Shall I Crucify Your King?

As we approach Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we also approach one of the most difficult moments in liturgy: our call to crucify Christ. For the reading of the Passion accounts in these liturgies, there is the option for the Gospel to be read by multiple readers. I would venture to guess that most parishes read the Passion account this way. Thus, it falls to us in the pews to utter those difficult words: Crucify him.

A few years ago, I gave a talk on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. While it was mostly focused on Pope Pius XII and the efforts of the Vatican, I closed with a reminder to examine our own willingness to stand up in the face of evil.  Ultimately, the Church is not the Pope or the hierarchy. We are the Church. And while we can point fingers or hash out whether the Church did enough during the Holocaust, we ultimately have to face the question: What would I have done? At the end of our lives, we are not going to answer for what a Pope did or did not do, or what our parish priest did or did not do in his life. We will answer for what we did.

This is what we are reminded during the Palm Sunday liturgy. We raise our voices as a Church to cry, “Let him be crucified!” Ultimately, it was not Pilate who killed Jesus. It was our sins that crucified Our Lord.

A story is often told about G.K. Chesterton (one of those “if it’s not true, it should be” stories) that when a newspaper asked for essayists to respond to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton famously answered with two words: I am.

We can create a laundry list of concerns and complaints against our modern culture, point fingers and find scapegoats. But are we looking past our own sins – both of omission and commission? I can do little to change the government, to change the media, to change the tide of the current culture. I can do a lot to change my own life, to change the way I treat those around me, to change my attitude towards my family and friends and enemies. I can love more. I can resist giving into sins. I can pray more.

When we raise our voices this weekend to cry “Let him be crucified,” may it not just be like reciting lines of a play, or said distractedly or inattentively with our hearts and minds elsewhere. Rather, may the words pierce our hearts and remind us of the role we played. May they help us call to mind our sins. Most of all, may they spur us to seek His mercy.

The drama of the Palm Sunday liturgy not only calls us to face the effect of our sins, it also reminds us that those sins have a Savior. Just when we see the horror of sin, in all its manifestations, we also see that our sins will not be the final answer.

“It is precisely in the Passion, when the mercy of Christ is about to vanquish it, that sin most clearly manifests its violence and its many forms: unbelief, murderous hatred, shunning and mockery by the leaders and the people, Pilate’s cowardice and the cruelty of the soldiers, Judas’ betrayal – so bitter to Jesus, Peter’s denial and the disciples’ flight. However, at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world, the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly.” (CCC 1851)

“May his blood be upon us and upon our children,” because by his wounds we are healed.

This post was originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Learning to Carry Your Cross

Five years ago, I was in the middle of a rocky phase of life.  I was moving apartments, there were major changes at my workplace, and a priest who kept me sane was suddenly transferred to another mission.  There was change in my personal world, my work world, and my spiritual world. Lent was still several weeks away, but I felt like I was already living it.

During those days, I realized that while I often prayed “Your will be done,” I really didn’t trust Him. It was a prayer far easier to say than to live.

Just when I thought I couldn’t deal with any more change, two days before Lent began Pope Benedict announced his resignation.  I almost laughed at the absurdity through my tears that day.  Was this really happening?  I thought January had been full of change… now I was even losing my Pope?

I had been in St. Peter’s Square for Benedict’s election and again for his installation.  In the eight years of his papacy, I had devoured every word and followed every trip.  I had a Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club mug years before he was even elected.  If there had been one thing I thought would be free from change at that moment, it was the universal Church. Boy, was I wrong.

I learned that Lent about control and sacrifice. Ultimately, I learned that I liked to control my sacrifices!  I can give up chocolate, not eat between meals, or turn off technology.  These things may really help me grow in the spiritual life. But while there is a lot of good in self-imposed sacrifice and it can be pretty difficult, I’m usually far more willing to impose sacrifice on myself than to accept the crosses I’m given.

If only I could barter with God:  “Um, thanks, God, but I don’t really want what is happening in my life right now.  How about I fast tomorrow instead?  Thanks.” Needless to say, that isn’t the way it works. In the end, the best sacrifices are the ones that we don’t need to seek out and are already being asked of us.  Rather than running away from them, it’s time to pick up our crosses and follow His lead.

Scripture repeatedly reminds us, “Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me. Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not; then said I, “Behold I come.” (Psalm 40, as in the liturgy).  It is not that God doesn’t want our sacrifices, but that He wants our obedience more.  The book of Hebrews applies these words to Christ Himself. Christ gave the ultimate and perfect sacrifice, but what was pleasing to the Father was His perfect obedience in that sacrifice (Hebrews 10:5-9).

The greatest gift we can give God is obedience, and the hardest time to tell him, “Behold, I come,” is when that obedience requires our childlike trust.

Perhaps the greatest sacrifice we make this Lent is not one we choose for ourselves, but one that is found by humbly accepting the crosses that come into our lives every day.  God knew I needed to learn how to trust Him that Lent.  And while I still struggle with it, I know those months helped me learn an important lesson: when all feels shaky around you, your cross is actually the safest and most stable place to grip – because Christ is holding it too.



Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Different from all other nights

There are several cues during the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday that tell you something is different tonight. Mass begins and ends with an empty tabernacle.  Flowers and the Gloria make appearances after absences during these days of Lent (with a few exceptions), but the joy doesn’t remain long. The organ is quiet. The bells are replaced with clackers. The Mass ends with the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose and ends silently, as we wait with Jesus in the Garden. The altars are stripped.  We wait.

Two thousand years ago, twelve men celebrating Passover with their leader would have noticed differences to a familiar liturgy as well.  Jesus spoke of the unleavened bread being His Body.  And he spoke to them of a new covenant.  Then, after singing the Hallel Psalms, instead of finishing the Passover meal, Jesus left and led them to the Garden to pray.  It was a memorial they celebrated for 30+ years of their lives, and suddenly Jesus was doing something different.

Understanding the Passover sacrifice and meal helps us to understand exactly what Jesus was doing that night.  (Which is why I recommend Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist to everyone I meet.)

Why is this night different from all other nights?  This is the famous question the son would ask his father during the Passover liturgy.  And the father would respond, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when he brought me out of the land of Egypt…”

Notice – it is what the Lord did for me.  Not for my fathers.  Not for our people a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago.  For ME.

For the Jewish people, this “memorial” (go back to Exodus 12 and see how often it is referred to as a memorial, remembrance) was not just a way to recall a past event.  The Hebrew understanding of remembering, memorial — zikaron — was not a passive remembering of a past event.  It was a participation in that event.  The past event was being made present for you, so that you too could share in the Passover, the redemption of the first born.

It was what the Lord did for you.

This was in the forefront of the minds of the Apostles that night.  This was on their minds as they heard Jesus’ words: Do this in memory of me.  Same word.  Zikaron.  Anamnesis.  Not “think back to this night years from now and think of me fondly.”

No.  Zikaron.  Make this present.  Participate in it.  So that it is not just the redemption of your fathers or your people two thousand years ago — but so that you can share in that redemption.

And then Jesus tells them something drastic — He is here to make a new covenant.

But hadn’t God told the Israelites that Passover was supposed to be a “perpetual institution?”

The call of the first born is not revoked.  It is fulfilled.

Do this in memory of me.


Photo copyright Steven Golder

The Cross: Absurdity or Power?

The title of this Holy Week post comes from First Corinthians. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the Cross is a stumbling block for the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles.  While praying with the Scriptures, I paused over this idea.  What about for us in 2015?  Is the Cross an absurdity or a stumbling block for us?  I think it is, but not in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.

As Father Barron points out here, for Paul’s audience, the very image of the cross and the idea that it was holy or a sign of power was absolutely ludicrous.  We, by and large, have lost that shock.  We have become desensitized, if you will, to the Cross.  It is such a common symbol, we have forgotten how radical it is.  We refer to the Cross as a sign of victory!  Think of the hymn “Lift High the Cross” …  “Led on their way by this triumphant sign…”  Or the last verse, “So shall our song of triumph ever be / Praise to the Crucified for victory.”

What? Victory?  Triumph?

During the time of the Romans, the cross was so horrific that the Roman philosopher Cicero wouldn’t even describe it directly in his writing. The whole ordeal of crucifixion was meticulously planned by the Romans, who had perfected the process of execution.  They would place the crosses near city gates or along busy roads so that everyone would see the victims’ extreme pain and their long hours of agony. To those living under Roman rule, the cross was a sign of oppression, meant to discourage uprisings or disobedience. It was a sign of terror, of suffering, of humiliation.

And now that sign has been transformed — from a sign of brutality and oppression to a sign of victory and love.

Do we realize how radical the Cross is?

We forget the scandal of the Cross. We forget how shocking it is. And as a result, I think we forget the enormity of what He did for us.

So is the Cross is a stumbling block for us?  I don’t think it is in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.  The sight isn’t shocking. The symbol doesn’t remind us of oppression or horror.  The idea isn’t shocking anymore (although it should be).

You know what is the stumbling block for us?  The reality of it in our own lives.  When we come face to face with the Cross- with suffering, with emotional, psychological, or physical pain, with struggles that don’t make sense, with trials that don’t seem fair… that is our stumbling block.

“Why is there suffering in this life?”

It is the age-old question. And guess what?  I don’t think there is a satisfactory answer.

And that can either be a stumbling block, or we can embrace it as Simon of Cyrene did.

You know why I’ve come to believe that depicting Christ on the Cross — of having a crucifix with a corpus on it and not just an empty cross — is vital?  Because we never embrace a cross in our life without embracing Christ.  If we try to embrace the crosses in our life alone, we’ll never be able to survive.  But when we embrace the wood of the Cross, we embrace Christ. And He embraces us.  And that’s the only way suffering is possible.

Suffering is a mystery.  We can’t explain it.  It’s an absurdity.  But once you see it with the eyes of faith, even the struggle to embrace it becomes lighter.

CS Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

And that is the only way I think the believer can wrap his mind around suffering. We can’t explain it, but once you see it with the eyes of faith, the absurdity makes sense.  In the light of the Cross, my suffering can be embraced.  …Maybe never fully understood, but embraced in spite of it.

The world thinks we are crazy. But we know the Cross is victory. We know suffering does ultimately have an answer – Jesus Christ.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I Cor 1:18

why ashes?

What is it about Ash Wednesday that gets people more excited than they get for Mass any other day?

I’m conflicted about this.  I have been reading a lot about parish renewal and missionary evangelism, so I’m all about “capitalizing” on days like Ash Wednesday or other days that bring people to church and using these opportunities to evangelize.  Rather than complain about the Christmas/Easter Catholics, why don’t we make them feel at home so they want to come back next week?  How often do we shoot ourselves in the foot by complaining about people coming to Mass?  Whether or not they took our parking space or our pew, we should not only be glad to see them, we should invite them back and give them a reason to see us again.

But at the same time, let’s remember that ashes are not the single most important thing about today. What brings on these musings?  Here in this southern city, we had a sleet storm on Monday and below freezing temperatures since Sunday.  Coupled with a brief flizzard this morning, roads (especially neighborhood ones) are treacherous in many places throughout the city.  We just aren’t equipped to treat our roads quickly, and most people down here are gun-shy about driving.  And for good reason … one uneducated driver on ice-covered or even snow-covered roads, and boom, everyone is in trouble. So even with my mad Indiana driving skills, even I get a little gun-shy on the hills around here.

All that to say, many people might not be able to get out to Mass today.  And you know what? It’s okay, everyone.  It’s actually not a holy day of obligation. And even if it was, the Church doesn’t ask us to risk life and limb to get to Mass.

This may sound strange, coming from the director of adult formation for the diocese of Nashville.  And don’t get me wrong, I love sacramentals and penitential traditions as much as the next person.  I’m not saying Ash Wednesday isn’t important.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to get to Mass today.

….But why are you going to Mass today?

Why wasn’t everyone upset that they couldn’t go to Mass yesterday?

Perhaps it’s time to step back and remember what Lent is really about.  Will we be okay without ashes today?  Yes.  But will we be okay without Jesus today?

This post is not for those people who are not in the habit of going to Mass, but those of us who are.  Has it become just that…. a habit?  Do we go on Sunday because we have to?  or because we want to?

Are we upset to miss Mass today because it’s the thing we’re supposed to do to start Lent? Because we feel like we need to get ashes because that’s what we’ve always done?  Because we want everyone know that we’ve started Lent the way we’re supposed to?

Or are we upset to miss Mass today because that means going another day without receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament?  Are we worthy to receive Him?  Are we longing to receive Him?

At the end of the day, ashes are ashes.  As one priest quipped, “Of all sacramentals, I think dirt is the lowest.”  Why are we so eager to receive dirt when we’re not as eager to receive Jesus?  Yes, sacramentals are good and holy. It’s great to go to Mass on Palm Sunday and get our palms.  Or get our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise.  These are great opportunities to grow in holiness and are especially moving for those among us who might not be able to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for various pastoral reasons.

But what is a sacramental?  What is its purpose?

“Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1670)

So while sacramentals give grace, they don’t give grace the same way the sacraments do. Their purpose is to consecrate our daily lives, reminding us of the goodness of the material world and the ability for every aspect of our life to be holy and sanctified, and to prepare us to receive the sacraments.

We don’t receive ashes just to receive ashes. They are to remind us of our weakness and sin, our need for God’s mercy, and to shock us out of our complacency.  But do they still do that?  If you’re just receiving them just to receive them, because it’s what we do on the Wednesday following Mardi Gras, are the words “remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” calling you to a deeper meditation on your ephemeral mortal life?

Ashes are dirt. Blessed dirt, but dirt.  Catholics do some crazy things, but we do not receive dirt just for the sake of it. We receive it in order for that dirt to prepare us to receive the sacraments of confession and Holy Eucharist.

So if you can’t get out of your house today to receive ashes, here is your challenge.

Set aside thirty minutes of your day. If you’re snowed in, this shouldn’t be hard.  Turn off the television, your phone, and your computer. Make a spiritual communion, asking the Lord to come into your heart even though you are not able to receive His Body and Blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Ask Him to sanctify this day and your journey to Easter, to give you the grace to grow in holiness during this Lenten season.  We’re not Pelagians, so we know that we can actually do nothing – zilch – to grow in virtue this Lent unless it first comes from Him.  No amount of dirt on our forehead – no matter how muddy that holy water made it – can transform us this Lent without Him.

Can’t get to Mass this Ash Wednesday?  Your Lent doesn’t have to suffer from it. In fact, this could be the most transforming Lent of your life.  I’d wager to bet Jesus would rather you spend thirty minutes of quiet time with Him in prayer, stuck in your iced-up house, than phone-in Mass just to receive ashes.