Homily for the Vigil of Passion Sunday

by Judith Sutera, OSB 

For anyone familiar with the Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict, the passage from the letter to Timothy should strike some familiar notes. Like St. Paul, St. Benedict speaks of the Christian as a soldier or an athlete, adding also the image of a student. What all these models have in common is that they involve discipline. One must come with readiness to put in the work to learn a way of life by developing ever increasing skills. “Discipline” and “disciple” have the same Latin root, the word for “way of life.” As we complete the season of Lent, we should have been practicing the disciplines of prayer, sacrifice and service, not to punish ourselves, but to strengthen our soul muscles just as physical exercises strengthen an athlete, intellectual exercises develop a student, or military exercises prepare a soldier.

In the earliest monastic writings, the goal of any discipline is to build endurance to face whatever comes in life. The seminal text, the Life of Antony, is built on the theme of his remarkable ability to stand firm and to let the devil attack without fleeing, then to be neither elated nor despondent, to respond always with enduring faith that does not change or waver. This foundational monastic virtue of equilibrium is echoed in St. Benedict’s description of humility, in which the person who has reached the height of holiness is, by outward appearances, unremarkable, except for a pervasive sense of peacefulness.

The ideally humble person, of course, is Jesus, “who humbled himself.” As Jesus enters Jerusalem for his last Passover, he receives overwhelming praise, the kind that would tempt any person to be full of himself. Yet we don’t get the impression that he’s smiling and waving like the hero in a tickertape parade. Neither is he demurring and trying to tell people how undeserving he is. He is accepting of the highest of praise. In less than a week, he will be accepting of the most brutal of abuses with the same calm and self-possessed equilibrium.

Our monastic tradition teaches us that our discipline should lead us towards this ideal humility, that is, true balance in the face of any good or evil circumstance. How could Jesus do this? One must look to the end of the sentence from Phillipians: “… who humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death.” True humility is obedience. Like the soldier who does not run from battle, the athlete who does not reject the rigors, the student who learns the material, we develop the discipline in order to stay the course. In obedience, Christ could not reject his fate, even as it led to extreme highs and lows. Walking the streets into Jerusalem as the star of the parade would lead him to the streets where he would be the object of scorn or pity. In these next few days, we will symbolically experience a vast range of events and emotions, from today’s exuberant joy, through the depths of suffering and death, and into an even more victorious joy.

And each of us will, through the days of our own lives, experience the same stages in our journey. We must pray for, and strive to have, the discipline to walk each day with a growing humility of obedience, wherever the road leads.


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