Homily: “On the Passion of Jesus”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Palm Sunday, 2018.

We have asked in our Collect the help of our loving Lord that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby He has given us life and immortality. And we do in fact have a need this help. We are asking for something more than merely hearing. To hear is to process something conveyed audibly as information. But we already know the information of today. Jesus entered Jerusalem at the Passover with great fanfare, and during the week instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and he was betrayed and by the end of the week, he was dead. That is the bare information of the last week of the life of Jesus, yet Holy Week is the time to go beyond the information, beyond the bare account, beyond the story we all know well—beyond into a contemplation of these mighty acts. To contemplate is to behold, to observe in depth. To contemplate is to make our hearts an open place of witness and of watching. After the Maundy Thursday Mass, everyone is invited to watch at the Altar of Repose with Jesus as He is in the Garden of Gethsemane—watching, observing, beholding in depth: contemplating the mighty act of love that is Jesus and what He has given us in the Eucharist. In that moment and in all moments during Holy Week, we are invited to contemplate joy that comes from pain; glory that comes from crucifixion; resurrection that comes from death.

We need help for such contemplation because when we enter into the events of the last week of Our Lord’s life we are confronted with information that is contradictory, even opposing in nature. Christ the King, the Lord God of all creation through whom all things are made, entered into Jerusalem on a colt, in humility on a lowly donkey. His entrance was an occasion for rejoicing: “Hosanna in the highest!” by the same people who a few days later yelled, “Crucify him!” We, along with all other Christians, are part of that same contradiction—not only in the drama of today’s liturgy, but in our lives, because each time we sin we crucify Jesus. And the contradiction at the heart of it all: that Our Lord’s humiliation and then death on the cross brings unspeakable glory and new and unending life. Contradictions abound throughout the Passion narrative. I have mentioned three, but there are many more.

And not only information in opposition, but Saint Mark also fills this narrative with many moment of irony. For example, it is nothing but irony that Peter, who identified Jesus previously in glorious fashion when he said to Jesus, “You are the Christ!” during the Passion of Jesus denies Him not once, not twice, but three times. Another example of irony is the term Pilate uses to refer repeatedly to Jesus: “the king of the Jews.” It is ironic not only because this king dies, but also in a way that Jewish followers of Jesus would have instantly recognized. That term was in fact a title that the Romans applied to their designated governors.  It was Roman appointees who demanded people call them the king of the Jews—to the great consternation and dislike of the Jews themselves. Pilate therefore was not innocent here, but rather was using a politically charged term he knew would incite the crowd to anger. And another bit of irony: the name “Barabbas” means “son of the Father. Jesus therefore is condemned for calling Himself “son of the blessed” while one whose very name means the same thing is released. And one more: the place where Jesus was brought to—Golgotha—Mark translates as “Place of the Skull.” The Jewish audience would have known the legend that it was the burial place of Adam’s skull. That in being led to His death, Jesus is shown again as the second Adam, means an irony cosmic in scope.

The larger term within the Church for such contradictions and moments of irony is “paradox.” And while this term like so many also has a secular meaning—something difficult to believe that is contrary to normal opinion—for the Church it refers to a more involved process, a movement, from what seems contradictory or in opposition and into wordless prayer, beyond what we can say or utter, even in praise. Literally paradox means “beyond words of praise.” What we sing at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is the “doxology,” hymn 380, verse3. That sense of “words of praise” is contained in para-DOX, and “para” means beyond. Paradox is a participation in reality beyond the words we have to describe that reality. If that sounds fancy, then let me summarize that definition for you with one word: Prayer. Prayer is a participation in reality beyond the words we have to describe that reality. True Christian prayer, both privately on our own as individuals and corporately together through Liturgy is always a paradox, a participation in reality beyond the words we have to describe that reality.

And this is why we need God’s help. We need His help to see how a plot that appears to be heading toward death and burial in fact is moving in the opposite direction. Within the Passion of Jesus is not an end, but a beginning forever new. These events are not closing heaven to us, but tearing it open. And because heaven has been torn open, split open, top to bottom, from heaven above the firmament all the way to earth beneath, we are invited to contemplate a reality so bright, so full of awe, so paradoxical, that we can say with the Roman centurion, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” And we can imitate Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of Joses (who is Jesus’ mother), who fulfilled at the end one of Our Lord’s primary and most fundamental teachings to His disciples: they followed Him; they ministered to Him, and having been laid in the tomb of rock, they watched Him. In this Holy Week, may we do the same: may we follow Him through these mysterious events; may we minister to Him through our service; and may we watch with Him in the Garden of reality beyond time and space.