Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 14, 2019
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Of the many testimonies to horror, cruelty, and courage to reach us from the Shoah, one in particular, witnessed by Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, is especially poignant. In his memoir Night, Wiesel describes the summary execution of a young boy at that notorious death camp in which Wiesel himself was imprisoned. The boy had been caught by a 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 before his fellow prisoners. So, he ordered the whole camp, including Wiesel, 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 and tormenting 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 self-surrender and suffering love, making it the occasion for new life. So, when we hear today about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Gospel’s Passion Narrative, 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, this time in first-century Palestine. Rather, we are listening to a proclamation concerning 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 with us to free us from their grip. For if we truly believe that Jesus the Messiah 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 the Cross—in complete continuity with his mission to proclaim and to initiate the “kingdom of God” in word and deed—is no mere accident of fate or inexorable concession to human evil. It is the providential prologue to the triumph of God over the “powers and principalities” of this world three days later when “death is swallowed up in victory.” For when God who is Love collides with the power of sin and death, it is death that is destroyed, not Love. The suffering and death of the eternal Word in Jesus Christ are another expression of that same kenosis, that same “self-emptying” of God, witnessed at the Incarnation when, in Jesus of Nazareth, God joins our 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.
For most of us, the Incarnation and the Resurrection—the being born and the rising from the grave—are not a 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 troubling and perplexing as did the first followers of Jesus. And I, for one, can easily empathize with the impulse just to run away from and to deny the unusual and unexpected sort of messiahship displayed by Jesus in the Gospel’s Passion Narrative. 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, broken, helpless, tragic messiah of suffering love nailed to a Roman 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 other many forms of natural and moral evil—are the inescapable rhythm of our existence here. Sooner or later, any thoughtful person with even a shred of integrity will ask 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 innocent 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.
During this Holy Week, we need look no farther than the holy Cross of Jesus the Christ 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 represents 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 the 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 the “Holy Week” we are entering today. God has “drawn near” to our suffering and death and made them the hidden 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 divine “foolishness” of God. The Cross is our “Etz Hayim,” the “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 self-inflicted wound is healed; our exile from Eden is over; and the victory of God is won!
My friends, 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 inevitable 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 very 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, finally, 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. AMEN.