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Fifth Sunday of Lent

April 2, 2006

Blessed Sunday!

Our Lenten season has undergone yet another shift. Today we enter the part of Lent known as Passiontide, a time of mourning as we enter more deeply into Jesus’ sacrifice. Not all churches do this anymore, but this is the time when statues and crosses are covered with violet cloth. There are varying explanations of this. _The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home_ observes that the veiling of sacred objects has a general precedent in the Old Testament use of the temple veil (Hebrews 9:3, among others), which kept the Holy of Holies from common view. In Christian churches, veiling was an outgrowth of the time when people did public penance for serious sins, such as adultery, murder or denying Christ. Initially, penitents were excluded from the church during Lent. Later they were allowed to come to church, but a veil was drawn across the front of the church during Lent to indicate symbolically that sinners deserve exclusion from the church. Eventually, the veiling was confined to images and limited to Passiontide.

Another explanation, taken from the entry for “Passiontide” from _The Catholic Encyclopedia_, 1909 edition, is that “the crosses are veiled because Christ during this time no longer walked openly among the people, but hid himself. Hence in the papal chapel the veiling formerly took place at the words of the Gospel: ‘Jesus autem abscondebat se’ [Jesus hid Himself, John 12:36]. Another reason is added by Durandus [a liturgical writer from the 1200’s], namely that Christ’s divinity was hidden when He arrived at the time of His suffering and death. The images of the saints also are covered because it would seem improper for the servants to appear when the Master himself is hidden.”

Not having that much violet cloth, I only cover a couple of crosses. I take down the rest of my pictures (only religious pictures are up by now anyway) and figurines.

Part of the purpose of Lent, especially these last two weeks (Passiontide), is to enter into the mystery of our salvation. Before Christ died for us, a veil separated us from God (see Hebrews 10:20). The veiling of crosses and religious pictures allows us to enter into what it was like before Christ came, what it was like to be separated from God. This sense of separation heightens our sense of being brought back to God, of being brought into intimacy with Him, when the veils are removed. After we commemorate Jesus’ death on Good Friday, in a sense, we re-enact the tearing of the Temple veil that revealed the Holy of Holies (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45) by unveiling the crucifixes. When we come to celebrate the resurrection, the other images will be uncovered as we rejoice, in communion with the saints, over the victory Christ won for us.

Readings:
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (God predicts a new covenant)
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-15 “Create a clean heart in me, O God”
Hebrews 5:7-9 (Jesus learned obedience from what He suffered)
+John 12:20-33 (Jesus predicts His death and urges us to follow Him)

“Son though He was, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8)

We too, can expect to suffer.

When God made His first covenant with His people, they received it as something imposed from the outside. They knew that if they broke the covenant there would be consequences, but they took their chances anyway. They kept “pushing the envelope” to see just how much they could get away with before disaster struck. Yes, they had agreed to this, but it really wasn’t their idea. It was better than nothing (usually), but God had more for us, much more. He didn’t just want to be our Master (see Jeremiah 31:32-33). He wanted to share His Heart with us, so that our hearts would beat as one with His. He wanted us to freely enter into an intimate union of love with Him. But that meant that we’d have to open our hearts to Him, and to acknowledge that He always knows better than we do. We’d have to obey Him absolutely–not out of external obligation, but out of heart-felt reverential devotion, out of our love for Him and our trust in His Love for us.

Human fear and human pride don’t lightly surrender to that. When God writes His Law upon our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:33), it’s going to hurt. Our hearts are going to bleed. We’re going to suffer, with loud cries and tears, just as Jesus did when He learned obedience (Hebrews 5:7-8). This is what it takes to enter into His New Covenant. This is what it takes to replace stony hearts with hearts of flesh (see Ezekiel 11:19 & 36:26). The grain of wheat has to fall to the ground and die before new life can rise and bear fruit (John 12:24). The man who loves his life–who is too attached to his own comfort to accept suffering–loses it (see John 12:25). The path to Heaven is no place for cowards!

Jesus led the way. “If anyone would serve Me, let him follow Me; where I am, there will My servant be” (John 12:26). We follow Him to the cross, not just to stand at His feet, but to be nailed to the cross in union with Him. He shed the blood of the New Covenant, but when we enter into that Covenant, our own blood is mingled with His. We die with Him in Baptism (see Romans 6:3). And this isn’t just a one-time thing. Jesus tells us that if we’re going to follow Him, we have to take up our cross every day (Luke 9:23). As long as our physical bodies remain alive, our sinful natures don’t stay dead. Our stony, rebellious hearts keep getting up, taking the reins & running away with us. That’s why St. Paul had to warn the Romans to “not let sin rule over [their] mortal bodies” (Romans 6:12) after he’d told them they were already dead to sin! We have to keep crucifying the rebellion in our hearts, letting God write His law of love over it.

That’s what the fasting, prayer and almsgiving of Lent are for. That’s why we accept the humiliation of the Sacrament of Confession. We keep sending our little grains of wheat to the ground, where they die and rise in new, supernatural life which becomes stronger and more vigorous, bearing more and more fruit. As we accept this healing suffering (and any other suffering which God allows for our salvation), our hearts steadily become less stony; they become more like the Heart of God.

In our own strength, we cannot bear the depth of this suffering. The children of Israel tried and failed time after time. We need a Champion, One who will teach us, by word and example, how to bear this burden of suffering, who will give us the strength we need and who will take most of the weight upon Himself. This is what Jesus did for us. God did not ask us to do anything He was unwilling to go through Himself. He endured infinitely more than we ever will, even though He didn’t deserve a bit of it, just because He loves us so much. That’s what love does. And God is Love (I John 4:16).

May we draw on the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude (see Isaiah 11:2), given to us in Baptism and increased and deepened in our Confirmation, as we daily take up the cross God has chosen for us and follow Him home.

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