The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Just after Pope Benedict XVI’s election he appointed several new cardinals to assist him in his task of shepherding the Universal Church. After the new cardinals had received their scarlet birettas Pope Benedict encouraged them by saying: “May the scarlet that you now wear always inspire you to a passionate love for Christ, for His Church and for all humanity.” The colour red represents the suffering demanded by great love. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and the clergy will wear red vestments. They represent the blood which Christ poured out for our salvation.

Our annual commemoration of the Lord’s Passion really begins today as we cover our statues and other religious images in purple veils and concentrate our attention only on the Cross of Christ. These final two weeks of Lent are known as Passiontide. And the Preface for the Mass today contains a sentence which provides a good lead-in to today’s readings: “The power of the Cross reveals your judgment on the world.” Now, what precisely is God’s judgment on our world and how does the Cross reveal it?

Well, if we take a closer look at the readings for today’s Mass, we can see that the Cross shows sin for what it is. Our Lord freely accepted the tortures of crucifixion in order to save the world from sin. Considering all he would endure, he said “I am troubled now.” How could he not be troubled since he had the same human flesh as you and I? He fully understood what it meant to be struck by a Roman whip; to have skin torn away; to experience increasing thirst as blood flowed from his body. The Letter to the Hebrews says that, even though he is God, Jesus called out to the Father with “loud cries and tears.” Our Lord endured terrible anguish and pain, but at the same time he saw clearly the purpose of it all: to save us from our sins – to save us from ourselves. His Cross judges us because it reveals the true horror of sin.

Sin often hides behind a smoke screen. Destroying children in the womb is called ‘reproductive freedom’. Numbing ones senses with alcohol and drugs is called ‘having a good time’. And even if a person feels a slight twinge of guilt, he can take comfort from the overall decadence of society, and say along with many other people: “Sure, I’ve got my problems, but look at what other people do.”

Instead of comparing ourselves with others, I would ask you to consider this: when the Romans crucified a man, the cross wasn’t normally high in the air; it was at ground level. Now, imagine that you had just done something that didn’t seem “as bad as what other people do.” You step around a corner and find yourself face to face with Jesus nailed to the Cross, his trembling body dripping sweat and blood and gasping for the next painful breath. You are not looking up to him, but directly into his eyes. What would you say to him? Any rationalization of your sin would sound as hollow as an echo chamber. Your words – your excuses – would bounce back to you. In this way the Cross judges your sin – and indeed mine.

Now, if that were the only thing the Cross did, one might simply despair. But the Cross also judges us in a more profound sense. It not only reveals the ugliness of sin, but what Jeremiah prophesied in the first reading today.

Jeremiah speaks about a day when God will make a new covenant with his people. The law that God once wrote on stone tablets, he will now write on each person’s heart. We will see sin for what it is, but we shall also see something else: we shall see mercy. “All from the least to the greatest shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”

The Cross judges mankind because it reveals the depths of God’s mercy. One of the most meaningful modern devotions is the Divine Mercy Novena. It begins on Good Friday and continues through the Sunday after Easter. Saint John Paul II did much to popularize this devotion.

When Pope John Paul canonized Sister Faustina in the Jubilee Year of 2000, he also, on the same day, established the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. We are still three weeks from Divine Mercy Sunday, but it’s important that we keep it in view today as we enter Passiontide.

In the last book Pope John Paul II wrote before he died he said: “the limit God imposes upon evil is ultimately Divine Mercy” (Memory and Identity, pp. 60- 61). And reflecting on the assassination attempt upon himself, the pope said: “In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love. It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good.” (pp. 189-190)

Like a gorgeous rose which grows on a stinking, rotting compost heap, God wants to bring forth good, even out of human evil. As we enter the season of Passiontide we hear once again Our Lord’s words: “Now is the time of judgment on this world.” That judgment – the judgement of the Cross – reveals how terrible sin is, but how much greater is Divine Mercy.


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