Palm Sunday

28 March 2021
'The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene' by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 21:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1 – 15:47

28 March 2021

 

Breaking open the word

I recently had the joy of accompanying 10 young women on a convent “speed dating” trip: one bus, three days, seven communities of women living various forms of consecrated life. What a privilege it was to listen to the cloistered Tyburn nuns speak about their devotion to eucharistic adoration, and hear the Little Sisters of the Poor tell stories about their elderly residents, and see the Missionaries of Charity preparing food for those in need. While their daily routines and duties varied, the sisters and nuns all gave witness to one central mystery: emptying. Pouring themselves out in love for Jesus and his Church lies at the heart of all they are and do.

This mystery of self-emptying (in Greek, kenosis) is explored in each of today’s readings. Isaiah’s suffering servant delights in his intimate relationship with God who wakes him each morning and places words on his tongue. From this flows his willingness to be struck, insulted and spat-upon for the sake of his Lord. He empties himself of pride by refusing to retaliate.

St Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes the “archetype” of all kenosis: God the Son, the eternal Word of the Father, uniting our human nature to his divine nature. He empties himself of glory by becoming obedient even to accepting death on a cross.

In the Processional Gospel, we hear about Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem, which required a literal descent into the Kidron Valley. Archaeological finds indicate that during Jesus’ lifetime, this was used as a garbage dump—yet the Gihon spring, a major water source for the city, also originates in this valley. The passion narrative brings this descent of Jesus to its climax, and we marvel at his willingness to be stripped of all dignity, to be emptied of every drop of his blood, and to pour out words of mercy and graciousness even on those who were crucifying him.

This experience of emptiness is boldly proclaimed in the psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:1)

How can this self-emptying be the key to our salvation? Perhaps “clinging” is part of our problem. Sin can be seen as a clinging to our own plans, preferences and understanding, instead of giving the Lord the loving trust that his infinite goodness warrants. As our Creator, the one whose essence is “to be”, God deserves all our love. Yet not only have we failed to “return love for love” (St Margaret Mary), but we have also refused to accept the logical consequence of twisting away from the source of all being: death.

On our students’ report cards, teachers indicate their progress in skills such as “completes set work”, “works collaboratively” and “brings required equipment”. I am never worried about saying a student “needs improvement” in one or more of these areas as long as I can mark him or her as “satisfactory” on the final outcome: “accepts responsibility for behaviour”. A student who does this is able to learn from mistakes, receive help, and make progress. And accepting these consequences indicates a tremendous trust in the teacher, who must be both just and merciful.

Death is the healing “consequence” for our wounded condition. The separation of our soul and body should naturally be avoided, and the separation from our loved ones is a true sadness that was not meant to be. But death, both literal and metaphorical, provides us with the opportunity we need to make acts of loving trust in God our Father, to empty ourselves of all that we cling to, and pour ourselves into his waiting arms. Yet even drinking this “saving cup” is beyond our courage!

By his incarnation, earthly life, passion, death and resurrection, Jesus offered himself to the Father on our behalf, and for our sake. Now, by the grace of the sacraments, our little acts of love and little deaths-to-self can be united to Jesus’ perfect act of love, and merit our salvation (CCC, 2011).

As we enter into Holy Week, let us be good friends to the lonely, suffering Jesus, and ask him to pour out his perfect love for the Father and for the world through our hearts and hands.

SR SUSANNA EDMUNDS OP

 

Reflecting on the Gospel through Art

The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene – Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene (c. 1619). Oil on canvas, 330 cm × 282 cm. Louvre, Paris. Public Domain.

Anthony van Dyck’s portrait paintings are among the finest ever produced and earned him some of the most prestigious commissions in both Italy and England. He was born in Antwerp in 1599, the seventh child of a wealthy and well-travelled cloth merchant. His mother was a skilled embroiderer. From them both he gained a keen eye for the symbolism of clothing. His mother recognised his talent and encouraged his study of art. He left school early, and by the age of 19 he had been admitted into the local Guild of Saint Luke. In no time he had become chief assistant to Northern Europe’s greatest artist of the time, Peter Paul Rubens.

In 1632, van Dyck left for England to the court of King Charles I, an avid art collector. Here in the Royal collection he encountered the work of Titian whom he instantly admired. Knighted by the king, van Dyck was to have enormous influence on British artists for the next 150 years. He died in England in 1641 at the early age of 42, being buried in old St Paul’s Cathedral.

His crucifixion scene on which we are meditating was produced in 1617–19 as an altarpiece for a Jesuit church near Dunkirk. In time, it was bought by Louis XV of France for the Royal chapel at Versailles. It now hangs in the Louvre.

Artists, of course, take great license with their subjects, but only because they want to make a point. In the foreground, there is great composure, but in the background there is chaos. Two disciples are rushing off, devastated by what they’ve seen, and look back for a last glance. Perhaps they are the two disciples we will later meet on the road to Emmaus? They certainly seem to have been familiar with what had happened on Good Friday. Walking away, too, are soldiers, their work done. Having pierced the condemned man’s side, they have made sure of his certain death. Darkness is enveloping the scene and the total eclipse of the sun has begun—nature itself in revolt.

