the Least Ones
Books of the Bible Index of Homilies
Matthew Mark Luke John The Acts Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians 1 Thessalonians 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy 2 Timothy Titus Philemon Hebrews James 1 Peter 2 Peter 1 John 2 John 3 John Jude Revelation Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy Joshua Judges Ruth 1 Samuel 2 Samuel 1 Kings 2 Kings 1 Chronicles 2 Chronicles Ezra Nehemiah Tobit Judith Esther 1 Maccabees 2 Maccabees Job Psalms Proverbs Ecclesiastes The Song of Songs The Book of Wisdom Sirach Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations Baruch Ezekiel Daniel Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah Haggai Zechariah Malachi
“For you… the sun of justice shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Mal 3:20). The words of the Prophet Malachi, which we heard in the first reading, shed light on today’s Jubilee. They come to us from the last page of the last Old Testament prophet. They are words directed to those who trust in the Lord, who place their hope in him, who see in him life’s greatest good and refuse to live only for themselves and their own interests. For those who are materially poor but rich in God, the sun of justice will rise. These are the poor in spirit, to whom Jesus promised the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 5:3) and whom God, through the words of the Prophet Malachi, calls “my special possession” (Mal 3:17). The prophet contrasts them with the proud, those who seek a secure life in their self-sufficiency and their earthly possessions. This last page of the Old Testament raises challenging questions about the ultimate meaning of life: where do I look for security? In the Lord or in other forms of security not pleasing to God? Where is my life headed, what does my heart long for? The Lord of life or ephemeral things that cannot satisfy?
Similar questions appear in today’s Gospel. Jesus is in Jerusalem for the last and most important page of his earthly life: his death and resurrection. He is in the precincts of the Temple, “adorned with noble stones and offerings” (Lk 21:5). People were speaking of the beautiful exterior of the temple, when Jesus says: “The days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another” (v. 6). He adds that there will be no lack of conflicts, famine, convulsions on earth and in the heavens. Jesus does not want to frighten us, but to tell us that everything we now see will inevitably pass away. Even the strongest kingdoms, the most sacred buildings and the surest realities of this world do not last for ever; sooner or later they fall.
In response, people immediately put two questions to the Master: “When will this be, and what will be the sign?” (v. 7). When and what… We are constantly driven by curiosity: we want to know when and we want to see signs. Yet Jesus does not care for such curiosity. On the contrary, he exhorts us not to be taken in by apocalyptic preachers. Those who follow Jesus pay no heed to prophets of doom, the nonsense of horoscopes, or terrifying sermons and predictions that distract from the truly important things. Amid the din of so many voices, the Lord asks us to distinguish between what is from him and what is from the false spirit. This is important: to distinguish the word of wisdom that the God speaks to us each day from the shouting of those who seek in God’s name to frighten, to nourish division and fear.
Jesus firmly tells us not to be afraid of the upheavals in every period of history, not even in the face of the most serious trials and injustices that may befall his disciples. He asks us to persevere in the good and to place all our trust in God, who does not disappoint: “Not a hair of your head will perish” (v. 18). God does not forget his faithful ones, his precious possession. He does not forget us.
Today, however, he questions us about the meaning of our lives. Using an image, we could say that these readings serve as a “strainer” through which our life can be poured: they remind us that almost everything in this world is passing away, like running water. But there are treasured realities that remain, like a precious stone in a strainer. What endures, what has value in life, what riches do not disappear? Surely these two: the Lord and our neighbour. These two riches do no disappear! These are the greatest goods; these are to be loved. Everything else – the heavens, the earth, all that is most beautiful, even this Basilica – will pass away; but we must never exclude God or others from our lives.
Today, though, when we speak of exclusion, we immediately think of concrete people, not useless objects but precious persons. The human person, set by God at the pinnacle of creation, is often discarded, set aside in favour of ephemeral things. This is unacceptable, because in God’s eyes man is the most precious good. It is ominous that we are growing used to this rejection. We should be worried when our consciences are anaesthetized and we no longer see the brother or sister suffering at our side, or notice the grave problems in our world, which become a mere refrain familiar from the headlines on the evening news.
Dear brothers and sisters, today is your Jubilee. Your presence here helps us to be attuned to God’s wavelength, to see what he sees. He sees not only appearances (cf. 1 Sam 16:7), but turns his gaze to the “humble and contrite in spirit” (Is 66:2), to the many poor Lazaruses of our day. What harm we do to ourselves when we fail to notice Lazarus, excluded and cast out (cf. Lk 16:19-21)! It is turning away from God himself. It is the symptom of a spiritual sclerosis when we are only interested in objects to be produced rather than on persons to be loved. This is the origin of the tragic contradiction of our age: as progress and new possibilities increase, which is a good thing, less and less people are able to benefit from them. This is a great injustice that should concern us much more than knowing when or how the world will end. Because we cannot go about our business quietly at home while Lazarus lies at the door. There is no peace in the homes of the prosperous as long as justice is lacking in the home of everyone.
