Today, a name matters. Our Sunday is called “Passion Sunday” to teach us that suffering is Christian and normal/natural. In order to tell us the importance of “Passion,” we read a “Passion Narrative,” the story of the suffering, betrayal and agony of Jesus. In fact, all three readings of today qualify as “Passion Narratives”. In our first reading, we read the agony of Jesus in the prophecy of Isaiah, how the Messiah’s beard becomes an instrument of torture; his face, a toilet for spittle; and his back, a punching bag. Imagine when your colleagues, friends or family either deny, betray or cause you pain! The pains caused by loved ones are particularly more difficult to endure because we expect them to console and get our backs and not cause us pain. More practically, it is difficult to accept the hatred of one’s mother-in-law, the disaster of a cheating spouse and the venom of an oppressive parent or boss. Remember, though, that you’re not less holy by those circumstances. Passion Sunday is for you and me, a story of grace, despite pain!
As Christians, our pains and instruments of torture are not far fetched; they can be our cravings, friends or/and family. Our spontaneous reaction when betrayed, oppressed and suppressed is to think that God abandons us. It is to cry out, as our responsorial psalm does “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me”! The spirit of vengeance possesses or attempts to control us; the virtuous life we’ve practiced seems like stupidity, and we are ready to back out. In such circumstances, we forget the concluding part of today’s first and second readings that God dwells with the oppressed and rewards the faithful. As a lesson for us, the Messiah stays put, he doesn’t run away, and he says of his situation: “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7). Moreover, while complaining on the cross (“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me”), Jesus didn’t come down from the cross, he dies there! The Messiah goes beyond the expectations of the world, where only good things happen to good people; where a Christian is not supposed to feel pains and be afraid for his life. On the contrary, the Messiah accepts to be ordinary, wearing ignominy like a necklace, while considering fidelity to God in disastrous situations as worth-the-while. He sees God’s help in his suffering because something greater was in store for him.
“Passion Sunday” is not just the story of pain and agony, it is also a testimony to fidelity through the power of grace.
According to our second reading, there is a future glory, the compensation that lurks in wait for faithful servants who weather the storm of suffering and pain. The future recompense is the focus of the suffering servant of God, and it should be ours too: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). The passion of Christ is a model for Christian suffering and endurance. Let us complain but stand our ground, cry because of pain but remain undaunted by it, for our tears are those of Jesus who says to us, through St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9)!
Inasmuch as “grace” is a free and unmerited gift of God, it comes to us through the mediation of relationship, of friendship. Our gospel reading/Passion Narrative begins with food, a meal Jesus shares with his disciples. Only friends share a common meal, not enemies. Jesus feeds his disciples prior to leaving them; he shows them his love and renews their bond of friendship. It is in the power of that meal that he and his disciples go to confront the future agony of fidelity. While Jesus faces the fear of the cross in the garden of Gethsemane, his disciples wrestle with drowsiness and sleep. The stress and anguish of Jesus’ imminent crucifixion and the disciples’ natural need for a sound sleep after a hard day’s work challenge their fidelity and resolves. “Grace” comes to play when Jesus combines his agony with multiple journeys to his disciples to wake them up from their slumber and encourage them to pray for the grace to be faithful in trials. Like a parent waking up in the middle of the night to make sure that the children are fine in their beds, Jesus is ever present to those who suffer!
“Passion Sunday” is not just the story of pain and agony, it is also a testimony to fidelity through the power of grace. Today, we hear anew the grace of God strengthening our weak and feeble resolves. He calls our names, yours and mine, as he does that of Peter in today’s gospel reading: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). God doesn’t abandon us when we are weak, he prays for us and carries his burden alongside ours, as he does for Simon Peter. Jesus reminds us that there are many kisses of love, not just Judas’ kiss of betrayal (Mark 14:44-45). In his pain, Jesus brings joy to those he meets: “Herod was very glad to see Jesus; he had been wanting to see him for a long time, for he had heard about him and had been hoping to see him perform some sign” (Luke 23:8). What is more? despite the prevailing bad news on a whole continent, Africa and Africans are present live and direct lending a helping hand to a weary Jesus: “And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross” (Mark 15:21). Who can beat that, the whole world was there helping Jesus in the personality of Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43-47) who negotiates the release of his body for burial, while denouncing a travesty of justice!
Yet, overwhelmed by pain, Jesus still has the grace to say this: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). So, bring your pains and agonies to Jesus today, join them to his passion. It is when you and I run away naked (Mark 14:52), instead of standing for our faith, that proves that it is the power of God’s grace that makes us faithful, each time we are faithful. It is the experience of betrayal and pain that teach us the meaning of Jesus’ words on the cross “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Mark 15:34); we learn that complaint is normal, but it is not a motive for desertion and to chicken out on our faith. When the insults of friends, colleagues and family diminish our pride and take away our self-esteem, it is time to remember our worth with God, who never puts anyone to shame. When our faith is on trial, it is time to consider the future joy God reserves for us as a reason to keep the faith. Let us remember the consoling words of Jesus to a condemned criminal and draw hope of salvation from it: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
No one comes late to Jesus; salvation, a grace-event, is available even in the nick of time! Someday, no matter our circumstances, may we be able to say of Jesus Christ, that “This man, indeed, is the Son of God” (Mark 15:39), because of the gift of salvation received!
Assignment for the Week:
Do not complain all week long!
By Fr. Ayodele Ayeni, a Spiritan