Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Walking with Jesus during Holy Week

The genius of Catholicism is its ability to express our faith vividly and concretely through symbols and art: the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the Sacred Heart, and above all the Eucharist are only a few.

In that spirit I hope these reflections will give you a vivid and concrete experience of Jesus’ life during the last week of his earthly life. These events give us the Eucharist. To walk with Jesus in Holy Week, especially the Easter Triduum, is to walk the reality of the Eucharist.

The Gospel of John Chapters 11 to 13, 14 and 15, and 18 and 19 is the text for this series. Please read as much of this Gospel as you can. It is a refined, elegant, dramatic piece of writing. And, since it is sacred Scripture, the Holy Spirit will certainly speak to you through the text.

You might want to read this series in order, since they follow the story line.

But if one verse or one section strikes you in particular, don’t hesitate to stay with it.

Move at your own speed, as the Holy Spirit seems to be leading you.

I. Jesus is “Greatly Disturbed in Spirit”

Please read Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John.

The first part of Chapter 11 narrates the raising of Lazarus, which we all know too well and so don’t really “hear.” So, read it slowly, letting the story unfold moment by moment as though you are hearing it for the first time.

Keep asking yourself, “Why is Jesus delaying his arrival?” The author gives us no clue.

Notice v33: Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” and begins to weep.

Why this reaction?

-- He delayed his own arrival, so he can’t be grieving Lazarus’ death.
-- Maybe he’s moved by other people’s grief,
but he knows what he is about to do, so why grieve?
-- “The Jews” say, “See how he loved him.” But “the Jews” are never portrayed positively in John, so their observation must be wrong.

Why would Jesus weep?

Each time Jesus performs a miracle, called a sign, in the Gospel of John, opposition grows. Some followers leave him. The religious leaders attack him. Even his family thinks he is mad.

So, what might he be thinking as he prepares to raise Lazarus from the dead?

“People have started to oppose me more and more, including the Jewish leaders. What will they do to me if I raise Lazarus from the dead? Their opposition could turn violent, and they might kill me.”

Ask yourself:

Have you ever been close to making a decision that you know will bring you criticism and opposition? A decision in your family or where you work?

Can you feel what Jesus must be feeling when he is “greatly disturbed in spirit”?

Now reread the remainder of the chapter.

What is happening? The Jewish leaders hear of the raising of Lazarus and decide to kill Jesus. Just what he was worried about!

In your prayer and reflection, be with Jesus as he is surrounded by Mary, Martha, and the other mourners. Feel his anxiety, yet also his sense that this is his mission.

Thank him for being faithful to that mission.
Ask him to help you be with him as he pursues his mission.

II. Jesus’ “Soul is Troubled”

Please read Chapter 12 of the Gospel of John.

So, Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, and “the Jews” have decided to kill him. A woman anoints him with oil, which he understands as anointing him for his burial, and he rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.

Notice that in v27 Jesus repeats a variation on his statement from Chapter 11:

“Now my soul is troubled.”


This time he gives a partial answer:

“And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour.’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

The reason he has come is to glorify the Father’s name: to reveal himself as the Word and as God’s love for creation and to demonstrate God’s power over sin and death.

In the Gospel of John we do not see Jesus say in the Garden “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me...” as he does in Luke 22. But, we hear a similar idea in the above statements: he recognizes that doubt and anxiety could hold him back. But nonetheless, he renews his commitment to the Father.

Notice this two-fold movement:

1. “I am tempted to doubt and be afraid – and I have good reason to be afraid…
2. But I choose to be faithful to the Father who has been faithful to me.”

When have you had reason to be afraid, to want to escape?
Who or what threatened to betray you?
Enemies? Those jealous of you? Your own body falling sick and betraying you?

Can you feel the movement away from fear toward trust in God?

In your prayer and reflection, be with Jesus as he is afraid,
recalling the threats against him.

Feel him turn from the fear to be with the Father.

Thank him for his faithfulness to the Father.
Ask him for the grace to do the same with whatever confronts you.

III. Jesus is “Troubled” and “Disturbed” a Third Time

Now read Chapter 13, up to Judas’ leaving the Last Supper in v30.

Jesus washes his disciples’ feet as a sign of his love for them, while also feeling “troubled in spirit…” for a reason he will shortly tell them. (Remember he has felt “disturbed in spirit” in chapter 11, his “soul is troubled” in chapter 12, and in chapter 13 he is about to announce a similar feeling.)

