer feel, recall, or imagine. He suffered thus because He wanted to proclaim to suffering humankind that no matter what their situation – for no human suffering could possibly measure up to this – the Father was the One to trust. He might have said this again in words, but words could in no way have the weight of conviction carried by the living example of this Man who, so totally forgetful of Himself, relinquishes all that He has and is and commits Himself into His Father’s loving arms from the Cross, in order to make manifest to sinful men just how good the Father is, how totally and absolutely trustworthy.
Only thus, by enduring and triumphing over the worst the devil might inflict, would Jesus be able free us from fear of the devil by giving us an unquenchable hope in the Father’s goodness, and thereby empower us to follow wherever His Spirit might lead us; only thus, could we be raised in and with Him to the dignity of children of heaven, able and called to collaborate with Him in the continuance and fulfilment of His work for the salvation of mankind; only thus, could we be taught and brought to give fitting glory to the God, the Creator and Father of us all.
Hear now the words of St. Peter giving encouragement to a tiny flock of bewildered and persecuted Christians in Asia Minor, and recognize how your faith today is indeed being offered the same nourishment as that which enabled those Christians of old to triumph over their sufferings and transform their world:
You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He, indeed, was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, Who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Pet 1:18-21)
Glory and praise to you Lord Jesus Christ! You are the Saviour of the world!