We live a double life.
Not at times but all the time. At least, this is true of those of us who are members of the Body of Christ, those who have been saved by God’s grace. We live a double life in a sense. On one hand, we are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb who was slain. But on the other hand, we still struggle against sin, the flesh and the devil. How can this be? There’s very much of a both-and situation going on here, a now and not yet.
This time in the Church calendar can be a little strange for us as well. We have begun what is called “Passiontide.” This time begins on First Passion Sunday (today) and ends on Holy Saturday. Why do we do this? I want to offer an extended quote from the 1956 St. Andrew’s Missal in explanation,
“During these last two weeks of Lent, leading up to Easter, the Church is at pains to make us relive with her the events which went before and surrounded our Savior’s death, and which, above all others, were decisive in effecting the salvation of the world.
Passiontide, by its close connection with Eastertide even now sets before us our Redemption in the Blood of Jesus, but it is the remembrance of the sufferings of Christ and the humiliations of His Passion to which the Church now turns particular attention. Before applying to our souls the fruits of grace in the triumphant celebration of our Savior’s Resurrection, she desires to make us follow Christ step by step in the dire struggle which He underwent in order to redeem us.
Thus the long retreat of Lent draws to a close, as we contemplate that unique contest, which could alone wrest man from sin and earn salvation for him. It is essential that we should be reminded of this and it is a source of great consolation for us. Our personal effort at self-correction and reparation is not thereby rendered useless, but it is only effective and of value in union with the Passion of Him who took on Himself the sins of the world and expiated them all. Through that mysterious solidarity, which exists between all members of the human family, Jesus, Son of God made man, takes the place of His guilty brethren. He takes our sins upon Him…”He was made sin for us,” says St. Paul, “so as to bear our sins in His Body on the tree.””
This, then, is Passiontide and today is First Passion Sunday. Our readings for today are going to reflect the dual nature of our reality as I introduced this reflection with.
Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-15
Gospel: John 8:46-59
We are presented in our Epistle text today with a vision of our Lord Jesus that is at once profound, slightly disturbing by modern standards, and glorious. We are told that Christ is our High Priest. We are given the image of expiation and sacrifice. The writer says,
“Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption.”
To a Jewish person of the 1st century, this would have made perfect sense. In the sacrificial system under which they lived, put in place by God, expiation for sin only came through sacrifice. In fact, later in this chapter (Hebrews 9:22), the writer tells us that, without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin, calling to mind Leviticus 5:11, Leviticus 17:11 and Ezekiel 43:18.
The writer goes on to offer the perfect sacrifice of Christ for our meditation and great joy. If the blood of goats and oxen offer expiation, how much more, he asks us, does the perfect blood of the unspotted Lamb of God cleanse us?! And so, under the “Old Covenant” blood was shed for the remission of sin, now a new and better covenant has been fulfilled in our sight. By the shed blood of Jesus, a New Covenant has come forward that we who are covered in the blood of Christ may enjoy our eternal inheritance.
Here we see His glory and prestige as our great High Priest, yet His great humility and sacrifice in giving up His own Body and Blood for the salvation of the world. By His blood, a new covenant ensues. By it, we are made free.
And yet, we see in our gospel reading, the increasing hatred of the Jewish authorities toward Jesus. They even accuse Him of not only casting out demons with the help of the prince of demons but of being possessed of a demon Himself. What sacrilege and blasphemy! And then, in their minds, He commits the ultimate blasphemy. He calls Himself God. Look at verse 58 of our gospel reading,
“Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am.”
They take up stones to kill Him. Seems a bit harsh by our modern standards. But lest we took quickly consider our modern standards, remember that it was YHWH Himself who told Moses in the burning bush His most Holy Name: I AM WHO I AM (Exodus 3:14). Make no mistake. Jesus was very clearly calling Himself God, the eternal One, and therefore unequivocally referencing His divinity.
The Jews understood this and tried to kill Him for blasphemy.
Such a sharp contrast put before us in our readings today. This is the dichotomy set before us in Passiontide. On one hand, we see the fruit of grace in the celebration of Easter anticipated. On the other, we see the torment He endured on our behalf.
This is happening today as well. Our world (at least some of it) will recognize Jesus as a wise man, a great teacher, perhaps even a holy man. But the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God who is indeed divine by whose death we are reconciled to God? No, that cannot be Truth to the world. For, if it is Truth, it demands something of us. The person of Jesus the Christ demands our faith and our obedience and for that, the world cannot stand Him. Our modernist world cannot stomach objective Truth, a Truth that exists outside our own selfish worldview of personal autonomy and what we believe is our own personal transcendence. Here is where our flesh conflicts with Christ. Here is where we don’t want to be.
But here we must be. In the middle of this duality, this dichotomy. We have the glorious and great High Priest on the one hand and the bloody corpse of the God-man, Jesus, on the other.
We cannot look away. We dare not. We must lean in, look closer, embrace our discomfort in fasting and penance so that we may join in His suffering.
By it, we are purified and offer ourselves as a sacrifice to our Savior.
