March 18, Fifth Sunday in Lent:
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
This is a different approach to Christ’s passion than in the other, synoptic Gospels. There, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus prays something similar to this…but the core question is different.
On the night of his arrest, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus, alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, in great distress, praying “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” (Matthew 26:39). It’s a real plea. It’s only in John—where Jesus is revealed at the beginning to be the Divine Logos—the Word of God—where this question is rhetorical.
Should I say, “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this that I have come.
But if one of the primary lessons Jesus is trying to teach us, as I pointed out last week, is how to be human (so that we can reveal the divine within), then this has to be a real question, I think. Do I really have to go through with this?…Are you sure?… It’s a very human appeal that is encoded into one of our most beloved prayers.
We use the contemporary language version of the Lord’s Prayer here most Sundays. It’s the version that was developed in the wake of Vatican II in the 60s and was revised again in the 80s [Praying Together,
English Language Liturgical Consultation Copyright © 1988]. There’s a line in it that used to be, “Lead us not into temptation,” but now goes, “Save us …. from…the time of trial.”
There are many very excellent linguistic and theological reasons for this change, but there are two aspects that are relevant today.
1. We need to be clear—no matter which version we are using—that when we come to this line, we’re not proclaiming that God intentionally leads us into any kind of temptation, or sets up tests for us to undergo. God is not some kind of mad scientist concocting various bizarre mazes for us rats to run just to see what will happen.
2. Trials and tests and challenges are inevitable in life…heartbreak and failure just come with the package.
In praying to be saved from the time of trial we’re not asking to be given a pass. “God, can you just write us a note, so we don’t have to do this?” No. We’re praying that when the storms come…and they will…that no matter what God will be with us and will save us…just as God saves Jesus (God’s own self). So in all of the other Gospels, when Jesus comes to this point—this very human point of, “really? Are you sure?” And asks, “if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me,” he always follows it with what? “But not my will, but yours”…or “not what I want but what you want.” Of course we also say this in that prayer we pray every week. In fact it comes right at the beginning….”Your kingdom come, your will be done—not ours—Gods.” And as Jesus points out today…we still have to go through it…the seed still has to die—in order to bear fruit. The trial will come. We will have to relinquish our control…empty ourselves…turn it all over to God. I think it’s a nod to the reality that in our path back to God—our path to becoming human our hearts will be broken.
Author and teacher, Parker Palmer, writes: “There is no way to be human without having one’s heart broken.” [The Broken-Open Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap, by Parker J. Palmer]
In learning to become human, our hearts—our seed—our deepest self will be broken. But Palmer points out, that there are at least two different ways for this heart-core to break.
The first is that it can be broken so that it shatters into a thousand shards, what he calls, “sharp-edged fragments that become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain.” This kind of broken heart is an unresolved wound…that “we carry it with us…feeding it […], sometimes trying to ‘resolve it’ by inflicting the same wound on others.”
The other way of having a heart broken is this. Palmer, says, “Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.”
This is when heartbreak becomes a source of compassion…when our capacity for empathy is enlarged.
And it’s also biblical. There is a beautiful midrash—rabbinic interpretation—of the portion of Jeremiah we read today, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The interpretation goes like this: “A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
Parker Palmer, concludes: “In Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistinguishable from the image of the cross. It [is] on the cross that God’s heart [is] broken for the sake of humankind, broken open into a love that [we, as] Christ’s followers are called to emulate. […] The cross-beams stretch out four ways, pulling against each other left and right, up and down. But those arms converge in a center, a heart, that can be pulled open by that stretching, by the tensions of life—a heart that can be opened so fully it can hold everything from despair to ecstasy. And that, of course, is how Jesus held his excruciating experience, as an opening into the heart of God.”
What should I say? Father, save me from this hour? No it is for this that I have come…I have come to show you how to have your heart broken open so that the Word falls in, so that you can expand your capacity to hold everything…
We’re about to enter Holy Week. And the liturgies from Palm Sunday to Easter morning—and especially the liturgy of the Triduum (Maundy Thusday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil) have evolved over centuries to give us some experience of this…to help guide us through this time of trial…to give us some practice having our hearts cracked open and expanded. If you’ve never experienced the whole thing, I encourage you to set aside the time to do so. It can be a deeply transformative experience. If you regularly participate in the Triduum liturgies, you’ll know that each year is a little different. This year Chris and Jessica and I have planned services that emphasize these themes of sacrifice and expansiveness—of emptying, giving over—and the slow but persistent growth that emerges from going through…and turning ourselves over to God, so that God’s will be done.
Father, what should we say, save us from this? No, it is for this that we have come. To know you, and to know the fullness of life, the fullness of your love, the fullness of our humanity…to hold with you in our broken-open, God-centered hearts all that you love.