Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday: The Suffering Servant

There is a natural instinct we have as humans to avoid pain – we recoil from a hot stove, we jump at a sudden loud noise, we flinch if it seems someone is about to strike us. In extreme situations, if we sense immediate danger, we even get an adrenaline rush to defend ourselves and fight back if necessary. In short, we don’t bear well insults and especially injuries without avoiding, complaining, or even fighting back in some way. 

And yet, the Passion narrative that we just read tells us that is just how Jesus responded during his own torture, crucifixion, and death. When accused, he remained silent; when flogged, he did not cry out; when given a crown of thorns and a scarlet robe to mock his claim to divine kingship, he did not weep. Instead, Jesus stands as the calm center within the chaotic storm of sin around him – seeing all, bearing all, enduring all. The only clear word that we hear him speak in the narrative are the words of the 22nd psalm: Eli, eli, lema sabacthani – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In this moment, perhaps more than any other in his life, Jesus is accomplishing the mission of mercy for which he came. He is the Suffering Servant, the one who bears the sins of Israel, accepting on their behalf (and ours) the weight of the consequence of sin. Though he is the rightful heir to his ancestor David, the triumphant king of Jerusalem, he nonetheless chooses to embody literally the words of the First Reading of Isaiah: “I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” Though he possesses inwardly the eternal experience of the Father’s love, Jesus gives himself over to the experience exteriorly of being completely abandoned, forsaken, in union with what our own wicked humanity has chosen apart from God.

Jesus sets his face like flint, in the words of Isaiah, so that he may speak a word that will rouse the weary. By remaining silent, Jesus demonstrates that God accompanies every experience of human suffering. Jesus says this to us via his silence, through his acceptance in utter obedience of what his Father desires, not to subject his own Son to torment but to raise us – his adopted children – to the life of redemption. For all who are lost, downcast, abandoned, rejected, divorced from the abundant life of God – Jesus says to you in his passion, “I have entered into what you are experiencing and I am there with you; do not be afraid.” 

Honoré Daumier, Ecce Homo (1850)

Jesus accepts silently what you and I would have rightly suffered – and it is precisely for that reason that in the face of injustice you and I cannot remain silent. Christ suffered and died for the redemption of all, and in so doing he has given every human person a greater dignity and value than we had before. Thus every offense against human life is, in a sense, an offense against Christ. The examples, of course, are easy to call to mind: the continuing and, it seems, escalating violence in Syria; the constant assault against the unborn in our country and others, now numbering in the hundreds of millions; the continued legacy of retribution by means of the death penalty, including the eight individuals scheduled to be executed in our own state beginning next week; the ever-present injustices against the low-income, the marginalized, the minority, the immigrant. These issues and more must be seen by us not merely with our political lenses or judged by our individual moral compasses; we must also see them as matters to be approached via our faith. Through our prayer, our sacrifices, our efforts to support causes of justice and especially to work for justice in our own lives through mercy, patience, kindness, gentleness – we make that redemptive work of Jesus expand just a little farther, like the rays of a rising sun, to dispel the forces of darkness.

Friends, as we start this Holy Week, we are reminded that it is out of love for us that Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of death on the cross. Calling upon his powerful name, we in turn must speak out against those injustices which defame the dignity he has given to every person by his blood. Even more, we must ensure that our own lives are reflections of his mercy and peace and unity, even bearing patiently our own suffering at times, so that we can further give praise and honor – with every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth – to the name that is above every other name: Jesus Christ the Lord.

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