Tag Archives: Gospel

What is Truth?

The Gospel reading for today, St. John’s Passion narrative (John 18:1-19:42) can be found here.

 Within St. John’s Gospel, the trial of Jesus looks a little like the Tower of Babel.  Jesus and Pilate really aren’t speaking the same language, leaving Pilate with the haunting question, “What is truth?”  While Pilate doesn’t know it, he’s about to hang the Truth up on a tree, like a scarecrow.  Rather than seeking understanding, Pilate’s question actually constitutes a desperate sort of evasion.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams has observed, “We constantly try to start from somewhere other than where we are.”  Whatever Pilate wanted to know, it didn’t have much to do with the Truth.

Within this trial, Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  This passage echoes with Jesus’ earlier claim:  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”  John 10:27-28.  Good Friday, then, operates not so much as a historical marker as a beacon in the darkness, calling out for us to remember, to belong to the truth and listen to Christ’s voice.

The crowd then makes a monstrous barter, condemning Jesus and allowing Barabbas to go free.  I sometimes wonder what Barabbas did with the balance of his life, how he spent his remaining years.  Did this “bandit” come to comprehend what had happened?  I also wonder whether we, like Barabbas, understand that Jesus’ death means that we can live, and will never perish?

Pilate then has Jesus whipped, and Jesus returns before the crowd in a purple robe and a crown of thorns.  While Caesar wore a laurel wreath, we wince at the idea of this twisted symbol of Jesus’ kingdom.  After a Roman scourging, Pilate mocks Jesus and the crowd, telling them “Here is the man!”  (Ecce homo!).  The suggestion that this broken, frail, bloody person could be a king was laughable.  The soldiers mocked Christ by calling him “The King of the Jews.”  As usual, John places words of deep truth within the mouths of those who don’t understand what they’re saying.

The trial results in Jesus’ inevitable condemnation, and He carries his own cross to the Place of the Skull (Golgotha).  Even in this final hour, the world mocks Jesus under a sign bitterly describing Him as the King of the Jews. Jesus says “I am thirsty” and is given a sponge soaked in sour wine.  Here,we encounter St. John at his most ironic, at his most paradoxical understanding.  In this moment of shame, unbearable pain, and within this passion, God reveals His glory.  When Jesus spoke of being glorified, somehow, this is the moment He meant.

Jesus tells his mother that the beloved disciple is now her son; he tells His beloved follower that Mary is now his mother.  Just as He had done in life, in death, Jesus re-defines the nature of “family”.  Squarely confronting His own mortality, Jesus establishes a new notion of kinship (into which we all are adopted).

Finally, after a day filled with countless agonies, Jesus announces “It is finished.”  Through the life and death of Jesus, God’s glory has been fully made clear.  Somehow, this broken, pathetic figure wearing a crown of nettles manifests “glory.”  Nailed to the cross, we find glory in the intersection of divinity and humanity, the intersection of light and darkness, the intersection of life and death.

God has shown us the final consequences of our brokenness  and of our hatred.  Through it all, He has managed to reveal divine love despite everything we could do to avoid it.  His capacity to love and forgive always infinitely surpasses our capacity to wound, our capacity to destroy, and our capacity to distance ourselves from the Living God.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

He Loved Them to the End

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

In the Lectionary reading for today, we feel the reverberation of Mary of Bethany’s act of devotion from Monday’s reading.    In many respects, today’s Gospel contains the adhesive which bonds all of the events of, and the readings for, Holy Week together.  St. John reports that Jesus knew that the hour of his death had come; this passage records how chose to spend his last hours with his friends.  “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

In washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus assumed the role of a servant, of a slave.  Reluctant to have his Rabbi assume this role, Peter protested.  Jesus assured Peter, however, that this way was the path to sharing in the life of Christ.  He teaches them that serving each other offers a great blessing.  Jesus teaches, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In a terribly poignant moment, Jesus calls his disciples “little children” and tells them his time with them has grown very short.  Jesus then offers them the great commandment:  to love each other as He has loved us.  We love each other because He loved us first, and showed us how to do it.  I’ve come to believe, the more time I spend in John’s Gospel, that there’s really only one sin:  the failure to love.

