Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday (C)

Readings: Luke 19:28-40

So, who killed Jesus?
Who is responsible for his death?
Of course we believe that the death of Jesus
is somehow part of God’s plan for human salvation,
but we might still ask about the human actors in this drama.
This has been a question of particularly intense interest
among Christian theologians and others
since the 1950s when,
in the wake of the slaughter of millions of Jews by the Nazis,
Christians began to reassess the long-held view
that the Jewish people as a whole
were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death
and therefore, as a people, cursed by God.
For Catholics, this process of reassessment eventually led in 1965
to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate,
which declared that the Jewish people did not share
collective or hereditary guilt for Jesus’ death
and that “the Jews should not be presented
as rejected or accursed by God.”

Which then leaves us with the question:
if not the Jews, then who?
Where can we lay the blame?
Whom can we hold responsible?
Today’s passion Gospel from Luke
seems to be of limited help here,
since the story it tells is one
in which responsibility is passed around like a hot potato.

The leaders of the Jewish people
would like Jesus out of the picture because he is a blasphemer
and because he has just enough of a following
that his disciples might cause serious trouble
that would bring down the wrath of the Romans on the whole city.
But they don’t want to alienate the crowds
who had greeted Jesus upon his entry into Jerusalem,
so they would like the Roman governor, Pilate,
to take care of the problem.

Pilate does not see Jesus as much of a threat,
and he waffles and vacillates and hems and haws,
not because he wants to acquit an innocent man,
but because he wants someone else to make the decision for him.
So he sends him to Herod,
the ruler of Jesus’ home province of Galilee.

Herod is initially curious, but eventually disappointed
when Jesus won’t perform tricks for him,
so he sends him back to Pilate.
Finally, Pilate, strengthened by Herod’s contempt for Jesus
and incited by the crowd
and the advice of the religious leaders of the people,
agrees to have Jesus executed.

So who is responsible?
Whom can we blame?
There seems to be plenty of blame to go around,
and lots of plausible candidates to hang it on.
But it is unsettling not to have a clear scapegoat to blame,
someone whom I can clearly identify as evil,
the sort of monster who would do the kind of things
I would never do.
It was so much clearer when it was “them” – the Jews –
who were responsible.
It is unsettling not to have a scapegoat,
because it leaves me open to asking myself
if perhaps I might not be all that different
from those who passed Jesus around like a hot potato.
Perhaps I too, like the Jewish leaders,
want those who disturb my peace simply to go away.
Perhaps I too, like Pilate,
am unwilling to act on what I know is true and good.
Perhaps I too, like Herod,
want only the sort of savior who will perform tricks at my behest.

Those responsible for the death of Jesus were not monsters
who did something that I would never do;
they were ordinary people who did what I do on a daily basis.
Their sins are my sins.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world:
enlighten the eyes of our hearts and have mercy on us.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lent 4

I had a homily that I prepared and delivered
yesterday at the 4:00 Mass
that was, if I do say so myself,
spiritually rich and theologically astute (as usual).
But between then and now something happened.
When meeting last night with our RCIA candidates, Laura and Dan,
Laura asked about the latest wave of reports coming out of Europe
of cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy,
and the perhaps worse crime of covering such things up by bishops.
So we talked and, as usual, I had no particularly good answers.
I had no good answer to the question of why one would want
to become part of a Church that would allow such things.
I had no good answer to the question of how one reconciles
the joyous and life-giving aspects of the Church
with what can only be called
the dark and demonic power of evil
that seems to infect the Church
and not to be going away any time very soon.
It is beginning to feel like a nightmare
from which I cannot wake up,
and I find myself having to face the ugly truth
that this is no bad dream, but reality.

And the reality is that the Church has, like the prodigal son,
wandered into the distant land of sin and alienation from God.
As someone who studies the history of the Church and Theology,
I am well aware that in every age
we, the Church, have fallen short of God’s will for us,
and there have, believe it or not, been eras
when the leadership of the Church
was even more corrupt, more venal, more scandalous
than it is today.
I am also well aware that matters are complex,
and the media often doesn’t get things quite right
when it comes to the Church,
wanting a sensational story
rather than the complex and messy truth.
But such historical perspective
and such awareness of complexity
are little comfort when one reads yet again,
not simply of priests and deacons and religious
who have used their status to abuse the vulnerable,
but also of bishops and other leaders
who conspire to hide these crimes.

This is not a bad dream from which we can awaken,
but a horrible reality that must be changed.
Indeed, the dream seems to be
our illusion that everything is alright.
So we ask ourselves,
what hope is there for change?
What hope can we find that the Church will,
like the prodigal son,
come to her senses and realize
that she has been longing for the food of swine
and say, “I shall get up and go to my father
and I shall say to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’”?
Every time I think the Church has learned this lesson,
every time I think we have turned the corner,
I find myself back in the distant land,
feeding the swine, far from God.

We seem unable to come to our senses,
unable to recognize the truth of our situation,
unable to wake from our illusion
that the problems have been fixed.

In all this I can only cling to the promise of Christ
that the gates of hell
shall not prevail against the Church –
despite the best efforts of her leaders.
I cling to the belief that the Church is the body of Christ
and that we are joined to Christ our head
and that his graces can still flow into this body
despite our sins and failings.
I keep returning to one of the more enigmatic statements
by Paul in our second reading today:
“for our sake [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

The entire context of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel
is a controversy with the scribes and Pharisees
over Jesus’ willingness to share a table with sinners,
his unwillingness to dissociate himself from those
who live their lives alienated from God’s covenant.
Jesus’ solidarity with sinners means that no land is so distant
that the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself
is not there with us.
Jesus has joined himself to humanity,
becoming like us in all things but sin.
But though he himself remains faithful to God and does not sin,
he still, as it were, knows our sin from the inside.
Indeed, he not only knows our sin, he suffers it.
In his cross, he knows both the anguish of the sinner
and of the sinner’s victim.
He knows the evasions of the abuser,
the crooked ways of the human heart,
and the pain of the abused child.

I have no adequate answers to the hard questions of Laura and Dan,
no ready reply when asked how the Church – indeed, how God –
can allow such things.
But I do know that Jesus Christ has made the journey
into the distant land of sin,
not just to share the misery of our alienation from God,
but to be light in that land of darkness,
to reveal our sin and to awaken us from our illusions,
so that we may come to ourselves
and say “I will get up and go to my Father.”
In the distant land of alienation from God,
the land of hunger and death,
he is the one who arises to return to his Father
and in his returning he can bring us back with him.

During Lent we have been focusing
on Paul’s exhortation in the letter to the Ephesians:
“Let the eyes of your heart be enlightened.”
I pray this even more fervently today:
O God, enlighten the eyes of my heart
so that I may understand myself and you;
enlighten the eyes of your Church’s heart,
so that we might arise with Christ this Easter
and return to your embrace. Amen.