Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Passion Sunday: "Before Abraham was, I AM"

by Fr. Richard Cipolla

They therefore picked up stones to cast at him; but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple.  (John:  8:58-59)

Where did he go?  Jesus hid himself.  Hide and go seek?  That children’s game that has its roots in the mysterious state of hiddenness and the triumph of “I found you!”  It is in that statement of triumph that the mystery has been solved. I know where you are .  The unknown has been conquered, the gnarly mystery of not knowing where you are has been solved. The mystery is evaporated.

The truth:  “before Abraham was, I am”.  

The stones picked up; but Jesus hid himself and went out from temple.  The Truth goes out from the place of sacrifice, the blood of animals spilt in the hope that this would appease God and that he would forgive their sins.  And so the scene is set for the final confrontation on this first Sunday of the Passion.  And today’s Gospel focuses on the roots of the conflict that begin the final path to the Cross. The conflict here is the historical one between Jesus and the Jews.  Among these Jews in conflict were the religious leaders, the chief priests and the Pharisees.  We forget, because of the negative casting of these men in the Gospels, that these were those men who knew deeply of the roots and teaching and practice of Judaism.  These were those who offered the sacrifices in the temple; these were those who were experts in the Law; these were those who knew of the covenant between God and the Jewish people; these were those entrusted to lead the people in the teaching and practicing of their faith.

But in this crowd as part of the conflict there were also those who had believed in Jesus but now found him too hard to take.  It was bad enough when he said “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you”.  But now, this talk of truth with respect to himself.  This was really over the line, over the top, so they call him a Samaritan with a demon inside him, in other words, a hated foreigner who was crazy.  But what drove them over the brink so that they picked up stones to throw at him to kill him was these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”  Those words, “I am”, the name of God heard by Moses from the burning bush, the name never pronounced by a Jew because of its terrible holiness.  “Before Abraham was, I am”.

But the conflict here goes far beyond the historical conflict with the Jews of Jesus’ time.  If it were merely history, then we could dismiss it as something in the past and move on.  But the conflict here is the very center of the opposition to Jesus and his  claims in all ages, in every generation.  Jesus says: “Because I tell you the truth you do not believe me”.  And again: “ If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me”? The latter question is asked of us today and  is posed to the whole world, whether the world is listening or not.  Why is it that when people confront the truth they do not believe it?  And this is true even of people who do not scorn the notion of truth.   Why even the New York Times and Fox News would defend the truth in some sense.  Even the most secular person would not deny the quest for truth wherever it is found.  The motto of Harvard University is Veritas, truth.  The motto of Yale University is one better, Lux et Veritas, light and truth, both of which at least in the past were understood as ends to the whole educational process.  The motto of Villanova University, a professed Catholic college, is Veritas, Unitas, Caritas: truth, unity, charity.  And yet, without being prejudicial, can any one of these institutions of higher learning answer the question Jesus poses?  No, they cannot.  For when truth is abstracted into the realm of ideas, when truth becomes some nebulous goal to which education in some way strives, when truth becomes disembodied and not something that one can touch, feel, hear, know, have a relationship to, then Jesus’ question becomes meaningless.  It has no context.  When truth becomes a concept divorced from God, then not only is its deepest meaning lost in the miasma of individualism and relativism, but also truth loses its pungency, its sting, its sharpness, its ability to judge.

This confrontation: why does it necessarily involve the religious leaders of Jesus’ time?  Because these men are in the know, those who are supposed to teach the people the truth.  And these religious leaders do know the truth in an objective way; they know the facts of the truth, so to speak.  But yet, they do not know the truth in the deepest sense because they have failed or are unwilling to make that truth part of their lives, of their very existence.  They are fond of delivering powerful sermons about the truth, about the Commandments, about the special relationship between God and the Jewish people, but they have refused to make these truths ultimately real, for this truth is not a part of who they are.  They live their lives as if truth does not exist, as if God does not exist.  And when they are confronted with that very Person who is the Truth, not some abstract notion of truth that can be manipulated at will, but the very embodiment of truth, standing there, speaking:  they do not believe.  And they do not believe in the Truth standing there because they have never made that Truth part of themselves.  These men are terrified by the one who says: “Before Abraham was, I am”.  For if this is true, then their lives have been only religious posturing, playing at religion, leading people astray with a facile and false religion.

But once again we cannot take the sting out of Jesus’ words, which are the heart of the conflict, by retreating into the past and then bury it in a supersessionist view of history.  This is true both of our religious leaders and of ourselves.  We leave aside those charlatans who fill the airwaves on Sunday morning masquerading as Christian preachers of truth and who instead fill the people with false hopes of self-fulfillment and cheap grace.  We look instead at our own religious leaders, those who are entrusted with the passing on of the Sacred Tradition, of the teaching of the Catholic faith, those burdened with the Truth of God in Jesus Christ, a burden real but easy to bear in faith.  How easy it is for bishops and priests to appeal to the truth of Scripture, the Creeds, the Catechism, of the moral teaching of the Church, and  treat it as if it were something “out there”, something purely objective,  which has no relationship to their own lives?

I am always amused when a pious Catholic says to me about a certain bishop:  “You know, he is orthodox!”.  I never know what to respond.  Does this mean that he is special in that he accepts all the teachings of the Church, and am I supposed to offer an encomium of praise for this man because he happens to hold these opinions that agree with the teaching of the Church?   What does this have to do with that confrontation with truth that demands making that truth the center of one’s life and therefore taking on suffering, for the conflict we see in today’s Gospel always demands and ends up with suffering. For if the Truth of God in Jesus Christ is taken seriously and is made a part of one’s life, this demands taking on suffering.  If the Truth of God in Jesus Christ is taken on as the very center of one’s life—and now we are talking about ourselves, you and I--, then conflict becomes the mode of one’s life, and suffering an inevitable part of that life.  That is true, and Jesus who tells us that today.

But this is not bad news, not something to get depressed about and wring one’s hands and dismiss Christianity as a dour, oppressive religion.   The good news is that if one makes Christ the center of one’s life and conforms one’s own will to his and therefore to the will of God and therefore to the truth about the world and about oneself, one is freed in the deepest sense to be fully who each of us is called to be:  the Truth makes us free.

And it is the Cross of Jesus Christ that is the only possible ground of human freedom.  For the Cross is the judgment of Truth on the world that refuses to see the truth.  But the Cross is the only hope, spes unica, that we who are blind because of sin may see the wonderful and amazing and joyful love of God that breaks the bonds of the lie that is death and opens us to the truth of eternal life.

And yet the delicious and wonderful liturgical irony embedded in the Tradition is that on this Passion Sunday all crosses are hidden from our view.  It is said—always retreat into the passive voice when you are on shaky ground—that in the papal chapel in times now made hazy by historical mist that at the words Jesus abscondit se—Jesus hid himself—the crosses in the papal chapel were covered until Good Friday.   And so do we do this as well on this Sunday.  Jesus hid himself, the Son of God hides himself from those who are trying to kill him not because of cowardice but out of humility,  for Jesus knew that he had not come to die the death of a religious martyr at the hands of a few wicked men.  He knew that he had come to be handed over to death by men for the final encounter with the forces of sin and death.   He had come for the humiliation of the Cross, the triumph from the deepest parts of the cosmos itself.

You and I hide ourselves from God like Adam and Eve.  We hide because of our sin.  Jesus hides himself on this Passion Sunday to prepare himself to empty himself even further and submit to death for love of you and me.