Passion Sunday. Today is Passion Sunday. The Church gives it this name because the two weeks of Passiontide begin now. All the holy images in the chapel are now covered; the Gloria Patri is removed from most of the liturgy; and so is the Judica Me Psalm at the prayers at the foot of the Altar. All external enticements to joy and consolation are removed.
Why the change? Why is Lent becoming more sorrowful? All throughout this season, the Church has thought of penance and conversion. Her sorrow was sorrow over sin; we were to weep and expiate for our own infidelities. Now, her sorrow is more intense and has a different motive. She begins now to morn the sufferings and death of her Spouse.
Drama building up. But we have been prepared for it. During the fourth week of Lent, which has just passed, the Church presents us with the crescendo of hatred in Our Lord’s enemies in the daily Missal readings. The suspense is building up in the greatest of all dramas: the drama of our Redemption. Every miracle, every exhortation, every mercy of Our Lord is seized by His enemies as an occasion against Him. Finally, with the resurrection of Lazarus, which we read about on Friday, the Synagogue has resolved to put Our Lord to death. His sanctity is too much for them to see, his miracles and calls to penance and conversion must be silenced. The liturgy of today heightens this tension in the Introit, Gradual, and Tract, which present us with Psalm verses urgently imploring deliverance and protection from hostile enemies.
Today’s altercation. The altercation between Our Lord and His enemies recounted by St. John today happened in the Holy City, Jerusalem — in the Temple. The episode most likely happened a full six months before the Passion, while Jesus was in the Holy City for the Feast of Tabernacles. We should not miss the significance of this clash in the Temple. Our Lord is soon to cleanse it for the second time, giving a second witness to the infidelity of those who had charge of it. At the Crucifixion, the Temple’s veil will be rent and its sacrifices rendered no longer pleasing to God. The definitive judgment of the Temple will not come for another forty years — a Biblical generation — when the Roman armies of Titus destroy it, placing, as it were, a “Condemned” sign on Old Testament worship. What was holy before the coming of Christ, becomes a rejection of God once its types and figures are fulfilled.
Temple vs. Temple. Meanwhile, God has established the New Temple, the one Our Lord referred to when He said “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” It is the temple of His Body, which is also the Church, for the Church forms but one with Him. So here we see the the new Temple versus the old Temple, an imagery we are met with constantly in St. John’s Gospel. The old Temple was holy in its time, but it has come to represent the faithlessness of those who took pride in it, while rejecting the God they were supposed to worship there.
“High priest of the good things to come.” If we follow the lines of St. Paul’s thought in Hebrews, we see that Our Lord is more than a New Temple. He is also the Priest and the Victim offered. And in every way — as temple, as priest, and as victim — Our Lord surpasses the types and figures of the Old Testament. St. Paul tells us of this in the Epistle of today: “Christ… entered once into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption.” In the Old Law, the Jewish priests had to enter many times. The entirety of this Epistle reading and the entirety of the book of Hebrews give testimony to the superiority of Jesus Christ as Priest and as Victim. Today’s Mass has more than one reminder of the efficacy of the Precious Blood of Jesus. Look at the Communion Verse.
Jerusalem’s Crime. What was the crime of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the crime for which they would be rejected by Our Lord? It was very simple: “He that is of God, heareth the words of God. Therefore you hear them not, because you are not of God.” They rejected God’s words, accusing him once again of having a devil. It’s a simple formula: hear the words of God and be “of God” or reject the words of God and be “not of God.” It should not surprise us that St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great say that this verse is speaking of the elect and the reprobate. St. John summarized this in his famous Prologue: “But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name.”
The words of Jesus on this occasion were echoed before Pilate when Our Lord said “All those who are of the truth hear my voice.”
“I AM.” To see the great hatred the unbelieving Jews had for the words of God, look at how they react to the last thing Our Lord tells them: “Before Abraham was made, I am”:“They therefore took up stones to stone him.” Why did they want to stone him? Were they really trying to kill him for merely asserting that he was older than Abraham? No, stoning was the penalty for blasphemy in the Law of Moses. They understood exactly what He said: Jesus did not say, “before Abraham came to be, I was,” but “I AM” Now, I AM was the name of God in the OT. God told Moses to tell the people that “I AM” had sent him. The unutterable Name of God in the Pentateuch was I AM WHO AM. The Jews who rejected Our Lord knew what He was getting at, His claim to be God.
In the most literal sense, then, they did not “hear the words of God,” for they rejected God’s own profession of His Divinity.
What about our Crimes? It’s one thing for us to look with righteous indignation upon those who rejected Our Lord in first-century Palestine – and well we should – but it is another, a much harder thing for us to look in the mirror and realize that we often fail to hear the word of God ourselves. St. Bernard says that the greatest proof of predestination is the profitable hearing of God’s word. But note well the “profitable” part. If we don’t do the word of God, we aren’t hearing it profitably. We are the fools St. James describes who hear the word and, not keeping it, are as the man who sees himself in a mirror and later forgets what he looks like.
The word of God tells us we must root out pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. The word of God condemns gossip, backbiting, impurity, immodesty, and disrespect for elders. The word of God commands of us a life of sanctity, virtue, and sacrifice, in which we love God above all things and love our neighbors as ourselves for the love of God. It is not only first-century Jews who failed in these things.
The Mirror of the Gospel. During this Passiontide, let each one of us look in the mirror of this Gospel and see if we are really hearing the word of God. Let us not ignore the rebukes our consciences give us. That’s the word of God in ourselves telling us what to do. Let us make the words of today’s Offertory our own: “I will keep thy words.”
She who magnifies the Lord. After Our Lord, there is one who is the perfect model for us in hearing the word of God. This one is so perfectly “of God” that she kept his words, pondering them in her Immaculate Heart. As the perfect hearer of His word, doer of His Will, and Mother of His children, she is the Church in miniature. And, being Our Mother and our Mistress, she is interested in helping us to do what was her own greatest boast: “to hear the word of God and keep it.”