Until modern times, there has been much confusion about the identity of three women in the Gospel: Mary of Bethany (Martha’s sister), Mary of Magdala (“from whom seven demons had gone out” (Lk 8:2)), and the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. In time, these three merged into one, and Mary Magdalen was wrongly assumed to have been a reformed prostitute. By the look of the clothing van Dyck has given her, the painter has accepted this erroneous view. The Magdalen’s dress shimmers as if worn by a woman trying to attract attention.

Van Dyck seems to give great prominence to St John’s robe. It is almost as if he has just put it on. To me it just does not sit rightly. Jesus’ parting words to his mother were that now she was to regard John as her own. Perhaps hearing this, John has stooped down and picked up the robe that was stripped off by the soldiers. “And when they had finished making fun of him, they took off the purple and dressed him in his own clothes” (Mk 15:20). “You have put on a new self” (Col 3:10). John has robed himself in Christ, a commission we are given at Baptism.

The face of Christ is not twisted in agony. Rather, it is one of composure, complete submission to his Father. His blood drains from his pierced side to the very last drop.

Now, look at the figure of Our Lady, her face the complete opposite to John’s picture of anguish. Mary is not crying. She is standing tall, and her gaze conveys complete union with her Son and what he has accomplished. “[There] she stood … uniting herself with a maternal heart with his sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth” (Lumen Gentium, 58).

Some artists wrongly depict Our Lady in a swoon at the foot of the cross as if overwhelmed by grief. This is not what St John says. “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother” (Jn 19:25), and the Evangelist’s word could convey a double meaning. The greatest words of comfort we can give someone is to tell them we will stand by them whatever happens. In fact, we ask this comfort from Our Lady several times each day: “Pray for us at the hour of our death.”

St John, the only evangelist present at the cross, mentions the strange incident of the piercing of Christ’s heart. John has obviously pondered this event long, seeing in it the whole climax of the Passion. “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water” (Jn 19:34). John would have called to mind the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a stream of water flowing from the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. The stream becomes a river going right down to the Dead Sea which now teems with life.

Christ had previously referred to his own Body as the new Temple (cf. Jn 2:19), and from the side of this new Temple there flows another river, not just of water, but of water and blood, flowing out into the entire cosmos.

Many of the great saints speak of Christ’s bride, the Church, being born from his wounded side. “It was from his side that Christ formed the Church, as from the side of Adam, he formed Eve. As God took a rib from Adam’s side and formed woman, so Christ gave us blood and water from his side and formed the Church” (St John Chrysostom).

St Bonaventure, considered the second founder of the Franciscans, adds: “Flowing from the secret abyss of our Lord’s heart as from a fountain, this stream gave the sacraments of the Church the power to confer the life of grace, while for those already living in Christ, it became a spring of living water welling up to life everlasting. Press your lips to this fountain.” When we kiss the crucifix, we should perhaps be kissing the wound in Jesus’ side rather than his feet, for from that wound we were born.

St Catherine of Siena, so deeply in love with the wounded Christ that she bore the wounds of the passion, asked our Lord why he allowed his heart to be pierced after he died. Surely his death was proof enough of his love? She said he answered that his death was once and for all, that suffering lasts only for a while. “I wanted you to see the secret of my heart, showing it to you opened so that you could see that I loved you more than I could manifest to you by finite suffering” (Dialogue, 75).

God closed Adam’s side after having taken Eve from it. But Christ’s side is always open so that we can enter there anytime we like and unite ourselves to the divinity. It illustrates Jesus’ saying that on the cross he would draw all to himself (cf. Jn 12:32).

Jesus still wishes to draw all to himself. It is so easy to be discouraged in today’s Church when we see a whole generation turn down the invitation. But the invitation remains. “Come to the water.” Come to the water which flows from Christ’s heart and drink deeply, and having drunk, go tell others.

MGR GRAHAM SCHMITZER

 

Sr Susanna Edmunds OP grew up participating in Holy Mass and youth groups in the Diocese of Broken Bay where she received a love for Sacred Scripture and evangelisation. While studying engineering at the University of Sydney, she discovered the beauty of Eucharistic Adoration, regular Confession and faith-filled friendships through the Catholic student society and chaplaincy. World Youth Day 2008 brought Pope Benedict XVI and several hundred thousand pilgrims to Sydney’s shores, along with many religious congregations. Supported by friends and family, Sr Susanna discerned an invitation from the Lord to belong to him with an undivided heart. She joined the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in 2010, moving to Nashville TN, USA, where the community’s motherhouse is located. After completing further studies in philosophy, theology and secondary education, Sr Susanna began teaching in 2015. She made her final profession as a religious in 2017, and since 2018 has been teaching high school religion at Trinity Catholic College in Auburn, NSW. The sisters teach at four schools across Sydney and Melbourne, as well as assisting with young adult catechesis, women’s retreats and vocation discernment.

Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.

 

With thanks to the Diocese of Wollongong who have supplied these weekly Lenten 2021 reflections from their publication, Comfort – Lenten Program 2021.

 

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