The Festival Of God’s Sacrificial Love

A Reflection by Fr. Kingsley for Passion Sunday (Year B).
John 12:12-16 – Isaiah 50:4-7 – Philippians 2:6-11 – Mark 14:1-15:47.

Passion Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, and is a day of both glory and impending sacrifice. The scene is set with Jesus making his triumphant Messianic journey from Bethany to Jerusalem where, executed on a cross, He will reconcile everyone and everything together in God through His salvific death.

The crowd making its way into Jerusalem accepted Jesus. Imagine the scene of the Messiah riding above the crowd on foot as the visiting folk made their way into Jerusalem for the Passover. The adoring crowds were carpeting His path with their cloaks and palm branches, cheering Him on with shouts of ‘Hosanna’ (which translates as ‘God, save us’ or ‘Saviour, save us’) and acclaiming him as king. They saw Him as bringing in the kingdom of our father David (Mk 11:10) and fulfilling the prophesies of messianic liberation (Zech 9:9). The snag was that they interpreted His Messiahship solely in political terms. The unridden colt was the mount of the King: nobody rides the king’s horse except the king… but the colt was no warhorse. The King was bringing peace. The crowd in Jerusalem didn’t accept Him. The ‘hosannas’ gave way to calls for His death and jeers, and the wood of the palm was replaced by the wood of the Cross.

Holy Week is the most sacred time of the Church’s year. It highlights the height, breadth and depth of Christ’s love for us, and prompts us to take a hard look at our lives and to accept responsibility for our sins. The Gospel writers’ different angles on Our Lord’s Passion highlight the last events of the earthly life of Jesus, and make clear the price He paid to save us from our sins and to open the prospect of heaven to us. He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, denied three times by Peter and, in His agony and abandonment on the Cross, reached out to the Father (Mt 27:46) in the opening words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? His sacrificial death in our place on the Cross brings home to us that God, towards whom we journey and whose friendship we seek, loves us so much that He was prepared to take our sin upon Himself and to die for us in order to free us from sin and death. Every Christian becomes aware that in his own life he has to follow sacrificially in Jesus’ footsteps. Every Christian must participate in Christ’s suffering and death in order to share his glory. On the road to eternal life, there is no way of avoiding the hill of Calvary. Our victory, like Christ’s, comes only through the Cross.

This final week of Lent offers us the ideal opportunity to bring our hearts and minds into harmony with Christ’s. May I urge you to make a special effort to attend the Holy Week liturgies which shine the spotlight on the last agonising hours of the Saviour’s life, to listen to the readings in a spirit of prayer, and to meditate upon and embrace the message. If we attempt to absolve ourselves of His torture and execution by projecting the blame onto the religious and civil authorities in power in Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago, we are making a big mistake. Each and every one of us had a hand in His murder in the sense that the Holy Face of Christ is marred and scarred by the violence and injury which we inflict upon our neighbour. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see reflections of ourselves in those who rejected Jesus and got rid of Him in His earthly incarnation. The actions of Peter and Judas Iscariot, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate and the Roman soldiers ‘just doing their job’ should cause us to reflect deeply on the treachery and evil that lurks within us. No-one can follow Jesus through the liturgies of Holy Week without that uncomfortable truth dawning anew in their heart. The truth is that God loves each and every one of us with a love so vast – incalculably vast – that it cost Him physical death on the Cross.

Gilbert Frankau, a British novelist, tells the story of a friend of his who was an artillery officer in WW1.

“In those days there was no radar to guide artillery fire to its target. Shells were simply lobbed over hills and trees, much as one heaves a rock at a target. Sometimes a soldier was sent up in a hot-air balloon to give directions to the gunners. He’d yell down to them, “A little to the left” or “A little to the right.” Gilbert’s friend said, “Whenever I went up in that balloon, I was frightened. I was a perfect target for enemy gunfire, and I knew it. I never got over my fear. But I never let my fear keep me on the ground.”

That is an amazing story of courage, isn’t it? I’ve chosen it in the hope that it will help us to appreciate better the tremendous courage that Jesus displayed in His humanity by going into Jerusalem (where the Temple, the place of sacrifice for sin, was) in a way that drew attention to Him, even though the chief priests and Pharisees (Jn 11:55ff) were keeping Him in their sights. Jesus was full aware that He was a target, and yet He deliberately left Himself vulnerable. He was in agony in the Garden, and begged the Father that the cup might be taken from Him (Mk 14:36), but He obediently underwent arrest, torture and crucifixion to fulfil His Messianic mission.

The literally ‘extra-ordinary’ courage of Jesus was born out of God’s overwhelming love for humanity. Jesus was given to us by the Father out of divine love. Jesus loves us so much that He was willing to suffer and die on our behalf, because only God Himself was capable of breaking down the barrier we had raised between His perfection and our sinfulness, of rising from death and restoring us to relationship with Him.

Similarly, for the love you have for God, I exhort you to have courage in yourself too. Let your love and courage lead you to embrace the Lord Jesus and to beg Him to purge you of anything that denigrates Him or separates you from Him. May God bless this Holy Week for you, and may you be moved to embrace God’s love in all its fullness. Amen. God bless you.