18 March 2018
5th Sunday of Lent, Year B
So you came into church today and noticed, “Hey, something is different.” And, of course, you see our statues are covered in purple cloth. Something is different. And what’s changed is: where we are in the season of Lent. We’re a week away from Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. Very soon Lent will come to an end. But before we get to Easter, we go deeper into the spirit of this season, and we begin to focus more on the Passion.
We see more purple, that reminder of penitence. We cover our statues as a way to fast from images. We become more intent on prayer and works of charity, almsgiving, and such. Before the light of Easter comes, things get a little darker. They get more intense, more subdued, and more focused on the mysteries of our faith we’ll be celebrating next week. And at the heart of those mysteries is the Passion.
So, yes, something is different. We’ve turned the corner, and the Passion is coming into view—not only Christ’s Passion, but our own.
Over the past five weeks we’ve prayed more, we’ve fasted, we’ve given alms. And we’ll keep doing that. And those are all disciplines which help us redirect our passions. God has made us to be passionate creatures. He’s made us capable of being moved in our souls by the force of intense emotions and feelings. And, in that, he’s made us like himself.
We call Jesus’ Passion his “passion” because he fulfilled perfectly this idea of being “moved,” to the point that his life was swept up into this thing he was passionate about; namely, the Kingdom of God, the Will of God, and salvation. If you think of somebody who really “gets into” what his or her interests and talents are, that’s what we mean by “passion.” They give their lives over to that thing. They’re passionate about the thing they have a passion for.
And our Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is meant to redirect our passions toward what God is passionate about. The Lord is passionate about: human dignity, justice, life, mercy, beauty, truth, and so on. Lent is about redirecting our passions (or at least, broadening our passions) to include what God is passionate about.
Lent seems to boil down to Jesus asking us: Can you have passion in your heart for what I am passionate about? After five weeks of Lent, something is different. We’re entering into a time of more intense personal reflection: Am I becoming passionate (at least, a little more) about what the Lord is passionate about? Am I beginning to let his Passion become my passion, too? And that’s a deep question for reflection here in the last couple of weeks of Lent.
Something is different. And it’s reflected in Scripture, and in the language we hear.
The Letter to the Hebrews talks about how Jesus learned “obedience” through what he “suffered.” Obedience and suffering: those are two intense words for us. Number one, we treasure our individual liberty, and so the idea of obedience isn’t something we swallow very well (even with a “spoonful of sugar,” it doesn’t go down well). And number two, most of us don’t like to feel pain or distress; and so we keep that idea of suffering at arm’s length. “Obedience” and “suffering” are two ideas that trip the passionate side of us, and we say, “No. No, I’m not going there.”
But, you know, Scripture wasn’t written in English. It was written in Greek and Hebrew.
The word “obey” is from the Latin “obedíre,” which means basically “to listen to” someone. And the Greek in Scripture is “hupa-kónay,” which means “to respond to someone who’s speaking.” “Obedience” doesn’t mean “do what I say or die.” That’s not obedience; that’s tyranny. Obedience begins with trust; it begins with a relationship. A person who “obeys” says, “I trust you. I trust you, and I trust that what you say is good, and so I’m gonna do it.” To be obedient is to be passionate about our God who is...trustworthy. Obedience is about a partnership with God, and that’s something we can be passionate about.
And the word “suffer” is from the Latin “sufferíre,” which literally means “to hold up something from underneath,” to “sustain” something. Just think of trying to change a light fixture on the ceiling; you have to hold that thing up there while you connect the wirings and get it attached to the ceiling.” Well, you’re “suffering” that light fixture...you’re holding it up. In the Scriptures, the Greek word here is “pás-koh,” which sounds a lot like “paschal”...as in the paschal lamb and the paschal mysteries.
“Pas-koh” means “to feel heavy emotion.” It means to feel heavy emotion, to bear the weight of something—and this in important, it’s an emotion or a weight that’s either bad or good. We think of suffering and we think of something bad, something painful. But that’s not necessarily what suffering is.
Any parent or grandparent who has carried the heavy weight of seeing their kids or grandkids leave their faith knows what suffering is. But it’s not a bad suffering; it’s a good suffering. And the weight is the weight of having a caring heart, a loving heart. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, “soon to be destroyed for its lack of faith,” he suffered. But what he was holding up was his own immense Sacred Heart, which fewer and fewer people seemed to care about. He suffered because he loved.
And so, suffering isn’t about enduring needless, pointless pain. It’s about being passionate about love: love of God, love of neighbor, and an intense emotional desire to see the Kingdom of God be a reality. And that kind of suffering is something we can be passionate about, as Jesus is.
“Obedience” and “suffering” aren’t words we like to hear. But if we understand them, we see that they’re ways we can make the Lord’s passions our own as well. Again, after five weeks of Lent, something is different. We’re entering into a time of more intense personal reflection: Am I becoming passionate (at least, a little more) about what the Lord is passionate about? Am I beginning to let his Passion become my passion, too?
This weekend, our soon-to-be First Communicants will be handing out loaves of blessed bread. But, more to the point, they’ll be “sharing” that food with others. It could be seen as a form of almsgiving: giving to others from what we have. And almsgiving is a way we share in the passion the Lord has for charity, neighborliness, and selfless giving.
Also, this weekend we’ll celebrate the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Church teaches that those who are sick in any sort of way serve as reminders to all of us to be passionate about the things of God; to be people of hope, even in the face of illness; to be people of faith; to be people of great love who comfort and console one another. The Lord is passionate about these things: faith, hope, and love; he’s passionate about those things which endure forever, beyond bodily illness or health.
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, care for the sick, neighborliness...they’re all things we get involved in because they remind us to be passionate about the things the Lord himself is passionate about.
But, it’s important to clarify something here. The Lord isn’t asking us to stop living our lives and to substitute his in its place. The Lord doesn’t want us to annihilate ourselves and our passions. That would be totally contrary to what the Lord is all about! No, the Lord is asking us to keep being passionate about the things we’re passionate about (our hobbies, our skills, our talents), but...also to be just a little bit more passionate about what his passions are.
We have to turn to the original Greek Scriptures to understand that. When Jesus talks about “loving” or “hating” our life in this world, we hear them as very black-and-white terms. But that’s not what Jesus means. According to St. John, he says, “ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν κόσμῳ τούτῳ [ho misón tayn psukáyn owtú en kósmo túto].” Our life here on earth and our life in heaven aren’t opposed to one another; they exist side-by-side.
And Jesus says, “Love your life here on earth; it is my gift to you. But love the life of heaven just a little bit more. Be passionate, but be just a little bit more passionate about God and his vision of the Kingdom.” Our patroness, Saint Clare, said the same thing. She said: “Hold everything...’hold’ everything, but with a light grasp.”
Be passionate. But, especially, be passionate about our Lord, who is passionate about us.