Today, in the cathedrals and sanctuaries throughout the world, the Doors of Mercy are being closed. Let us ask for the grace not to close our eyes to God who sees us and to our neighbour who asks something of us. Let us open our eyes to God, purifying the eye of our hearts of deceitful and fearful images, from the god of power and retribution, the projection of human pride and fear. Let us look with trust to the God of mercy, with the certainty that “love never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). Let us renew our hope in the true life to which we are called, the life that will not pass away and that awaits us in communion with the Lord and with others, in a joy that will last forever, without end. And let us open our eyes to our neighbour, especially to our brothers and sisters who are forgotten and excluded, to the “Lazarus” at our door. That is where the Church’s magnifying glass is pointed. May the Lord free us from turning it towards ourselves. May he turn us away from the trappings that distract us, from interests and privileges, from attachment to power and glory, from being seduced by the spirit of the world. Our Mother the Church looks “in particular to that portion of humanity that is suffering and crying out, because she knows that these people belong to her by evangelical right” (PAUL VI, Address at the beginning of the Second Session of the Second Vatican Council, 29 September 1963). By right but also by evangelical duty, for it is our responsibility to care for the true riches which are the poor. In the light of these reflections, I would like today to be the “day of the poor”. We are reminded of this by an ancient tradition according to which the Roman martyr Lawrence, before suffering a cruel martyrdom for the love of the Lord, distributed the goods of the community to the poor, whom he described as the true treasure of the Church. May the Lord grant that we may look without fear to what truly matters, and turn our hearts to our true treasure.
We have the joy of breaking the bread of God’s word, and shortly, we will have the joy of breaking and receiving the Bread of the Eucharist, food for life’s journey. All of us, none excluded, need this, for all of us are beggars when it comes to what is essential: God’s love, which gives meaning to our lives and a life without end. So today too, we lift up our hands to him, asking to receive his gifts.
The Gospel parable speaks of gifts. It tells us that we have received talents from God, “according to ability of each” (Mt 25:15). Before all else, let us realize this: we do have talents; in God’s eyes, we are “talented”. Consequently, no one can think that he or she is useless, so poor as to be incapable of giving something to others. We are chosen and blessed by God, who wants to fill us with his gifts, more than any father or mother does with their own children. And God, in whose eyes no child can be neglected, entrusts to each of us a mission.
Indeed, as the loving and demanding Father that he is, he gives us responsibility. In the parable, we see that each servant is given talents to use wisely. But whereas the first two servants do what they are charged, the third does not make his talents bear fruit; he gives back only what he had received. “I was afraid – he says – and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours” (v. 25). As a result, he is harshly rebuked as “wicked and lazy” (v. 26). What made the Master displeased with him? To use a word that may sound a little old-fashioned but is still timely, I would say it was his omission. His evil was that of failing to do good. All too often, we have the idea that we haven’t done anything wrong, and so we rest content, presuming that we are good and just. But in this way we risk acting like the unworthy servant: he did no wrong, he didn’t waste the talent, in fact he kept it carefully hidden in the ground. But to do no wrong is not enough. God is not an inspector looking for unstamped tickets; he is a Father looking for children to whom he can entrust his property and his plans (cf. v. 14). It is sad when the Father of love does not receive a generous response of love from his children, who do no more than keep the rules and follow the commandments, like hired hands in the house of the Father (cf. Lk 15:17).
The unworthy servant, despite receiving a talent from the Master who loves to share and multiply his gifts, guarded it jealously; he was content to keep it safe. But someone concerned only to preserve and maintain the treasures of the past is not being faithful to God. Instead, the parable tells us, the one who adds new talents is truly “faithful” (vv. 21 and 23), because he sees things as God does; he does not stand still, but instead, out of love, takes risks. He puts his life on the line for others; he is not content to keep things as they are. One thing alone does he overlook: his own interest. That is the only right “omission”.
Omission is also the great sin where the poor are concerned. Here it has a specific name: indifference. It is when we say, “That doesn’t regard me; it’s not my business; it’s society’s problem”. It is when we turn away from a brother or sister in need, when we change channels as soon as a disturbing question comes up, when we grow indignant at evil but do nothing about it. God will not ask us if we felt righteous indignation, but whether we did some good.
How, in practice can we please God? When we want to please someone dear to us, for example by giving a gift, we need first to know that person’s tastes, lest the gift prove more pleasing to the giver than to the recipient. When we want to offer something to the Lord, we can find his tastes in the Gospel. Immediately following the passage that we heard today, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you that, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). These least of our brethren, whom he loves dearly, are the hungry and the sick, the stranger and the prisoner, the poor and the abandoned, the suffering who receive no help, the needy who are cast aside. On their faces we can imagine seeing Jesus’ own face; on their lips, even if pursed in pain, we can hear his words: “This is my body” (Mt 26:26).