I have often heard church leaders talk about a “path to discipleship”, and I suppose that’s a useful discussion in some sense.  But Jesus says that there’s only one true marker of his disciples:  they love each other, reflecting Christ’s love.  Jesus paints a portrait of divine vulnerability, reflecting a God who entered into human history, subjected Himself to shame, and poured Himself out to show us how to live.  This moment in John’s Gospel, in which God acts like a slave, constitutes a critical moment of God’s self-revelation.  “This,” Jesus tells us, “this is what the Kingdom looks like.”

Love serves as the glue which binds the readings for Holy Week together.  Love rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Love filled the house with a fragrant oil.  Love lights the way so that the darkness will not overcome us.  Love surrounds us in a great cloud of witnesses.  And tomorrow, Love will be hoisted on a Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.  Heb. 12:1-3.

The Lectionary offers us this reading for Holy Week, and I thought we might reflect on it for a bit.  While we often think of it in the context of All Saints Day, it strikes me as terribly appropriate as a Holy Week reflection.  Certainly, our Lenten task consists of laying aside those burdens and separations that “cling so closely” to us.  We know that these weights, these sins, entangle us and swarm around us.  Lent offers us a chance to loosen those bonds.

The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”.  It’s a remarkable and deeply poetic choice of words.  Often, we think of these witnesses as the great saints of the Church.  I’m inclined to think, however, also of those  who were present during those remarkable days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Jesus touched a remarkably diverse group of people. From the wedding guests at Cana to the blind man at the pool of Siloam to Lazarus of Bethany to the Roman centurion who cried out “Surely, this man was the son of God!”: they all bore witness to the redemptive power of the Lord.

And yet, this “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” , this Beloved Son of God, would cry out in agony from the Cross.  He would wonder, quoting the Psalms, why the Father had deserted Him.  He would wonder how He could feel so desperately alone.  Somehow, His mother and a few of his friends bore witness to this horror.  They offered to God that precious gift, the ministry of presence.  I’m wondering whether we can bear to watch, whether we will join into that cloud of witnesses during this Holy Week.  I’m wondering whether we can endure the Cross.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

While You Have the Light

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus said this, he departed and hid from them.   John 12:30-36.

As a child, I always dreaded that moment in the evening when my mother turned off the light.  I was firmly convinced of monsters and the idea that they had particular sway during the night-time hours.  (Up until the age of around eight, my chosen career path was “vampire killer.”)  Years later, I decided that while there are certainly monsters in the world, we make our own evil.  Now, I’ve come full circle and have accepted that there really is something out there called evil, and that evil is a spiritual reality.

In this passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to walk in the light “so that the darkness may not overtake you.”  Once overtaken by darkness, we struggle to see where we’re going.  We take the wrong path; we get lost.  Jesus tells us that “the light is with you for a little longer.”  Deep into this journey through Holy Week, we get the feeling that we are walking at dusk, as the light is fading.

This passage resonates with the opening of John’s Gospel, which described the life of Jesus as the light of all people.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  John 1:9.  If we believe in this light, we become children of God, or “children of light.”  John seems to suggest that living into our Christian life will work a fundamental change in our spiritual DNA.  As we travel through these scriptural pilgrimages during Holy Week, we should remember that Jesus calls us to become children of the light, reflecting the light of Christ into all the dark places of the world.

Jesus does not suggest that His followers will not experience the darkness.  Good Friday teaches us that’s just not the case.  Christianity does not operate as some sort of good luck charm or talisman against the darkness.  Jesus’ assures us of something quite different.  He tells us that the darkness will not “overcome” those who walk with Him.  Once again, that’s got to be good news.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Six Days Before the Passover

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.  John 12:1-11.

Perhaps Mary of Bethany shows us the only authentic response to Holy Week: she responds with an extravagant love.  At a dinner for the Lord, she acted out of  lavish charity and kindness toward Jesus.  She anointed him for his death, filling the house with this remarkable and extravagant fragrance.  (Scholars report that this perfume would have cost the yearly wages of a laborer.)  I think St. John meant to remind us that following Jesus might sometimes require that we forego counting the cost of loving God.

