Friday, June 21, 2013

A Turn Toward the Passion: The 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time

As the Church reads through the Gospel of Luke this year, we reach a transition point in this Sunday's text (Luke 9:18-24) where the focus of the Gospel begins to shift toward Christ's coming passion and death.  Sorrowful though his suffering will be, ironically it shall serve as the source of the life-giving "water" about which the other Readings speak.

1.  Our First Reading is from Zechariah 12:10-11; 13:1:
Thus says the LORD:
I will pour out on the house of David
and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem
a spirit of grace and petition;
and they shall look on him whom they have pierced,
and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son,
and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn.

On that day the mourning in Jerusalem shall be as great
as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo.

On that day there shall be open to the house of David
and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.

There are two main divisions of the Book of Zechariah: Zech 1-8 and Zech 9-14.  Like several other Old Testament prophetic books, the second half (Zech 9-14) is devoted to visions of the final restoration of Jerusalem and God's people.  Zechariah 9-14 is extremely cryptic: it is sometimes very difficult to identify what events in his own time, or in the future, the prophet intended to describe.  This is certainly the case in the oracle read for this Sunday's Mass.  It is difficult to determine what the prophet was intended to communicate to his original audience.

Who is this one "whom they have pierced" and for whom they "mourn … as for an only son"?  Different proposals have been made.  In my opinion the most plausible explanation is that our text refers in some way to the death of Josiah, the "firstborn son" of the House of David, whose death at the hands of Pharaoh's soldiers in the great battle on the Plain of Megiddo in 609 BC constituted one of the most traumatic events in the history of God's people.  Josiah was a great religious reformer, who restored the people of Judah to worship of the LORD after a half century of paganism patronized by his father, King Manasseh.  Josiah was also an able ruler who greatly increased Judah's military and political might, to the point that, in 609 BC, he was confident enough to attempt what no Judean king had risked before: a direct confrontation with the Egyptian army.  The waning empires of Egypt and Assyria had joined themselves against the rising threat of Babylon to the east.  Josiah had allied himself with Babylon.  When the Pharaoh marched northward up the coastal plain of Israel to join forces with Assyria against Babylon, Josiah attempted to stop him in the Plain of Megiddo.  He failed and was fatally wounded by archers.  The Davidic dynasty never fully recovered from this disastrous event.  Forever after, the valley of Megiddo would symbolize the catastrophic conflict between God's people and their enemies: thus in the Book of Revelation, "armeggedon" (from har megiddo, "hill of megiddo," that is, the location of the fort that guarded the southern end of the valley) is the scene of the final battle.

While some reference to a future recapitulation of the grievous events surrounding the death of King Josiah seems intended in Zech 12-13, it is only in light of Christ's passion and death that this passage becomes theologically explicable. In the events of Pentecost (Acts 2), the Spirit of God is poured out in Jerusalem, in the "city of David," and those who hear the apostolic preaching are "cut to the heart" in remorse for having acquiesced in the piercing of the Son of David (Acts 2:36-37).  They are then washed, three thousand of them, in the waters of baptism.  Incidentally, the site of the mass baptism in Acts 2:38ff almost certainly was the Pool of Siloam, which caught the waters of the Gihon spring which flowed out of the side of the Temple mount.  The Pool of Siloam was one of the few places in Jerusalem with enough water for the baptism of so many.  But the Gihon, flowing from the side of the Temple Mount, is mystically connected to the "spring" of blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of Christ on the cross (John 19:34), Christ whose body was the true Temple (John 2:20-21).  This flow from the side of Christ is a sign of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us through the body of Christ, the body we now experience in the Sacraments.

It is a gift of grace of the Holy Spirit to understand that we are personally responsible for the piercing of the Son of David on the cross.  It was and is our sins that put him there.  To mourn for our sins, for our responsibility in the death of the Son of God, is the first step toward reconciliation with God and the life of blessedness: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matt 5:4).  Yet paradoxically, from the wound formed by our piercing flows the river of God's mercy, the river of the Holy Spirit that washes us in the Sacraments (esp. Baptism and Eucharist).

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9:
R. (2b) My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
to see your power and your glory,
For your kindness is a greater good than life;
my lips shall glorify you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus will I bless you while I live;
lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.
As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied,
and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
You are my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
My soul clings fast to you;
your right hand upholds me.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.

The Psalm picks up on the image of the "fountain" that God will open to satisfy the "House of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem."  In Psalm 63, David uses powerful poetic images to speak of the longing of his soul—of our souls too—to experience God.  It reminds us of St. Augustine's famous line, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

This psalm begs to be put into dialogue with the Gospel of John, in which—to our surprise—we find that God in turn "thirsts" for us!  Thus Jesus asks for a drink from the Samaritan woman (John 4) and again for a drink on the cross (John 19).  Both times there is an allusion to Gen 24:17, where the request for a drink was the sign by which the true bride would be identified. Jesus asks for us to become his bride, to quench the thirst he has for us. Yes, we thirst for God, and he thirsts for us.  There is a mutual longing.  The only thing that stands between the fulfillment of this longing is our sins.  Why should we hold on to them?

3.  The Second Reading is Gal 3:26-29:
Brothers and sisters:
Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.
For all of you who were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free person,
there is not male and female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And if you belong to Christ,
then you are Abraham’s descendant,
heirs according to the promise.

Baptism, mentioned here by St. Paul, is a quenching of our thirst for God with the life-giving waters of the Holy Spirit.  Afterwards we are "clothed with Christ"—a reality that used to be symbolized by the white garment given to each adult baptizand as they exited the baptismal pool.  Baptism establishes a spiritual unity that transcends our differences without erasing them. Yes, we are still men and women, and still have cultural and ethnic characteristics—these things are not bad in themselves, and are still present even in heaven (Rev. 7:9).  Nonetheless, we are united in Christ.  We share equally in his Spirit.  Our physical characteristics do not form an impediment or limit to our experience of God or growth in holiness.  Since Christ is the Son of Abraham par excellence (Matt 1:1), when we are baptized into Christ and become members of his body, we thus share with him his inheritance from Abraham, who becomes our father since we have become his heir (Jesus).

4. The Gospel is Lk 9:18-24:
Once when Jesus was praying in solitude,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist;
others, Elijah;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He rebuked them
and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

The Gospel of Luke divides roughly into four major sections: the infancy narratives (chs. 1-2), the early ministry (chs. 3-8), the "travel narrative" (chs. 9-19), and Holy Week (chs. 20-24).  The first and third sections of Luke contain most of Luke's unique material. Luke 9, from which we read this Sunday, forms a transition into the "travel narrative," so called because it is the account of Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem, during which the inevitability of his suffering and death looms ever larger.   The "travel narrative" is like a parable of the Christian life. Like Jesus' journeying to his death in Jerusalem, each one of us is on a journey toward our own physical death, a journey that involves suffering and sacrifice if we wish to share in God's glory in the life to come.

Our passage divides into two units: the question of Jesus' identity, and the truth of Jesus mission.  Jesus asks the disciples how people identify him, and how the disciples themselves view him.  Peter speaks for the twelve: "You are the Christ of God."  "Christ" translates the Hebrew "Messiach" (i.e. Messiah), "one smeared with oil," or "Anointed One."  The "Anointed One of God" referred to the Jewish belief in a savior figure who would combine all the "anointed" roles (king, priest, and prophet) into one, and deliver the people of Israel in a definitive way. 

One might ask, why does Jesus "rebuke" the disciples for saying this?  Probably the Greek word epitimao has the sense of "to warn or charge in a solemn and/or stern manner."  Most people thought the Christ of God would be a supernaturally empowered political figure, a victorious king who slew his enemies supernaturally.  Jesus does not want to promote that image, because it would attract too much and the wrong kind of attention, distracting from his true mission.

Jesus proceeds immediately to define what kind of "Christ of God" he is.  He is the "Christ" who will suffer greatly, die, and be raised.  And all who come after him must be prepared to suffer the same fate.  Being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth is to have something of a "death wish": if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me."

We have become so accustomed to this phrase "take up his cross" that it no longer shocks us.  But crucifixion was a terrible form of execution in the first century A.D. that horrified and traumatized the peoples of the Roman emperor.  It was so excruciating that some Roman orators insisted that it is impolite to even mention crucifixion in the presence of decent citizens.  The modern equivalent would be the electric chair: "if anyone wishes to come after me, let him take up his electric chair daily …"  But the electric chair is mild compared to the cross.  The only persons who carried crosses were condemned criminals on their way to execution.  So Our Lord's words indicate that those who would follow him on the path of discipleship must already have reconciled themselves to the prospect of their own deaths. 

So we see that Jesus was no mere teacher or philosopher who offers a lesson in return for tuition.  Jesus openly calls his disciples to commit themselves to him to the point of death, and promises that such self denial is in fact the way to eternal life.

Blessed John Paul II comments in Veritatis Splendor:

Christ's witness is the source, model and means for the witness of his disciples, who are called to walk on the same road: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lc 9,23). Charity, in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel, can lead the believer to the supreme witness of martyrdom. Once again this means imitating Jesus who died on the Cross: "Be imitators of God, as beloved children", Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus, "and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ep 5,1-2).

How far we are from this radical discipleship today, when giving even one-tenth of one's income to the support of the Church and her missions is considered "radical," and tossing out one's contraceptives is unthinkable.  May the Lord help us when real persecution hits!

1 comment:

R Arturo Roa said...

The phrase "the cross" seems so commonplace and easily understood to modern christians
nevertheless, imagine what was going through the disciples minds at Jesus's words that in order to follow him you must take up your cross and deny yourself.
Jesus had not yet been crucified , certainly he gave a premonition of his death yet only later would it be understood
Only through the teaching ministry of the Church and especially St Paul's profound insights into "the cross" can we begin to comprehend
There must have been some interesting discusion at the end of that day between Jesus and his disciples!