In the poor, Jesus knocks on the doors of our heart, thirsting for our love. When we overcome our indifference and, in the name of Jesus, we give of ourselves for the least of his brethren, we are his good and faithful friends, with whom he loves to dwell. God greatly appreciates the attitude described in today’s first reading that of the “good wife”, who “opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Prov 31:10.20). Here we see true goodness and strength: not in closed fists and crossed arms, but in ready hands outstretched to the poor, to the wounded flesh of the Lord.
There, in the poor, we find the presence of Jesus, who, though rich, became poor (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). For this reason, in them, in their weakness, a “saving power” is present. And if in the eyes of the world they have little value, they are the ones who open to us the way to heaven; they are our “passport to paradise”. For us it is an evangelical duty to care for them, as our real riches, and to do so not only by giving them bread, but also by breaking with them the bread of God’s word, which is addressed first to them. To love the poor means to combat all forms of poverty, spiritual and material.
And it will also do us good. Drawing near to the poor in our midst will touch our lives. It will remind us of what really counts: to love God and our neighbour. Only this lasts forever, everything else passes away. What we invest in love remains, the rest vanishes. Today we might ask ourselves: “What counts for me in life? Where am I making my investments?” In fleeting riches, with which the world is never satisfied, or in the wealth bestowed by God, who gives eternal life? This is the choice before us: to live in order to gain things on earth, or to give things away in order to gain heaven. Where heaven is concerned, what matters is not what we have, but what we give, for “those who store up treasures for themselves, do not grow rich in the sight of God” (Lk 12:21).
So let us not seek for ourselves more than we need, but rather what is good for others, and nothing of value will be lacking to us. May the Lord, who has compassion for our poverty and needs, and bestows his talents upon us, grant us the wisdom to seek what really matters, and the courage to love, not in words but in deeds.
Salvation. During his journey from Beersheba to Haran, Jacob decides to stop and rest in a solitary place. In a dream, he sees a ladder: its base rests on the earth and its top reaches to heaven (cf. Gen 28:10-22). The ladder, on which angels of God are ascending and descending, represents the connection between the divine and the human, fulfilled historically in Christ’s incarnation (cf. Jn 1:51), which was the Father’s loving gift of revelation and salvation. The ladder is an allegory of the divine action that precedes all human activity. It is the antithesis of the Tower of Babel, built by men with their own strength, who wanted to reach heaven to become gods. In this case, however, it is God who comes down; it is the Lord who reveals himself; it is God who saves. And Emmanuel, God-with-us, fulfils the promise of mutual belonging between the Lord and humanity, in the sign of an incarnate and merciful love that gives life in abundance.
Faced with this revelation, Jacob makes an act of trust in the Lord, which becomes a work of recognition and adoration that marks a key moment in the history of salvation. He asks the Lord to protect him on the difficult journey he must make, and says: “The Lord shall be my God” (Gen 28:21).
Echoing the words of the patriarch, we repeated in the psalm: “O my God, I trust in you”. He is our refuge and our strength, our shield and our armour, our anchor in times of trial. The Lord is a refuge for the faithful who call on him in times of tribulation. For it is indeed at such moments that our prayer is made purer, when we realize that the security the world offers has little worth, and only God remains. God alone opens up heaven for those who live on earth. Only God saves.
This total and absolute trust is shared by the head of the synagogue and the sick woman in the Gospel (cf. Mt 9:18-26). These are scenes of liberation. Both draw close to Jesus in order to obtain from him what no one else can give them: liberation from sickness and from death. On the one hand, there is the daughter of one of the city authorities; on the other, a woman afflicted by a sickness that has made her an outcast, marginalized, someone impure. But Jesus makes no distinctions: liberation is generously given to each of them. Their longing places both the woman and the girl among the “least” who are to be loved and raised up.
Jesus reveals to his disciples the need for a preferential option for the least, those who must be given the front row in the exercise of charity. There are many forms of poverty today; as Saint John Paul II wrote: “The ‘poor’, in varied states of affliction, are the oppressed, those on the margin of society, the elderly, the sick, the young, any and all who are considered and treated as ‘the least’” (Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, 82).
On this sixth anniversary of the visit to Lampedusa, my thoughts go out to those “least ones” who daily cry out to the Lord, asking to be freed from the evils that afflict them. These least ones are abandoned and cheated into dying in the desert; these least ones are tortured, abused and violated in detention camps; these least ones face the waves of an unforgiving sea; these least ones are left in reception camps too long for them to be called temporary. These are only some of the least ones who Jesus asks us to love and raise up. Unfortunately the existential peripheries of our cities are densely populated with persons who have been thrown away, marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against, abused, exploited, abandoned, poor and suffering. In the spirit of the Beatitudes we are called to comfort them in their affliction and offer them mercy; to sate their hunger and thirst for justice; to let them experience God’s caring fatherliness; to show them the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues! “This is not just about migrants”, in the twofold sense that migrants are first of all human persons, and that they are the symbol of all those rejected by today’s globalized society.