Then, “Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me” (v21).

So, not only will “the Jews” betray him, but a friend will too!

Do you know the fear of realizing that someone you trust will betray you?
-- a co-worker who has become jealous of your gifts or “success”
-- a new supervisor who feels you’re one of the “old guard,” not to be trusted.

Do you know the fear that something will betray you?
-- your body that ages and declines in health, even turning ill unexpectedly
-- a storm approaching your home, your vacation site, the place where your children are camping.

Then, Judas leaves, and the author tells us that “…it was night.” In the Gospel of John night and darkness always symbolize a misunderstanding about Jesus or a failure to understand who he is. Nicodemus, for example, who couldn’t understand who Jesus was, came to Jesus by night in Chapter 3.

In Chapter 13 “night” takes on the additional sense of betrayal, evil, hatred, jealousy, and so on. “And it was night” signals us that with Judas’ departure from the Last Supper, the worst of human sin is now aroused against Jesus and will attempt to destroy him.

How must he feel?

In your prayer and reflection feel yourself at the Last Supper watching Jesus as he announces his betrayal by one seated at the table.

Jesus has begun his Passion.

Be his friend. Pray for him.

Ask him to be with you as you experience moments of your own passion.

IV. Jesus Isn’t Afraid

Please read Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John.

Jesus and his friends are still seated at the Last Supper. Jesus has expressed his own distress and has announced that one of them will betray him. But notice what he says to the disciples as Chapter 14 begins:

Let not your hearts be troubled.

What an extraordinary statement! He has every reason to be afraid, and he has said that his spirit is troubled. Nonetheless, he makes an essential statement of faith.

Notice the same two-fold movement we’ve seen already:

1. I am in the midst of trouble, opposition, and danger,
2. But I choose to remain faithful to the Father and not let my heart be troubled.

My human life may be threatened by those who don’t understand me, he says, but I feel the Father’s love poured constantly into my heart. And so, I’m not afraid, even though my spirit may be troubled.

This is easily said. Can it actually be done? Is it realistic? How can we do this?

We would need a trusting friend whose friendship fills us with strength and courage.

And in the next chapter Jesus offers his disciples just such a friend: himself!

This is a promise: Let not your hearts be troubled.

In your prayer and reflection, identify a circumstance in your own life when your spirit felt troubled.

How did you react?
Were you able to feel drawn to the Lord for strength and reassurances?

Based on this experience, how do deal – how are you dealing – with a troubled experience in your life?

Ask Jesus and the Father for courage and strength.

V. He Sustains Us at Every Moment

Please read Chapter 15 of the Gospel of John.

As the chapter begins, Jesus uses the image of the vine and the branches:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

The vine, the main stem conducts a steady and reliable flow of nourishment to the branches. This nourishment? The love, the grace of God the Father flowing through Jesus that sustains all of creation in being.

And the relationship of the vine to the branch is that of abiding: a moment-by-moment, vital, dynamic, enlivening, nourishing relationship.

When we pray, we receive a renewed flow of divine nourishment into our hearts and our lives in every circumstance in which we find ourselves. As we are able to realize that we are being nourished and feel this flow of love, of grace into our lives, we are able to be courageous in the face of opposition and trouble.

This is the “secret” of Jesus’ confidence. His relationship with the Father conducts the Father’s love to him constantly. He receives courage and care from the Father and so has the strength to carry on his mission. And so he can truthfully say to his disciples, “Let not your heart be troubled.”

In your prayer and reflection, ask the Lord, ask the Father to abide in you.

Ask him to pour his love into your heart and life so you don’t have to be afraid in any circumstance of your life

Ask for constant nourishment, faith, courage, and strength.

Feel his care for you. Watch the events of your life for evidence of this care.

VI. We’re Friends of the Lord!

Notice v15 of Chapter 15:

“I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…”

Another extraordinary statement! Jesus calls each one of us his friends! And his relationship of friendship with us conducts the divine love into our hearts constantly. That’s what friendship is – a dynamic giving to the other, a desiring the good of the other (to quote Aquinas).

Abiding, exemplified by the relationship of the vine to the branch, is a moment-by-moment, vital, dynamic, enlivening, nourishing relationship. It lives, flows, grows, and transforms, like a mother and father loving a child, like a gardener nourishing a garden.