Mary’s extravagance carries with it the sort of sensuality that would have made the other guests, and almost any good Jew, more than a little uncomfortable.  She anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them dry with her hair.  No respectable Jewish woman would have behaved this way. Social custom would have limited this sort of affectionate behavior to a woman’s husband or perhaps her family, and even then, only in private.  Mary’s conduct  reflects a profoundly intimate relationship.

In anointing Jesus, Mary prefigures the preparation of His body for burial.  But although  Jesus awaited His death with his friends, the presence of Mary’s brother (Lazarus) reveals that death holds no finality here. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial while he is still living.  Lazarus, who was dead, has joined them for dinner.  We encounter here the intersection of death and life, woven together in a story of reckless mercy, in the context of having a meal together.  St. John teaches us that death will have its say, but not the last word.

John juxtaposes Mary’s remarkable fidelity with Judas’ treason.  Similarly, he contrasts the beauty of the perfume’s scent and this deeply affectionate moment with the ugly brutality of the impending crucifixion in which hatred seems to win the day.  St. John tells us these events took place six days before the Passover.  The timetable echoes with the days of creation, and through his Passion Jesus makes “all things new again”.  Jesus renews all creation through the his death on the Cross, a death by which love conquers fear, hatred and death itself.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Hosanna!

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.  John 12:12-16.

Once Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and the Pharisees ordered anyone who knew of Jesus’ location to reveal it so that they could arrest him.  John 11:57.  So when Jesus entered into Jerusalem amid all this acclamation, He was already in trouble.  In response to this, He acted provocatively, subversively, and prophetically.  The crowd carried palm branches, perhaps echoing the crowd’s exultation at Simon driving the pagans out of Jerusalem as described in 1 Maccabees 13:49-52.  Historically, the people of God carried palms to celebrate a military victory.

The crowd greeted Jesus with one of the psalms of ascent, saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Psalm 118:26. They proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, during the festival of the Passover (a celebration of the liberation of God’s chosen people).

As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have suggested, Pilate may have entered the city  at about the same time, traveling with a legion of combat-hardened Roman soldiers.  Jesus arrived from the east; Pilate approached Jerusalem from the west.  Entering on an ass rather than in a military procession, Jesus may even have intentionally mocked the fanfare of Pilate’s entry into the city.  One didn’t need to be a scholar or a theologian to see trouble coming.

Typical of John’s sense of irony, the crowds announce Jesus as the King of Israel.  While they are right, they don’t understand what they’re saying.  For all the wrong reasons, they proclaim the beginning of a new kingdom.  Ultimately, they will decide that Jesus isn’t the Messiah, or at least that he’s the wrong kind of Messiah.  Jesus signals the nature of his kingdom by riding in on an ass, a humble mount, in sharp contrast with the Roman war horses and chariots.

We have this remarkable image, then, of two parades.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem amid shouts of adulation and triumph.  (You can almost hear the whispers in the crowd:  “Now we’ll show those Romans who’s boss.”)  The crowd shouts “Hosanna”, which probably best translates as “we pray, save us!”  Nothing about this procession would have amused the Romans as the city of Jerusalem swelled to about four times its usual population.

By Friday, Jesus will march in another parade, carrying shame on his back, stumbling toward Golgotha.  While the crowd praises Jesus as their Messiah, only a few days later his cross will bear sign mockingly describing Him as The King of the Jews.  Hindsight and God’s grace alone will permit the disciples to make sense of these two processions.  At the time, their meaning was lost in the din of the crowd’s shouts and jeers.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Unblemished, Unqualified Mercy

But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins.  For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer.  Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this.  With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings.  If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be.  God is a God of the present.  Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).

My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327.  A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology.  Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period.  Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas.  The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.

In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection.  Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world.  The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and  incomplete.  Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.

We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus.  Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke 23: 43.  There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with.  After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity.  Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us.  As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution.  Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience.  Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”

Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget.  It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also.  As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.”  We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us.  As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice.  We find mercy and grace.  If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.

Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging.  We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults.  We strain to share the grace of the present moment.   It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis