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.
I’m a pretty independent type of chap. In that regard, I’m pretty typically American. And politically, I’m Libertarian so I really don’t want any type of governmental control over my life. The less the merrier as far as I’m concerned.
Americans used to all be that way. That’s kind of what drove us to independence from England. I’m oversimplifying it but we don’t like being told what to do. I mean, don’t tell that to the cancel culture of today though. It’s like everybody has to believe the same thing or be labeled as intolerant, racist, homophobic or whatever other name the main stream of society wants to call you…but I digress.
Suffice it to say that we don’t like being told what to do. We don’t like our government beating us over the head. It’s not like our government has actually had our best interests in mind ever.
But what if the ruler were good?
What if the king was benevolent? And what if that king turned our expectations upside down? What if the king, rather than being worried about extending and increasing his own power, extended power to his subjects? What if serving the king meant freedom?
We never see, in our modern world, a ruler who gives to those whom he rules. They all seem to be out for themselves. But not so our benevolent King. Consider our texts today:
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
In our Ezekiel text (one of my favorite prophets by the way), we are presented with an image of a shepherd. But this is not just any shepherd. This is a shepherd who takes tender care of his sheep. This is a shepherd who rescues his lost sheep. This is a shepherd who takes care of the weak. But this is also a shepherd who judges, who shepherds with justice those who are strong and fat of their own devices. This is a shepherd who turns things on their head. We would think, in our minds, that the sheep that most deserve the attention of the shepherd are the strong ones, the ones who can survive with minimal effort from the shepherd.
I mean, if we’re honest, that’s what we would do. We wouldn’t want to devote all our time to the weak and lost and broken. But this shepherd does.
He’s not like us.
In our Epistle text, St. Paul presents us with another image. This is a regal and royal image. This is an awesome and powerful image. Christ is the “firstfruits” who has “destroyed every sovereignty,” every power and every authority. St. Paul tells us that “he must reign.” This is a nonnegotiable ruler. His power is ultimate, even over death itself and all will be subjected to Him.
This has quite a different tone than our Ezekiel text. This is one of absolute power and might and strength and awe and glory. There is a finality to this ruler, an overarching completeness. St. Paul uses words like “all” and “every” and “last enemy” to show us that this ruler is absolute.
This universal imagery and rule is echoed in our Gospel text. Jesus, referring to Himself, says he will come “in his majesty” and “all nations shall be gathered together before him.” But, unlike our Ezekiel text and Epistle text, Jesus mixes his metaphors. He opens with this universal rule and authority and then says he will separate the sheep from the goats, hearkening us to both the other texts. And we are again told there will be judgment. Those on the right hand are “blessed of” the Father and will be given possession of “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” To those on the left, he says something starkly different: “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Jesus is not just saying that they will be cast into damnation but says that their damnation equates them with the devil and his angels. This is harsh stuff. And why? Why are they cast out and equated with demons?
Because there is an ethic to the Kingdom of God which will be brought to its fullness when the King returns. This is not a kingdom like the world where the powerful take what they want at the expense of others. This is a kingdom that gives rather than takes.
Imagine a King who dies so that his people may live!
So now we ask:
What would it look like to live under the rule of benevolent King?
“The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing.
He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment:
He hath converted my soul. He hath led me on the paths of justice, for his own name’s sake.
For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me.
Thou hast prepared a table before me against them that afflict me. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly it is!
And thy mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days.” (Douay-Rheims)
Behold your King!
Behold Him who ruleth over you and provides all your needs.
Behold the One who has set you in a place of lush peace and abundance, refreshing you with the water of His love.
Behold He who converts our soul and leads us to true justice.
Behold He who is with you constantly, comforting us in all our afflictions.
Behold He who provides us the feast of His love, even in the presence of the enemies of sin and death.
Behold His mercy.
Behold Christ the Lord.
Behold your King!
And He shall reign forever and ever.
Thanks be to God!