Abiding is the central dynamic of the spiritual life. When we pray our individual prayer, when we participate in the Eucharist, when we experience “coincidences” that can only have a divine origin, we are engaging with God who abides in us and in creation.

And when we do these things, we engage God in the person of Jesus Christ as our friend. And we engage him as we would engage a friend: spend time with him, converse with him, observe him active in our lives.

In your prayer and reflection, ask yourself where you have seen God active in your life as your friend. Ask him to abide in you. Ask him to be yet more your friend.

VII. Who is Judge? And Who is Judged?

Please read Chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John.

Picture in your mind’s eye the scene in Chapter 19: the soldiers have flogged Jesus and placed a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe around him, and Pilate has led him outside his headquarters before all the people.

“Pilate brought Jesus outside and sat (Jesus?) on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement or in Hebrew Gabbatha.” v13

The Greek text is unclear on a vital point:

-- does Pilate himself sit on the judge’s bench? Or
-- does Pilate make Jesus sit on it?

When Pilate asks, Jesus makes no claim to being king or judge.

But Pilate unwittingly demonstrates Jesus’ kingship and judgeship by seating him on the judge’s bench for all the people to see.

And what do they see?

-- an innocent man who has been falsely accused and who has been beaten, tortured, ridiculed, and mocked as a consequence of their hatred, bitterness, resentment, and envy.

-- in other words, they see their own sinfulness made visible and concrete in Jesus’ own person.

-- they see Jesus who has taken the sins of the world upon himself – literally on his body.

In this important sense he is their judge, the one who passes judgment on their sin.

In your prayer and reflection, “see” and recognize Jesus seating on the judge’s bench as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” as John the Baptist called him in Chapter 1.

Ask him to take your sin away too.

Ask him to take the sin of the world that hurts you and everyone else.

VIII. Jesus Faces Ultimate Evil

In text that follows immediately on the above scene in Chapter 19, Jesus’ two antagonists – Pilate and “the Jews” – reveal who they really are: ultimate evil.

v14ff: “Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Here is your king.’
They cried out, ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’
Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’
The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’

Notice that the final statement comes not from “the Jews,” meaning, the Jewish people. It comes from the chief priests, the highest ranking of the Jewish leaders.

And, it is the height of blasphemy – denying God as their king!

The most important and influential of “the Jews” have committed
the worst imaginable sin: blasphemy.

The next verse: “Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.”

The Roman magistrate’s greatest responsibility is seeing that justice is carried out.

The highest ranking Roman official has committed
the worst imaginable sin: executing a man he knows to be innocent.

This is ultimate evil!

So, again Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken upon himself the sins of the world.

In your prayer and reflection, thank Jesus for having the faith in the Father and the courage to undergo such torment as the means of completing his mission.

Recognize that Jesus will be with you, will abide in you, especially when you are challenged, accused, and betrayed.

IX. Jesus begins his ascent to the Father

In his encounter with Nicodemus in Chapter 3 Jesus predicted that

“…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so much the Son of Man be lifted up,…” v14, referring to Numbers 21:9.

And he has predicted that

“when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (12:32).

Once Jesus has been nailed to the cross, the cross, with him on it, is lifted into an upright position. He is literally “lifted up from earth.”

This movement upward, the Gospel implies, is the beginning of the upward movement toward the Father.
(There is no ascension story in the Gospel of John.)

Jesus’ ascent is of course the action of the Father. As Jesus offers himself as the Lamb of God, the Father receives his offering and lifts his Son into new life.

As the Father does so, Jesus and the Father break the power of sin and death.

“Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life…”

In breaking the power of sin and death and in being the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, Jesus frees us from the power of sin – our own and the world’s sin imposed upon us. We are free to live fuller and more abundant lives and to experience the Lord’s complete joy.

“By your cross and resurrection you have set us free…”

In your prayer and reflection, “see” the cross being lifted, and “feel” the reality of your release from sin – your own and the world’s that you suffer – being lifted from you.

Thank him for what he has done for you.

See and feel this freedom inside yourself.

Nurture this freedom by seeing the many good things in creation, especially the blessings that come into your life. My human life may be threatened by those who don’t understand me, he says, but I feel the Father’s love poured constantly into my heart. And so, I’m not afraid, even though my spirit may be troubled.

Prepare to celebrate the greatest day of the liturgical year: The Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord!