By Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.
Every year as Holy Week arrives to bring to conclusion the lengthy Lenten season of repentance, the Church once more turns its gaze intently to the cross of Jesus Christ.
Two accounts of the Passion of Jesus act as bookends for Holy Week. The first is proclaimed on Passion (Palm) Sunday, which this year will be Luke's version of the Passion. The second account, always from the Gospel of John, dominates Good Friday.
During this Year for Priests, I wish to address the question of how we priests can better proclaim the Passion of Jesus Christ during Lent, especially during Holy Week. We might ask ourselves: what has become of the power of the cross?
It should be self-evident that Christianity is founded upon the cross. Virtually all of the New Testament speaks in one way or another of the importance of the cross of Christ, even though the word ''cross'' (Greek, stauros) does not occur frequently. Interpreted from a worldly perspective, it is a sign of defeat and humiliation. But viewed with the eyes of faith, it is a mark of God's victory over sin and death.
No one in the early Church wrote more powerfully or eloquently about the power of the cross than St. Paul. Not surprisingly, one of his most profound reflections on the topics occurs at the beginning of Holy Week, on Passion Sunday. I refer, of course, to the well-known Philippians hymn (Phil 2:6-11), which was already in Paul's day an early Christian reflection on the cross and its significance. Paul adopted and adapted it for his own purposes. This reading is worth a closer look.
One should first notice that the lectionary form of the reading omits the verses that provide an important context (vv. 1-5) for understanding how Paul uses this early Christian hymn. Simply said, those verses point to Jesus' humiliation on the cross as a moral example for Paul's readers. Paul uses the word ''same'' three times to urge the Philippians to be united in service to one another. He urges them to have ''the same mind'' and ''the same heart.'' Then, just as he begins quoting the hymn, he exhorts them: ''Let the same attitude be in you that was in Christ Jesus....'' In other words, he calls his community to be mindful that they are to follow Jesus' example explicitly by offering themselves to one another. They are to avoid looking out for their own interests (v. 4) and to become humble.
This introduction leads to the hymn itself, which is a perfect illustration of Paul's exhortation. Although the hymn can be structured in various ways, the simplest structure divides it into two parts, which makes it easier to comprehend the transformation that occurs by the end of the hymn. Death on a cross provides the turning point. Such an outline looks like this:
I. Humility by Servanthood
1) emptied himself
2) took the form of a slave
3) obedient to death
v. 8 ''even death on a cross''
II. Vindication by Exaltation
1) God exalted Him
2) bestowed the highest name
3) Jesus Christ is Lord
The three acts of humility are paralleled by the threefold vindication by God. Most scholars are agreed that Paul himself added the expression, ''even death on a cross.'' In doing so, Paul makes it clear (as elsewhere in his letters) that the cross is central to his message about Jesus. For Paul, this dramatic hymn of servanthood and voluntary obedience to God's will, even to the point of the humiliating death on a cross, speaks of the vindication that comes to those who humble themselves. God ultimately rewards their sacrifice.
The hymn is about self-emptying (Greek, kenosis) and becoming a servant/slave (Greek, doulos). Its message echoes Jesus' own teaching about being the servant, and His modeling of this servanthood by His moving gesture, at the Last Supper, of washing the feet of His disciples.
The point is not that followers of Jesus are to become proverbial doormats for the world. Jesus hardly threw himself at His Jewish opponents or the Roman soldiers who crucified Him in order to receive their abuse. But, when opposition to His Gospel message of truth, justice and peace mounted and threatened to lead to persecution and death, Jesus did not try to thwart this path.
Righteous women and men, before and since, have often had to suffer for the sake of God's truth. But Jesus incarnated this humility perfectly. He alone is Lord, but we are to imitate His example. The message, then, is that being servants of others is foremost in discipleship. If this generous self-giving should lead to rejection and persecution, so be it. The cross is paradoxicallya path to exaltation. Good Friday is always followed by Easter Sunday.
How does Luke's account of the Passion fit with the perspective of Philippians? First, we should resist the common temptation to blend all four Passion narratives into one seamless story. That only impoverishes our understanding of the complex Christologies of each Gospel. Although John's Passion narrative is always read on Good Friday, this year Luke's story is proclaimed on Passion Sunday. That gives homilists an opportunity to reflect more carefully on distinctive characteristics of Luke's version.
One thing noticeable in Luke's narrative is the placement at the Last Supper of a conversation about the servanthood of the disciples of Jesus. Just a few verses after Jesus has pronounced the words over the cup about shedding his blood ''for you,'' He reminds His disciples explicitly that they are to serve, just as He has served them. ''...[T]he greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.'' This matches well the humility expressed in Philippians. This attitude is supposed to be a hallmark of Jesus' disciples, especially those called to ordained ministry.
