Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 1:1-15:47
About a month ago I was called to attend an elderly patient, let’s call her Rosa, who was critically ill; she was in her agony but conscious. She smiled weakly as I entered the room. I absolved her, gave her the plenary indulgence given at the time of death, anointed her and gave a tiny particle of the Sacred Host. After a few moments she whispered to me: Father, he takes our health, he takes our dignity, but he never takes himself.
It was one of those occasional moments in a priest’s life when heaven itself seems to speak and how I wished the whole world could have heard: …. he never takes himself!
On reflection, the whole dying process could be seen as a process of giving back to God all that he has given us during our life, ending with life itself. It is the painful fulfilment of those words spoken in another context to the disciples of the Pharisees: Give back … to God what belongs to God. Rosa had given back everything only to discover she was left with one last thing which would never be taken from her, God himself.
It’s a curious thing that today’s feast has two names – Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday – two names which, probably unintentionally, underline these two aspects of every human life, the giving and the giving back, the palms and the passion.
Jesus’ welcome into the city of Jerusalem is a wonderful 'palms' moment filled with blessings, a moment of popularity and welcome. He gets the colt of the donkey to ride on and they even cover it with their cloaks. They spread cloaks on the ground and wave palms, welcoming him as king with loud acclamations. Somehow the hosanna’s of the people are a recognition of all that God had given his Son Jesus during his life.
The Passion, which we have just read is, on the other hand, the painful litany of Jesus’ returning all to the Father. He divests himself willingly of everything; he allows himself to be stripped of all that is not God, so that he might show us, in a moment of supreme surrender, where our true treasure lies.
Betrayed by one of his inner circle of friends, arrested as a lawbreaker, deserted by his disciples, denied by the leader of his Apostles, condemned by the religious authorities, punished unjustly by the civil authorities, mocked and tortured by soldiers, stripped of his clothes, crucified between thieves – the innocent Jesus is left to die as a contemptible criminal, exposed on a Cross, jeered at by the crowds.
And yet one further torment lay in store for him, the greatest agony a person can suffer, the experience of the withdrawal of the merciful presence the Father: My God, my God, why have you deserted me?
Let us hasten to affirm that in reality God never leaves us, that he is always present to us and that he didn’t actually abandon Jesus; Rosa was right ‘…he never takes himself.' What we are speaking of here an experience of what it would be like if God really did withdraw from us. Many of the saints have undergone this ultimate purification of their love and the mystical doctors call it the ‘dark night of the soul’.
Jesus took the full punishment of sin upon himself and, undoubtedly, the punishment of sin is the eternal deprivation of the presence of God. St Faustina, the Apostle of the Divine Mercy, experienced this dark night and tells us that: the dreadful thought of being rejected by God is the actual torture suffered by the damned. Later she describes her experience a little more fully.
She tells us: One day, just as I had awakened, when I was putting myself in the presence of God, I was suddenly overwhelmed by despair. Complete darkness in the soul. I fought as best I could till noon. In the afternoon, truly deadly fears began to seize me; my physical strength began to leave me. I went quickly to my cell, fell on my knees before the Crucifix and began to cry out for mercy. But Jesus did not hear my cries. I felt my physical strength leave me completely. I fell to the ground, despair flooding my whole soul. I suffered terrible tortures in no way different from the torments of hell.
Do you see now why Jesus’ suffering was so necessary? In taking upon himself that which by rights we should have suffered, total alienation from God, that is, the torment of hell, he satisfied divine justice and won for all of us a restoration to communion with the Father.
In every human life, in yours and in mine, the palms and the passion are intermingled. We accept the first with gratitude and the second with faith and look forward to that moment when, having given back all that we were given, we enter into the unutterable joy of eternal life.