"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

PALM /PASSION SUNDAY -C- April 14, 2019

LUKE 19: 28-40 (Procession with Palms)

Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2: 6-11; Luke 22:14 -23:56

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

What does a "face like flint" look like? That’s the description of the servant Isaiah describes in our first reading. The prophet is speaking to people in Babylonian exile and promises a time when God will put an end to their suffering and humiliation. This is the third of four "Servant Songs" in which Isaiah describes the person who will be God’s instrument for deliverance. So, we hear the servant say today, "I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame."

I have seen that flinty face in athletes. It is the determined and set features of the marathon runner in the midst of a long race. A fourteen year old gymnast shows her flinty face as she stares up at the high bar before she launches into her medal-contending program. Isaiah tells us that this is the expression on the face of the prophet God has chosen for a very difficult mission. This is one who has... "a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them."

The servant’s charge is to speak to his people in slavery who are weary of hearing promises of a deliverance that never seems to materialize. They are wearing out in exile, even hesitant to put trust in the good news the prophet has for them. The servant’s message is not received; he is not only suffering physical pain ("I gave my back to those who beat me...."), but ridicule and ostracization as well. Though the servant has been humiliated in God’s service, he trusts God will vindicate him. While there is nothing but rejection for him, he relies on God for the strength to keep going day after day; for he will not give up his mission.

Haven’t we seen the flinty face of God’s servants in our own time? We have sat by the bedsides of dying family members and friends who were determined in their suffering to set good example for their grieving children and loved ones – some who might not share their faith. We have prayed with them and, by their courageous and faithful example, have been strengthened ourselves to trust in God, even in dire circumstances. We saw the "face set like flint" of St. Oscar Romero who continued to preach, even after he received death threats. The life he gave for his people strengthened the resolve both of his coworkers and a whole nation of suffering ones in exile in their own land. Remember Nelson Mandela’s face as he walked out of prison after so many years doing hard time? His was the face of long-suffering and flint. He set his face not to revenge, but to seeing justice done for those who had been wronged. Did you ever see the photograph of Dorothy Day as she sat on a little chair at a protest for the poor somewhere? A seeming-frail old woman, flanked by two beefy police officers. There she was, with that determined, set jaw and steadfast look. "I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame."

A "flinty face" doesn’t just mean gritting your teeth to get through a difficult period; bearing the discomfit and pain until its over. It isn’t just bracing oneself and resisting an intolerable or unjust situation. We will see a flinty face in Jesus this week as he faces the obstinate forces of resistance and evil that will put him to death. We will see, through the passion narratives, the cost he will pay as he follows through on his words and acts. Like Isaiah’s servant, Jesus too has set his face like flint. He has worn this expression for some time now. For example, we can look back to what Matthew said of him earlier in his gospel, "From that time on Jesus began to say plainly to his disciples, ‘I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much..."’ (16:21). That is where we find him in today’s gospel, entering Jerusalem, determined to fulfill his Father’s will. God’s faithful servant has set his face "like flint."

Jesus is the servant who, like Isaiah, speaks to a people enslaved. Their exile is that of sin and Jesus, a "well-trained tongue," reaches out to them, but they would rather stay imprisoned in their own notions of God and holiness and of what’s right and wrong. They are trapped in their own self-righteousness. But despite the hostility he meets, Jesus stays the course, remains faithful to his calling to "speak to the weary a word that will rouse them."

As we watch the events unfold this week, we bring our less-than flinty face, less-than committed selves. We have not always been willing to stand up for what we believe; but have preferred to be accepted by those around us. We confess that we have been: pliable when we should have stood firm; tepid when the gospel called us to commitment and sacrifice. We would rather not hear all Jesus says about denying self and taking up the cross in his name. Because Jesus did turn his face like flint to do what needed to be done for us, we find relief this week. These special days offer us an chance to hear afresh our calling to join Jesus on his path to new life. As these days come to a close and we hear again the good news of his resurrection, we will be filled with hope and together renew our baptismal promises at the Vigil service.

What sustains and renews Isaiah’s Servant? It is his openness to God’s Word and his experience that, "Morning after morning God opens my ears." The servant’s strong sense of commitment to the task God has given comes from the interior strength God renews in him each day. He discovers for himself and proclaims to others the God who is always willing to speak again and always willing to forgive. And that is the God we meet this week as we are present to Jesus’s living out of his role as God’s servant.

Because of Jesus’ fidelity we can live faithful lives of service: we can continue to minister even after the initial glow is gone; we are not dissuaded, even when the institutional church lets us down; we are willing to face challenges in a new setting, even though we faced the same ones so many times before. A well-trained tongue is given us again this week, to "speak to the weary": those weary from constant family strife, poverty, homelessness, low-paying jobs, violence, war, fear and the ongoing illness, or slow dying of a loved one. We can also speak on behalf of the weary in settings where they may not be listened to, or where their weariness is ignored.

Jesus enters the holy city this week. The people who welcomed him wanted to see his glory. They would be disappointed, because it would come to them in a way they would not recognize – in obedience and service to God. While they didn’t see his glory, we do. God has chosen to take on our pain as a human, chosen to walk our path. By our presence at these liturgies this week we enter into a special union with Christ. Because Jesus was willing to enter into his suffering, that means every place innocence suffers is holy ground. This week reminds us that we will discover holy ground whenever and wherever we are willing to become personally engaged in the pain and struggle of others. In addition, we learn from Christ that suffering on behalf of another or standing with those suffering, can bring healing.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/041419.cfm