WRAPPED IN A PURPLE VEIL
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON March 21st, 2010
Luke 20: 17 “The very stone, which the builders rejected, has become
the head of the corner.”
The first time I came across a church with Passiontide Veils was in my teenage days – and I had a strange feeling. To this teenager it seemed ghostly, eerie, and somewhat sad. That was the desired effect of course – that one should enter and feel an overwhelming sadness at the difference in the church.
It was strange to me, and something I had never associated with church before. I had thought of Lent as a season to prepare for Easter. I wasn’t expecting on that day to be confronted with the Passion and death of Christ in such a dramatic way. I knew Jesus died for me – but the gory details of His Passion were unknown to me. The most of death I had seen was a John Wayne war movie!
Things are different now. Our children see suffering and death all the time on television and in video games. They see human disaster on a large scale, from Haiti to Afghanistan. So they are familiar with death, perhaps, more than my generation was. But as Mel Gibson’s controversial movie a few years ago showed, the Passion of the Christ can still be too much to bear.
So in our church we veil our crosses, statues, and pictures in a corporate act of sadness as a family. But they are veils which do not last. They will come off in two weeks – when we celebrate, yet again, the glorious feast of Easter in all its joy and glory.
For those who follow Christ, our own sorrows (whatever they are) should always be turned into joy. It’s not easy. But Jesus promised, “In the world you would have tribulation, but be of good cheer I have overcome the world.” “Be of good cheer,” He said – this man who would suffer both pain and betrayal. He would ultimately utter those chilling words from Psalm 22, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” We may not have ever felt forsaken by God, but we cannot always be of good cheer, can we? Sometimes we would like to hide ourselves in a purple veil and retreat, perhaps?
Today’s Gospel (Luke 20:9-19) is an appropriate Gospel for the beginning of Passiontide today. The parable of the vineyard and its wicked tenants is an obvious image of the Passion of Christ. But it begs the question: Is this really the parable that Jesus told? For it seems too neat and too obvious. The vineyard is Israel, the owner is God, the tenants are the Jewish authorities (the Pharisees), the servants are the prophets of the Old Testament sent to Israel, the beloved son, of course, is Jesus, and his murder is the crucifixion. Even the line in the parable, “they cast him out of the vineyard,” suggests Calvary, which was just outside the city gate of Jerusalem.
Can we really be sure about this neat and tidy parable? Would Jesus, when He told this parable, have been so certain about His Passion and the circumstances of His death, that He could so literally prophesy all its details? Consider all the parables given to us by Jesus in the New Testament. They were simple allegorical stories, designed to convey the truth of the gospel or the Kingdom in terms that those who heard could understand – like the woman searching for the coin, or the lost sheep. In this parable we have a different image, and Luke presents something more specific and stark.
It is conceivable that only the beginning of the parable – verses 9-13 – is the parable that Jesus told. So that it is just the story of the sending of the Son of God to Israel, the vineyard of the Lord. That would be a very simple and good parable. Saint Luke, of course, knew the end result of the sending of the Son of God. It was His Passion and death. As we also know. So maybe Saint Luke did add his own addition to this parable to make it a parable of the Passion and death of Christ. That would not be a betrayal of the Gospel. Nor does it subtract from the Bible as the word of God. Preachers do that all the time. We take the gospel story and add to it to emphasize its meaning and its purpose.
The details make this parable a real part of the Passion story. However, the real sobering part of Luke 20:9-19 is not this foretelling of our Lord’s Passion and death, but what we find in verse 17: “The very stone, which the builders rejected has became the head of the corner.” Here Saint Luke has Jesus quoting Psalm 118:22. In doing so He gives the obvious meaning to the parable: Jesus Himself will be rejected by them, but He will prove victorious and become the foundation stone. In this case, the quote from Psalm 118 gives meaning to the parable. In quoting this psalm, did Jesus already know that Judas would betray Him? Did He already know that Peter would deny Him? We do, of course. But we cannot tell how aware Jesus was at this point in time of what would happen. Indeed – the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter would surely have been too much for Jesus to bear.
What we do know is this: That Psalm 118 occurs again at the end of Lent, in the Liturgy of Easter. On Holy Saturday night at the great Easter Vigil, it is a stirring moment when the whole congregation rises to respond to the celebrant singing this Psalm with that wonderful response of Alleluia! Psalm 118:22-24 is the great Easter Psalm, and is sung on Easter day, and at every Mass during the whole of Easter week. Day after day we say, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day, which the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” Stirring words to convey the joy and triumph of the resurrection. But that is yet to come.
Today, as we enter these last two weeks of Lent, we are bidden to reflect more particularly on the stone being rejected by the builders. The joy of Psalm 118 is not yet realized. Today’s Psalm, in our lectionary speaks of joy after sadness. Joy is often preceded by sadness in our lives – and sometimes it remains. That’s life, we say – and so it is.
Our blessed Lord participated fully in life. He knew the mingling of joy and sadness, which affects all of us. He also knew His life was to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world and a confrontation with evil. But, as Saint Paul says, He willingly endured the shame for the joy that lay before Him.
That is another mystery of His Passion: the willingness of Jesus to endure it to the end. That is why He knows how we feel and what we think day-by-day. That is why we turn to Jesus in confidence, and pray through Him. His sacrifice, which we are now anticipating, is both sufficient and eternal. As our Great High Priest He ever liveth to intercede for us.
In Isaiah 43:16-21 the prophet prophesied the same thing centuries before. In it he describes the return from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem as a new exodus. “A path in the mighty waters,” he says. He also hints at something completely new: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” We see this new thing as the Resurrection of our Lord. The drink that God will give his chosen people, which Isaiah refers to, is nothing less than the sacraments of the new covenant.
So on this Passiontide Sunday, with Saint Luke, we declare:
“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and is marvelous in our eyes.”