March 27, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Easter gift of empty tomb shows that our sins can be forgiven

I find it hard to believe that we are about to enter the fifth week of Lent. It is timely to think ahead about the observance of Palm Sunday and the great Holy Week.

This year’s palms will be burned to become ashes for next Ash Wednesday when we will receive them with the sober reminder: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

It doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that the victory palm turns to a sober reminder of the sinfulness of our human condition. It reflects what happens in the dramatic liturgy of Palm Sunday. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem ends in bitter sorrow.

St. Bernard once said, “How different the cries, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him,’ and ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!’ How different the cries are that now call him ‘King of Israel’ and then in a few days time will say, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’ What a contrast between the green branches and the cross, between the flowers and the thorns! Before they were offering their own clothes for him to walk on, and so soon afterwards they strip him of his and cast lots for them” (Sermon on Palm Sunday, 2, 4).

The Passion according to St. Mark is probably the closest to the actual story of what happened to Jesus. In many ways, it describes Jesus in the most human terms.

His last words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). Yet, in the end a pagan Roman soldier tells of hope as he says: “Surely this was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39).

During Holy Week, Jesus is on trial. In the end, as Son of God, he triumphs over sin and death. He does so through his human weakness.

During Holy Week, St. Peter is on trial. He swears eternal loyalty to his friend and master Jesus. Then he betrays his friend three times. Yet, quickly, as a man of hope, he repents of his sin.

During Holy Week, Judas is on trial. He is the one who complains about the wasteful use of precious oil to anoint Jesus before his death; he is the one who sells Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

In the end, knowing the tragic wrong he did, he returns the 30 pieces of silver, yet he is unable to seek forgiveness because he is not a man of hope; tragically, he despairs and takes his own life.

Even though Judas is a friend of Jesus, he cannot see what the pagan soldier sees, he cannot see that Jesus dies for him, too.

Many centuries later, as people of faith, we journey into the future with hope.

Judas is a sad study of how one despairs. His was not a sudden betrayal of his friend Jesus. Betrayal is not sudden.

At the home of Lazarus, when Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive oil, the cynicism of Judas showed. He said the anointing was a waste; the money should have been given to the poor.

Cynicism signals a lack of hope, and it can be the forerunner to despair. And cynicism is often the cover of something dark.

St. John tells us the truth about Judas: He was a thief. Judas was living a lie, and he could not find his way back to the truth, to Jesus.

In a way, during Holy Week, are we not on trial? We need only to look into our hearts to know that our denials continue to add to the suffering and death of Jesus.

Jesus died not only for the sins of Peter and Judas or for sin in general. He died for our particular sins, too.

The truth is that Jesus does not love us in some vague sense as those folks who would live in the 21st century. He loves each of us as friends and in a particular way.

Do we repent? Do we have the hope of Peter, who denied Jesus three times? Do we repent like Peter, who would be the first to enter the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning? The great Easter gift of the empty tomb promised the possibility that our sins can be forgiven.

The sacrament of reconciliation is an Easter gift that Jesus won for us so that the palm branch, together with the cross, can be a sign of victory.

This gift is available in the fifth week of Lent and during Holy Week. We have time to confess our sins either this week or during Holy Week.

If we do so, the palm branch can lead us beyond darkness and the radiant cross to Easter joy. †

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