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Breath of the Spirit: Listening to Love

It is easy to get lost in the details (and the length) of the Passion stories! Our minds can wander as we wonder what really happened. Today’s reflection reminds us to focus on the meaning of the Passion stories – not only as what Jesus did for us, but as what Love asks us to do for one another.

March 24, 2024: Passion (Palm) Sunday, Year B

Mark 11:1-10 (as the beginning of the liturgy)

Isaiah 50: 4-7

Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24

Philippians 2: 6-11

Mark 14:1-15:47 or 15:1-39

Listening to Love

A reflection by Richard Young

This year on Passion (Palm) Sunday, we hear Mark’s account of the crucifixion. Last year, we got Matthew’s version, and next year, that story will come from Luke. They are not the same, of course. They are all similar in many ways and different in many other. One evangelist might emphasize a certain point, while another might ignore that same point entirely or even contradict it. For example, Matthew and Mark barely mention the two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus, while Luke highlights one of them that we commonly call “the good thief.” And John’s passion account, which is proclaimed on Good Friday, says nothing about anyone crucified along with Jesus. It’s impossible to know the details of what really happened. Afterall, the gospels were written generations after Jesus’ death. In that time, huge amounts of imagination and embellishment must have been employed by those passing on the stories.

When I preach, I often remind my listeners that the gospel writers were not recording historical facts as much as they were writing theology. Who cares about the details? So what, if the authors saw things differently or had different agendas? What is essential is what satisfies the soul. One of my colleagues, when referring to biblical stories, is fond of saying, “It’s all true, and some of it actually happened.” In the story of Jesus’ final days, it was more important to inspire than to be accurate. We listen to the readings not with an eye to accuracy but with the hope of finding meaning that feeds our faith.

It is in that spirit that our Philippians reading, which we hear every year on Palm Sunday, is especially powerful. The letter was written about a decade before the earliest gospel (Mark’s), and today’s passage is thought to be the words of an ancient hymn that celebrated Jesus’ humility. One might say that the hymn’s singers disregarded all the questionable details of the crucifixion, the various stories that were being passed around and not yet written down. They ignored all that and simply proclaimed the essence of the tale: that Jesus “emptied himself” or “became completely empty” or “made himself nothing” or “made himself of no reputation” as the phrase is rendered in various translations. He took on “the form of a slave,” a servant. He did not “cling to his equality with God,” but “he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross.” The hymn tells us that “God highly exalted him” because Jesus was willing to let go, to be emptied of glory. It brings to mind a teaching by the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Philippians were celebrating the one who heroically lived the truth of that teaching, the one who gave his life in humble service.

I’m suggesting that, although the passion account is deeply moving, the real scriptural gem for this Sunday, for many of us, just might be our Philippians reading. It goes beyond the questions of what “really” happened on Calvary and focuses on the spiritual meaning of the event. It condenses the central message of loving service in the life and death of the greatest of martyrs.

Martyrs are still being made. People who live Jesus’ values continue to be perceived as a threat. The ancient Empire of Rome produced many martyrs. And modern systems do so as well. The empire of capitalism or consumerism or the empire of patriarchy or heterosexism or any of a number of empires that seek to exalt themselves at the expense of poor and minoritized populations – all of them sacrifice their subjects so that they can stay in power. But the people of Philippi knew the glory of self-emptying, and they sang about it! They also rejoiced in the divine exultation that awaited them, because that was the inheritance of Jesus.

On February 12, the people of my own local church, Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community, remembered the martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang. She was killed on that date in 2005. Sister Dorothy was a native of Dayton, and she was a dedicated missionary in Brazil with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. One of the eucharistic prayers we use at LBC mentions her “reading Scripture into the barrel of a gun.” When her hired murders caught up with her, she took out her Bible and started reading to them from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are the merciful... Blessed are the peacemakers... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...” She was calling the gunmen to allegiance to something beyond empire: the Reign of God. She was inviting them to join her in the freedom of self-emptying, in unselfish love for the exploited. She had sided with the poor farmers of the Amazon, and the wealthy landowners found that to be too much of a threat, so they chose to eliminate her. (For more details about her life and martyrdom, see this article or these meditations!)

Sister Dorothy was said to have lived in poverty to be at one with the poor. That’s self-emptying. Like all of us, she had the honored status of a child of God. But like Jesus, she did not “cling” to that glory. She let go of it. She “took the form of a servant” – as the Philippians hymn said of Jesus. The message of our long gospel reading for Passion Sunday can be summed up in that. Martyrs know the power of humility.

The words “human” and “humility” are both related to the word “humus,” which means earth or dirt. To be fully human is to be “down to earth,” to be in the everyday grind of life with all the rest of us, and that is also the meaning of humility. There is a real-ness to the humble. They don’t try to be more than human (exalted and “above it all”) or less than human (a denial of their Godly image); they are simply, yet inspiringly, human. The Philippians hymn unambiguously affirms the simple humanity of Jesus. It is in his acceptance of that status that the passion story hits us so hard and moves us so deeply. Listen to that long gospel this Sunday with that in mind.

Our Philippians reading begins with, “Your attitude must be Christ’s.” That attitude is one that moves us to self-emptying, to a heroic love that can read the Beatitudes in places of hatred and violence, that can recognize our shared humanity with the poor and the oppressed, with victims of intolerance and discrimination. It is an attitude that knows the Good News is for everyone, even those who behave as our enemies. That was Christ’s attitude as he accepted his death. May it be ours as well.

Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He chairs the Liturgy Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity Chapters since the late 70s. He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981.

He is married to former DignityUSA national secretary, Bob Butts. Richard was honored with a President’s Award at the 2022 Dignity National Conference in San Diego.