Sunday, 20 March 2016

Palm Sunday Year C

Luke 19:28-40 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 (Mass)

When a loved one dies we treasure our memories of their final days and hours. Different members of the family may well remember different things as the dying person’s last words. My father’s last words for me are not necessarily those cherished by my mother or by other members of the family.

Between them, the four gospels give us seven last words of Christ, things he said from the cross. St Matthew and St Mark record just one word,  ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’. It is a cry of desolation and yet strangely comforting to all who experience that dark spiritual night in which God seems to die. It is also the beginning of Psalm 22, which opens in anguish but closes in trust and hope.

St John records three last words, ‘Woman behold your son’, ‘I thirst’ and ‘It is finished’. St Luke also records three last words and it is on these I want to dwell because it is Luke’s account of the Passion that we read this year.

Luke tells us that Jesus, on the cross, asked his Father to forgive his executioners: ‘Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23.34). Jesus who had lived among sinners died among sinners. Those who nailed him to the cross, beat him, stripped him, and taunted him were his enemies. They wanted to see him dead. Now he had to practise what he had so powerfully preached, that we should love our enemies, pray for them and forgive them.

Some early manuscripts of the New Testament do not have this verse of Luke’s gospel. It is as if some early Christians feared that Jesus would seem too indulgent towards sinners, too tolerant of their behaviour. But how can he be too forgiving? Had he not taught them that God is a merciful Father whose forgiveness is offered no matter what people have done?

St Paul says: ‘none of the rulers of this age understood … for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8). Sinners never really know what they are doing. We do not really understand the kind of offence sin is against the love and goodness of God. Perhaps some day it will be revealed to us. Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote that it is our ignorance of how good God is that excuses us for not being saints.

Out of the crowd gathered on Calvary comes a voice in a different tone to the rest, a voice asking for forgiveness. The man we remember as the good thief, crucified alongside Jesus, brings out of him those wonderful words, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23.43). The thief does not ask for so much. ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom’, is all he says. Perhaps, in the future, it might be possible that I will be saved … this is as far as he dares to hope. ‘Today’, Jesus replies, ‘why not today?’ We may be diffident also, and experience may have led us to be reserved in our hope, but we do already live in this ‘today’ of which Jesus speaks. ‘Now is the favourable time, this is the day of salvation’ (2 Corinthians 6.2).

The only voice to acknowledge Jesus during the whole of his passion is the voice of this good thief. Fulton Sheen says that this man who had lived as a thief died as a thief for he stole Paradise!

Just before his death Jesus cried out with a loud voice: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ and with these words he breathed his last (Luke 23.46). We find these words in Psalm 31, an ancient Jewish prayer for those suffering and being tested. Jesus speaks once more to the Father but now it is as if he is the prodigal son turning towards home. He is exhausted and spent. He has wasted the Father’s wealth on sinners, pouring out divine mercy and kindness without restraint, without limit, without reserve. He has loved them to the end, foolishly and extravagantly, and it is time for him to return home.

Jesus thus concludes his life of obedience to God’s will. He has drunk the cup the Father asked him to drink (Luke 22.42) and he has finished it to the dregs. In death, as in life, he is nothing but the servant of God.

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