Another noticeable emphasis in Luke's Passion account is that Jesus continues to exercise His ministry of healing and forgiveness in the midst of His own suffering. Three images stand out: (1) the healing of the servant's ear after one of Jesus' disciples had struck it with a sword; (2) His words from the cross, ''Father, forgive them, they know not what they do''; and (3) the promise to the repentant thief, who is crucified with Him, ''...today you will be with me in Paradise.'' Even more startling and paradoxical is Luke's comment about the aftermath of Jesus being found innocent by Herod: ''Herod and Pilate became friends that very day.'' It's as if Jesus cannot help but reconcile wherever He goes. In Luke's account, Jesus is proclaimed innocent multiple times, but He dies nonetheless, crucified unjustly, yet offering Himself humbly for the salvation of the world.
A third distinctive feature of Luke's account is the presence of certain poignant human touches. Luke does not shy away from the human dimensions of Jesus' experience of suffering and death. For instance, in the agony in the garden, Luke says Jesus prayed so fervently that ''His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.'' Moreover, in deference to the image of the apostles and unlike Mark or Matthew, Luke says they fell asleep during the garden sequence because of ''grief.''
A further poignant touch occurs after Peter has denied Jesus three times, fulfilling Jesus' sad prediction. Only Luke has the two of them is such proximity that he can say, ''The Lord turned and looked at Peter,'' which causes Peter to remember Jesus' words. One can almost imagine the sadness and embarrassment in Peter's eyes of such a scene, knowing that he did not have the courage even to admit that he knew Jesus, let alone to try to defend Him.
These little human touches in Luke's account strike me as a way to keep the Passion story in perspective. Luke still has ''the big picture.'' That is, he knows this is a divine drama being directed by the Holy Spirit and in fulfillment of God the Father's will. Yet he does not diminish the human tragedy surrounding the death of an innocent prophet, who in reality is the suffering Messiah.
Having examined these two principal readings, I now offer some practical suggestions for priests (and deacons) charged to preach the Word of God during Lent and Holy Week. One must, of course, keep in mind local customs and diocesan regulations. In general, however, I think the following observations may serve most circumstances well.
First, I think we should reflect on the cross at some length throughout the Lenten season. We live in times that have seen the image of the cross basically reduced to a piece of jewelry. Lots of people wear it around their neck, in gold, silver or other forms. But fewer people seem to understand its meaning.
There is also secular opposition to the cross. Some countries around the world, for instance, have banned the cross or the crucifix in public spaces, despite the often deep Christian and Catholic roots in those countries. It is seen as too exclusive, too religious, and offensive to some.
In light of the contemporary situation we need to regain a sense of what the cross, at its foundation, means. St. Paul has said it best in various parts of his letters, two of which I quote.
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
The cross essentially represents the paradox of Christian faith. It is neither an embarrassment, a mere artistic decoration, nor a talisman. As Paul says elsewhere, it is assuredly a ''stumbling block'' for many people who cannot comprehend how suffering, especially innocent and underserved suffering, can help the world. But these are the same people who cannot comprehend how an orientation to serve others, rather than looking out for ourselves, makes sense. Christ crucified is what we proclaim, and we should not rob the cross of its power by domesticating it.
My second observation concerns the practicality of preaching on days when the length of the readings already extends the normal time for celebrating Eucharist (to say nothing of the need to clear out the parking lot for the next Mass!). Preaching at length, for instance, on Passion Sunday or Good Friday becomes counterproductive. As the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II once said of Mozart's opera, ''The Marriage of Figaro,'' ''too many notes.'' Too many words can ruin the message.
My suggestion is to try to prepare the congregation to hear the readings rather than to explain them to death after they have been heard. If permitted, I suggest doing a short three-to-five-minute introduction to the readings of the day, pointing out a few salient ideas that the preacher wishes to make the focal point of his reflection. If the readings are then proclaimed eloquently and with fervor, I believe the message of the cross will actually be more efficacious.
Finally, contemporary homilists should consider some reflection on the modern tendency to seek easy answers to complex questions. The cross militates against this simplistic tendency. Many people claim to seek spiritual enlightenment, but when the Christian message of the cross looms large, they demur. The thought that faith might actually demand something is unappealing. Many want to hear only a word of encouragement, affirmation, support or reward. Notions of self-sacrifice, delayed gratification or true humility run counter to our desire for success and getting ahead in the world.
The cross is a reminder that there should be no such thing as ''Christianity lite,'' or, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous phrase, ''cheap grace.'' With St. Paul this Lent, let us not rob the cross of its power. Let us bless ourselves with this sign proudly and resolve to present it to the world as the sign of hope and victory it really is. TP
Father Witherup, S.S., is superior general of the Society of the Priests of St. Sulpice (the Sulpicians). Among his many publications is an article on the biblical foundations of priesthood, which appears in Ministerial Priesthood in the Third Millennium (Liturgical Press, 2009).