|Fr. G. Peter Irving with our children|
at the baptism of our daughter, Molly Rita.
As the enemies of Jesus plot to put him to death, St. John tells us in today's Gospel that "Jesus therefore no longer went about openly among the Jews ." (John 11:54, RSVCE)
Earlier in this same Gospel (from Thursday's Mass), the enemies of Jesus picked up stones and were about to kill him when suddenly "Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple." (John 8:59, RSVCE)
What is going on here? Why does Jesus hide himself from those who want to kill him? Why does he go "undercover"?
In the first instance (John 8), Jesus' life is in immediate danger. However, this was not the first time he faced a mob with murderous intent. Near the beginning of his public ministry he returned to his home town of Nazareth and preached a walloping sermon in the synagogue. In short order, St. Luke tells us:
[The townspeople] "were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away." (Luke 4:28-30)
Now nearing the end of his public ministry, as his enemies are poised to stone him to death, Jesus does something similar. At Nazareth, the enraged populace was about to throw him over the cliff but somehow he just walked away. In the Jerusalem temple, Jesus once again foils an attempt on his life by hiding himself from his enemies and just walking away.
Both of these episodes serve to make a very important point. When on Good Friday the enemies of Jesus finally have their way and he dies on the cross, it is not accurate to say that they killed him.
The reason why Jesus evaded death at the hands of his fellow citizens in Nazareth and of the infuriated mob in the Jerusalem temple was because he would not be killed but rather he would freely lay down his life for the salvation of sinners at the divinely appointed place and time. The place is Calvary. The time is that hour to which the Gospel of St. John repeatedly refers: the hour of his Passion.
In other words, the eternal Son of the God was never at the mercy of the wicked plans of sinful men. Instead, on that first Good Friday at the three o'clock hour, at the hour of his being "lifted up", at the hour of mercy, he would freely offer his life on the altar of the cross for the forgiveness of sinful humanity.
In his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, the Flemish Jesuit Biblical scholar, Cornelius a Lapide (1567-1637), cites the words of St. Augustine to explain the phrase, "He hid himself, and went out of the temple."
"[Jesus] hides not himself in a corner of the temple, as if afraid, or running into a cottage, or turning aside behind a wall or column: but by his Divine Power making himself invisible, he passed through their midst [emphasis mine]. As man he fled from the stones, but woe to them from whose stony hearts God flies away" [emphasis mine]. (Commentary on John 8:51-59, Cornelius a Lapide, S.J.)
The optional but venerable practice of veiling sacred images during Passiontide (which began last Sunday) owes its origin to this verse (John 8:59). The veiled images, especially that of the crucifix or other images of Our Lord, are to remind us of the greatest tragedy that can befall any human being, namely, to be separated from God on account of sin. In the words of St. Augustine quoted above, "Woe to them from whose stony hearts God flies away."
During these days of Passiontide, Jesus hides himself from us, as it were. He cloaks his presence, so to speak, to engrave upon our minds the unspeakable horror of sin and to provoke in our hearts a firm desire to never offend him again.
In doing so, Jesus initiates with us a sort of divine game of "hide and seek." Sin, especially grave sin, always leads to sadness, emptiness, and the painful sense of God's absence. The Good News is, if we are open to God's grace, even our sins as many and shameful as they may be, can lead us to finally seek the Lord with all our heart and be made one with him again.
In those memorable words from the Stations of the Cross composed by St. Alphonsus Liguori, let us pray: I love You, Jesus, my love; I repent of ever having offended You. Never let me separate myself from You again.
Let us confidently ask Our Lady, Mother of Mercy, to plead on our behalf before the Throne of grace.