Sunday, April 24, 2016: Palm Sunday, Elizabeth the Wonderworker, Savvas the General of Rome
Suffering often invokes in us a sense of failure. Whatever form it takes, the sense of personal failure seems intrinsic to suffering. Especially when the pain is intense, I say to myself that this bad thing has happened because I am a bad person. It doesn’t end here, however.
This internal dialog is complemented, if you will, by what I hear around me. I might think that my suffering is my fault. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2, NKJV)
And yet, the events of Holy Week run exactly contrary to the association we make between suffering and personal failure. The “chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death” not because of any offense he committed but because of the grace he had received and “because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus.” Lazarus, in the view of some, must suffer and die because in restoring him to life, Jesus ” confirm[ed] the universal Resurrection” (Troparion, Lazarus Saturday).
We see this in more clearly in the Person of Jesus Christ. His suffering and death, though it makes Him a failure in the eyes of the world. The reality, however, is quite different. “Like the children with the palms of victory, we cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death; Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Troparion, Lazarus Saturday)
Yes, there are times when our suffering is the result of our own failure. At other times, though, we suffer not because we have failed but because we have succeeded. As disciples of Christ living as we do in a fallen world, we must expect that there will be times when suffering comes to us because we are faithful; the Cross will at times come to us because we are successful.
There are times when as Christians we will suffer because, like Lazarus, we have been blessed by God.
There are times when, like Jesus, we will suffer because we have been faithful and obedient to the will of God for our lives.
There are times when we will suffer because, in us, death has been vanquished and the resurrection of all has been confirmed.
Sometimes, in other words, we suffer because we have succeeded.
Ironically, it is in these moments that I am also most tempted. In the midst of my suffering, I likely find little comfort in Jesus’ response to the disciples, that the man was born blind not for his sin or that of “his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:2-, NKJV). At this moment, I might, like Judas, turn away from Jesus seeking to conceal my infidelity behind noble, but nevertheless false, motives. “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.”
The hymnography of the Church suggests that Judas’ betrayal is motivated by “avarice,” his love of money.
When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, then the impious Judas was darkened, ailing with avarice and to the lawless judges he betrays You, the righteous Judge. Behold, O lover of money, this man who because of money hanged himself. Flee from the greedy soul which dared such things against the Master. O Lord, who is good towards all men, glory to You! (Troparion, Great and Holy Wednesday)
I need to be careful here.
Looking into my own heart, I might think that because avarice is absent, because I’m not greedy for money, that my heart isn’t also darkened. Yes, the love of money is always a problem but it isn’t the only reason the human heart will turn away from God. There are other, equally deadly, sins that can cause me to turn away from God. Remember what we hear later this week at Matins:
Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, and again unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You, O our God! Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!
To avoid becoming another Judas, we must be watchful, we must know ourselves. And to self-knowledge, we must add ascetical self-discipline so that our thoughts and actions reflect the great dignity of our calling.
Above all, though, to self-knowledge and ascetical struggle, we must offer our praise to God. We must join the angels and offer to God the hymns of thanksgiving.
“Rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You, O our God!”
This is why the Church prefaces the Gospel account of the events surrounding Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem these words from the Holy Apostle Paul:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!”
It isn’t simply that Judas loved money, he lacked joy. IAs for the children of Jerusalem, they betrayed Jesus, because their praise of God was motivated by anxiety rather than “prayer and supplication.” Their words lacked joy and so they didn’t greet Jesus “with thanksgiving” but resentment of their oppressors.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we begin now our final journey with Christ our true God to His glorious resurrection, let us take to heart not only the failures of Judas and the children of Jerusalem but also be mindful of our own tendencies to turn away from our Savior. Whether we suffer because of our own sinfulness or the envy of the Enemy, whether we suffer because of our own failure or because of our fidelity to Christ, let us take to heart Paul’s counsel to the Church at Philippi:
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.
Let us, in other words, never tire or falter in our praise of God and in giving thanks to Him for whatever grace He has given us and those around us.