Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
March 20, 2016
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Psalm 31: 9-16
Philippians 2: 5-11
Of the many stories of horror, cruelty, and courage to reach us from the Shoah, one in particular, witnessed by the Nobel-Laureate Elie Wiesel at Auschwitz, is especially poignant. It involves the summary execution of a young boy at the notorious death camp. The boy had been caught by a death-camp guard in some minor infraction of camp discipline. After questioning the child to determine his alleged “guilt,” the commandant decided to make an example of the boy to his fellow prisoners. So, he ordered the whole camp to assemble at dawn the next morning to witness the boy’s execution. When the prisoners had been herded into the freezing, snowy yard of the camp, the frightened child was dragged before them, stripped of his clothing, and hung from a makeshift gallows as the entire prisoner population watched in helpless horror. The camp guard who had caught the boy in his petty infraction then turned to a rabbi-prisoner and asked in a sneering voice, “So, rabbi, where is your God now?” The rabbi looked his tormentor in the eye and calmly pointed to the twisting body of the hanging child. “There he is,” the rabbi said, “hanging from your gallows.”
Now, as Christians, we should not be shocked or surprised by the rabbi’s answer to the cynical guard. We know that God in Jesus the Christ has entered completely into the human experience of suffering and death to transform it from within through surrender and suffering love, making it the occasion for new life. So, when we hear about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Gospels’ Passion Narratives, we keep this knowledge and perspective before us and continue to receive it as “good news.” We realize that we are not hearing about just another random act of murderous political violence in first-century Palestine; rather, we are listening to the proclamation of the redemption of humankind from the power of sin and death by a God who in Christ loves us enough to suffer and to die in solidarity with us to free us from its iron grip. For if we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal “Word of God,” raised by the power of God from the grip of the grave, then his voluntary surrender to death on a Roman cross is no mere accident of fate or inexorable concession to human evil. It is a consequence of his mission to proclaim and to inaugurate the “kingdom of God” by word and deed, and it is the prologue to the victory of God over the “powers and principalities” of this world three days later when, according to Saint Paul, “death is swallowed up in victory.” For when the love of God collides with the power of sin and death, it is death that is destroyed, not God’s love. The suffering and death of the eternal Word in Jesus Christ are expressions of that same kenosis, that same “self-emptying” of God, witnessed at the Incarnation when, in Jesus of Nazareth, God joins the human condition to be born, to suffer, and to die with us and for us, as Saint Paul so eloquently expressed it in our reading today from his Letter to the Philippians.
Now, for most of us, the Incarnation and the Resurrection—the being born and the rising from the grave—are no problem at all. I suspect that this is one important reason for the full-house in most Christian churches on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday—not that I’m complaining. It’s the suffering and the dying part of the story that we humans seem to find as difficult and perplexing as did those first followers of Jesus. And I, for one, can easily empathize with the impulse to run away from and to deny the unusual and unexpected sort of messiahship displayed by Jesus in the Gospels’ Passion Narratives. Saint Paul was quite right to say that it looks, on the surface, to be an egregious case of either Divine impotence or Divine “foolishness.” I too am much more comfortable with the exorcising, healing, wonder-working Jesus of power and might than the vulnerable, helpless, tragic messiah of suffering love nailed to a cross in abject humiliation and apparent defeat. And I’m certain that even the most pious and convicted among us must have moments when, like the derelict Jesus on the Cross, we also cry out with the psalmists words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and are so far from the words of my distress?” We don’t have to be on this earth too long before we learn, through painful experience, that suffering and death, together with all of the many forms of natural and moral evil, are inescapable features of our existence here. It only takes the pre-mature death of a parent, child, partner, or spouse; the sudden diagnosis of a life-threatening illness; the experience of debilitating, chronic pain; the sudden loss of a job and an income; the exposure to hatred and prejudice; the victimization of social, domestic, religious, or ethnic violence; the ravages of poverty, famine, blind nationalism, and war; the devastation of natural disaster; the betrayal and dissolution of an intimate relationship; or any of the other countless evils to which human flesh is heir before we find ourselves asking in the midst of failure, exile, and defeat that same question put to the rabbi by the cynical concentration-camp guard: “Where is your God now?” And, for Christians, the answer will be the same as the rabbi’s: God is there in the midst of the suffering, the death, the brokenness, and the evil, filling them with God’s presence; transfiguring them by God’s grace; and making them new through the creative power of God’s love. Real atonement is never a crude, retributive, and substitutionary blood sacrifice; rather, it’s the moment when repentance and forgiveness, when divine love and human freedom meet to create a new beginning.
My friends, we need look no farther than the holy Cross of Jesus Christ, especially during Holy Week, to know that the mortification—the suffering and death of our very mortal bodies—is the painful, but inevitable gateway to our glorification and a larger and greater life in God. This is why the holy Cross is the universal symbol of the Christian faith: It is the victory of God over the power of sin and death; the recognition that nothing—not even the grave—“can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus of Nazareth’s death and resurrection, God has claimed innocent human suffering and death—no matter how heinous, and no matter the time or place—as God’s own, making them the fertile ground for our glorification. This is the Paschal mystery—the “protecting sacrifice”—that we Christians celebrate during this Holy Week, which we enter today. God has “drawn near” to our suffering and death and made them the ground for new life in God. We Christians, then, look upon the holy Cross and see, not the defeat of the saving work of Jesus the Christ, but its culmination and fulfillment. For us, it is the extravagant, steadfast love of God; the compassion of God; the victory of God; the glory of God; the power of God; even the “foolishness” of God. The Cross is our “Etz Hayim,” our “Tree of Life,” planted once more in the midst of that empty, garden-tomb outside the walls of Jerusalem, where Paradise is finally restored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, we are right to call the day of Jesus’ death “Good” Friday, for this is “good news” indeed: through the Cross, humanity’s exile from Eden is over, and the victory of God is won!
Sooner or later, every single one of us—in both small and great circumstances and ways—will find herself or himself upon that same holy Cross someday. If it has not happened yet, it is surely coming for, according to Jesus, it is the common destiny of each and every one of his disciples. And when we find ourselves there, experiencing the mortification of our very mortal bodies, may we find real inspiration and hope from the deep knowledge that our God in Jesus Christ has gone before us to that place to dignify and to transfigure our human suffering and death. May we believe and trust really and truly that, in the words of the psalmist, “God is close to the brokenhearted,” and God “does not let God’s holy one see corruption.” And may we rest in our hope that God will do in and for us—we who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection—every good thing that God has done in and for Jesus, God’s Christ. For the mercy of God is hidden in human suffering. And we are saved, not from the Cross, but by the Cross.