In it, we join our Savior in His Passion and in His glory.
Have you ever found joy in a strange place or at a strange time? It’s like you are in your darkest hour and suddenly find joy. An example from my life was when my sister died. It was one of, if not the, darkest times in my life. And yet, joy came from and during that dark time. During that time, my relationship with my parents was renewed. Joy in the darkness.
Our readings this week are sort of like that. In the traditional calendar, this Sunday is known as Laetare Sunday. What, you may ask, is that? Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, takes its name from the Latin word which begins the entrance antiphon (introit) for that day. Laetare means rejoice, and this Sunday is marked by a relaxation of the penitential character of the Lenten season. This is Laetare Sunday when we consider the joy before us of the Easter season, joy in the solemn time of Lent.
Joy is one of those things that gets really misunderstood and is wrongly defined. We tend to think that joy and happiness are the same thing. They are not. Happiness is an emotion, a feeling that all is going well for you. Happiness, in our human experience, is largely tied to stuff; a good job, marriage is good, feeling fine, that sort of thing. Joy, on the other hand, is a much deeper thing. True joy is not based, necessarily, in the emotional realm. Joy is a deep-rooted experience that comes from a settled feeling of contentment and is usually not based on stuff.
Joy is not happiness.
So, even during a penitential season like Lent, even while we meditate on our sinfulness and mortify our flesh and do penance, we can have joy. Our joy, as followers of Christ, comes from something that is outside of us. All the readings from this week resound with this theme of joy, from the Introit to the Gradual, the Epistle and Gospel.
Epistle: Galatians 4:22-31
Gospel: John 6:1-15
Our Epistle text is really interesting as it relates to joy. In fact, you may read it and wonder how it has anything to do with joy. The situation that St. Paul is referring to in this text is found in Genesis 16. I’m not going to go into that but, if you like, you can go back and read it. What St. Paul is talking about here is primarily found in what St. Paul calls the “children of promise.” And what is meant by that?
St. Paul reminds us of the story of Abraham having two sons born to him; one from a slave woman and the other from his wife, Sarah. He says in verse 23 that the son born of the slave was “born according to the flesh” but the son (Isaac) that was born of his wife Sarah was “by promise.” What does that mean? Abraham was promised a son. Through that son all nations would be blessed. But Abraham and Sarah couldn’t wait on that promise. They took matters into their own hands, so to speak, and decided they would preempt the promise of God and have a son by the slave woman.
But God’s purpose was not be denied or thwarted, no matter how much Abraham took matters into his own hands “according to the flesh.” God’s promised son was born despite Sarah’s manipulation and Abraham’s capitulation.
There’s something here for us as well: Let us trust in the promises of God and trust His timing. Taking matters into our own hands mostly leads to disaster and sin. We can always rely on the promises of God.
But, St. Paul tells us that he’s reading this story, also, in an allegorical sense. These two sons are “the two testaments.” One, born of the slave, is born under the law. The other, born under promise, is “free.” And Paul relates this to what he calls “Jerusalem.” In Paul’s treatment of Jerusalem, we see the Church. Look at verse 26. St. Paul tells us,
“But that Jerusalem, which is above, is free: which is our mother.”
He is referring to the Church. The Church is our mother. And we, St. Paul tells us, are the new children of promise. Look at verse 28. The promise of God is salvation by the gift of grace. Isaac did nothing to earn it. He was merely born. So now, the child of promise is one who is born of faith, not of the flesh, as St. Paul tells us.
That is us. We who are of the faith are the children of promise.
In turning to our Gospel, we are tempted to think these two texts have nothing to do with one another. This is the miraculous feeding of “a very great multitude.” How many people exactly that is we do not know. What we do know is there were about 5000 men. That’s men only. Jesus miraculously feeds them by multiplying the loaves and fishes.
What we see here is a pre-figuring of the Eucharist. Jesus is giving a foretaste of what is to come after His ascension. The 1955 St. Andrews Daily Missal tells us that this is the Easter Sacrament, promised to the baptized children of the promise. What joy is ours, that THE Child of the promise, who is Christ the Lord, has become for us the Lamb that was slain on our behalf! But not just slain; risen indeed! This is the Easter promise of the Child.
There is One who, for us and for our sins, would be born. He would be the Child of promise in which Isaac is pre-figured. He would be the Seed that will bless the nations. He would be the Seed of the Woman who will crush the head of the great serpent, our enemy!
Now we, like the Psalmist can say,
“I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord.” (Ps. 121:1)
What joy is ours, we who rejoice in the promise of the Child! He, being the Firstborn of many brethren, has become for us our sacrifice. Now, with great joy, we go to the house of the Lord, to the house of our Father. There, in the Easter Sacrament, in the Eucharist, we may taste the joy of our salvation!
One day….oh, one day, dearly beloved! One day we shall see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face! One day we shall see the Eucharistic Lamb who was slain! One day we shall see the great Child of the promise, our Elder Brother, Jesus! With the Father, in the bosom of Mother Church, He has gone before us and He has won our salvation!
What promise, what joy is ours in Christ our Lord!