[Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2: 6-11; Mark 14:1 – 15:47]
When I was a lad, a long time ago in an ancient time, I looked upon the commencement of Holy Week on Palm Sunday as the beginning of the home stretch. Only seven more days until I could get back to eating chocolate, or whatever I happened to have “given up” for Lent. Of course, my approach to Holy Week was a little off the mark. Lent, as we know, is not a forty-day endurance test. Rather, it is a grace-filled time for serious self-reflection, seeking to know what aspects of the way I live need to be given up, not for forty days but permanently, in order to live more authentically as a disciple of Jesus. In this light we see that Holy Week is not a final lap, but an opportunity for that introspection to intensify as we meditate upon the saving mysteries of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. The biblical texts for today’s liturgy prepare us beautifully for the sacred days ahead by laying out important considerations to guide our self-examination.
Let’s consider first the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. This text has resounded throughout Christian history as among the most eloquent articulations of what Jesus has done for love of us. It speaks of his astonishing humility, expressed in the self-emptying he undertook in both his divine and human natures. What’s missing from the passage we heard proclaimed is the scriptural verse that precedes it: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” In other words, St. Paul is placing before us the self-abasement of Jesus as the example for all of us to follow. The Christian lives as Jesus lived. If our Lord in all ways died to himself in order to live fully for God the Father, so, too, must we. Here we see what it really means for the Christian to “give up” something. As followers of the Lord Jesus, we are called to die daily to any way of thinking, any attitude, or any behaviour that is not worthy of our status as the sons and daughters of God. What specific changes of mindset or activity might be required of us come into focus when we turn to today’s other readings from Sacred Scripture.
In the text from Isaiah we have this: “Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” This is one of the ancient prophesies regarding the Suffering Servant, the One God would raise up to save humanity by taking its suffering upon himself. The Servant is described here as one whose first daily act is to listen to the voice of God and learn. It is the listening, in other words, of a disciple, one who listens and follows only the voice of the master. That Suffering Servant is Jesus, who in his earthly life listened uniquely to the voice of his Father and followed in perfect obedience. The Christian lives as Jesus lived. He is now our master, so our duty is daily to seek out his voice, listen attentively and trustingly, and obediently follow where he leads.
From this arises what I believe is among the most urgent questions of our day, and perhaps the most important one to be asking ourselves throughout Holy Week: “To what voices must I give up listening?” When I listen to a voice and allow its message to shape my mindset and thus influence my behaviour, I am giving that voice my trust, often without considering if the source is actually trustworthy. For an example of just how important this issue of listening is, we need look no further than to society’s response to the coronavirus. There are many competing voices, not all of them reliable, and as people listen and follow divergent statements and opinions society fractures. For the follower of Jesus, though, the challenge of listening is not confined to the pandemic. Daily we are inundated by a tsunami of messaging that questions not our pandemic response but our Christian commitment, and which seeks to seduce us away from fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church. If we are not attentive to our daily listening habits, we shall soon find ourselves with divided hearts that lead us to question the truth of our Lord’s teachings as they come to us in Scripture and the doctrines of the Church. If my self-examination this week reveals an influence over me of an untrustworthy voice, one that causes me to allow my trust in God to die and thus live unfaithfully, then I know I need to give up listening to it, permanently.
There are other questions prompted by the sacred texts. When we hear, for example, how the acclamations of the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem soon turned to cries for his crucifixion, we are reminded of the emptiness of human praise. This prompts us to ask ourselves if nevertheless we continue to seek and rely upon it for a sense of self-worth. When we hear St. Paul say that every knee must bend at the name of Jesus, we can ask the Lord to show us how we are striving rather to make a name for ourselves. When the same Apostle insists that every tongue must acclaim Jesus as Lord, these words inspire each of us to ask if I accept as sovereign in my life not Jesus but myself, not his will but my desires. These questions help us to realize that what must be given up for good is self-reference and self-reliance, in favour of placing all our hope in the goodness of our Lord and Master.
The sacred passages of today’s mass help us appreciate how our Lenten journey, especially as it unfolds in Holy Week, is about far more than the temporary giving up of chocolate, as I once thought. It is a summons to live as Jesus lived through a radical and permanent change of life, what we call conversion. Such profound change is not something we can undertake unaided. It requires the grace and mercy of Jesus. He, the Son of God who became one of us, understands our human condition. He fathoms it, in fact, more deeply than we do. He knows each of us fully, and loves each of us completely. Jesus knows exactly what we have to give up, where we need to change, and wants nothing more than to effect that transformation in our lives. This week, then, let us pray for the grace to listen attentively to his voice, examine our lives in the light of his Word, and have hearts open and ready to be changed forever.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
March 28th, 2021