We have entered the fifth week of Lent—in the older calendar, “Passion Sunday.” According to a more ancient tradition, the four-week season of Lent ends as the two-week season of Passiontide begins today. But even in the newer form of the Mass, from today the readings focus on Our Lord’s approaching suffering and death rather than the Lenten themes of sin and conversion. Both forms also use the Passiontide Preface (or, the Preface of the Holy Cross), rather than a Lenten Preface, in these last two weeks. The Crucifix may be covered from today until Good Friday, and statues until the Easter Vigil. Today is also known as “Judica” Sunday, because the introit or entrance verse comes from Psalm 42, the same verse used for the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. “Judica me Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta.” Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against a godless people. These words stay on Our Savior’s lips throughout his Sacred Passion. Tu Deus fortitudo mea, “you O God are my strength”—Jesus clings to this psalm as he endures the outrages of wicked men.
Finally, until the 1940s a second collect prayer for the Pope was said on Passion Sunday. Since the third century, the Bishop of Rome would offer a Mass at each of the 50 or so “station churches” in Rome, to show his paternal solicitude for the various parishes of his Diocese. Over the centuries, the tradition of offering Mass in one of these ancient parishes on each of the 46 days of Lent developed. The station church visited on this day, Passion Sunday, is San Pietro in Vaticano, St. Peter’s Basilica, the home of the Popes since 1377. It is our joy to pray for the Pope today, on the day of his Station Church, especially as our new Pontiff prepares to take formal possession of his office at his Installation Mass on Tuesday.
Our Gospel is taken from St. John Chapter 8, which begins with the women taken in adultery, which is the Gospel for the Ordinary Form today. Jesus pardons the woman, who would have been stoned to death by Jewish law, but he also tells her to sin no more. This act of forgiving sin, which we Catholics take for granted every time we enter a confessional, seemed to blast a big hole right through the Old Covenant, although in reality Jesus was fulfilling rather than detracting from the Mosaic Law. It drove the Pharisees and legal scholars to fury against Jesus. They accuse him of everything under the sun: You are a Samaritan (that is, a heretic). You are insane. You are possessed. Jesus patiently, but firmly, corrects their absurd charges, but finally speaks the one word that is sure to get him killed, the unspeakable tetragrammaton: I AM. It is the Name that Moses heard on Mount Sinai, the name Yahweh. “Before Abraham came to be, I AM.” So Jesus declares his eternity and his divinity. He leaves no room for equivocation: either he is a madman, claiming to be divine, or he is all that he says he is: the eternal consubstantial Son of God. Immediately the Jews picked up stones to kill him.
Jesus is obliged to hide: Jesus abscondit se. Consider the indignity of having to run and hide. The Lord of Lords and King of Kings, having pronounced his divine Name, must dodge his enemies and hide behind a tree or down some dark alley. He doesn’t have to hide himself, of course, but his hour has not yet come. In obedience to his Father’s plan, then, he does what puny human beings often have to do: he runs and hides. He hides the way Adam hid behind a tree after he had sinned. The Christ did not sin, but he knows the shame we all feel when we must hide ourselves. Our frail humanity must often hide or flee certain evils we cannot prevent. Inevitable human misunderstandings, awkwardness in certain social situations, and the consequences of our own miserable sins all require us to flee and to hide. Every morning when we put on clothing, we are hiding our bodies from shame and embarrassment. When we enter the confessional we hide our sins from others (and sometimes even from the priest, depending on how we make our confession!).
We long to be free of shame; we yearn for a day when we will no longer have to run and hide. But that day is not yet here. For now, we must endure our shame, and we enter into Our Savior’s humiliation before men. His shame, freely chosen, will heal our shame. Through his stripes, in his blood, we are healed. We enter into this time of Passiontide, heedless of the shame, with Christ our Lord.