We spontaneously return to the image of Jacob’s ladder. In Christ Jesus, the connection between earth and heaven is guaranteed and is accessible to all. Yet climbing the steps of this ladder requires commitment, effort and grace. The weakest and most vulnerable must to be helped. I like to think that we could be those angels ascending and descending, taking under our wings the little ones, the lame, the sick, those excluded: the least ones, who would otherwise stay behind and would experience only grinding poverty on earth, without glimpsing in this life anything of heaven’s brightness.
This is, brothers and sisters, a tremendous responsibility, from which no one is exempt if we wish to fulfil the mission of salvation and liberation in which the Lord himself has called us to cooperate. I know that many of you, who arrived just a few months ago, are already assisting brothers and sisters who have come even more recently. I want to thank you for this most beautiful example of humanity, gratitude and solidarity.
We have just heard the page of Matthew’s Gospel that comes immediately before the account of Christ’s Passion. Before pouring out his love for us on the cross, Jesus shares his final wishes. He tells us that the good we do to one of our least brothers and sisters – whether hungry or thirsty, a stranger, in need, sick or in prison – we do to him (cf. Mt 25:37-40). In this way, the Lord gives us his “gift list” for the eternal wedding feast he will share with us in heaven. Those gifts are the works of mercy that make our life eternal. Each of us can ask: Do I put these works into practice? Do I do anything for someone in need? Or do I do good only for my loved ones and my friends? Do I help someone who cannot give anything back to me? Am I the friend of a poor person? And there are many other similar questions we can ask ourselves. “There I am”, Jesus says to you, “I am waiting for you there, where you least think and perhaps may not even want to look: there, in the poor”. I am there, where the dominant thought, according to which life is going well if it goes well for me, does not find interesting. I am there. Jesus also says these words to you, young people, as you strive to realize your dreams in life.
I am there. Jesus spoke these words centuries ago, to a young soldier. He was eighteen years old and not yet baptized. One day he saw a poor man who was begging people for help but received none, since “everyone walked by”. That young man, “seeing that others were not moved to compassion, understood that the poor person was there for him. However, he had nothing with him, only his uniform. He cut his cloak in two and gave half to the poor person, and was met with mocking laughter from some of the bystanders. The following night he had a dream: he saw Jesus, wearing the half of the cloak he had wrapped around the poor person, and he heard him say: ‘Martin, you covered me with this cloak’” (cf. Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini, III). Saint Martin was that young man. He had that dream because, without knowing it, he had acted like the righteous in today’s Gospel.
Dear young people, dear brothers and sisters, let us not give up on great dreams. Let us not settle only for what is necessary. The Lord does not want us to narrow our horizons or to remain parked on the roadside of life. He wants us to race boldly and joyfully towards lofty goals. We were not created to dream about vacations or the weekend, but to make God’s dreams come true in this world. God made us capable of dreaming, so that we could embrace the beauty of life. The works of mercy are the most beautiful works in life. They go right to the heart of our great dreams. If you are dreaming about real glory, not the glory of this passing world but the glory of God, this is the path to follow. Read today’s Gospel passage again and reflect on it. For the works of mercy give glory to God more than anything else. Listen carefully: the works of mercy give glory to God more than anything else. In the end we will be judged on the works of mercy.
Yet how do we begin to make great dreams come true? With great choices. Today’s Gospel speaks to us about this as well. Indeed, at the last judgement, the Lord will judge us on the choices we have made. He seems almost not to judge, but merely to separate the sheep from the goats, whereas being good or evil depends on us. He only draws out the consequences of our choices, brings them to light and respects them. Life, we come to see, is a time for making robust, decisive, eternal choices. Trivial choices lead to a trivial life; great choices to a life of greatness. Indeed, we become what we choose, for better or for worse. If we choose to steal, we become thieves. If we choose to think of ourselves, we become self-centred. If we choose to hate, we become angry. If we choose to spend hours on a cell phone, we become addicted. Yet if we choose God, daily we grow in his love, and if we choose to love others, we find true happiness. Because the beauty of our choices depends on love. Remember this because it is true: the beauty of our choices depends on love. Jesus knows that if we are self-absorbed and indifferent, we remain paralyzed, but if we give ourselves to others, we become free. The Lord of life wants us to be full of life, and he tells us the secret of life: we come to possess it only by giving it away. This is a rule of life: we come to possess life, now and in eternity, only by giving it away.
It is true that there are obstacles that can make our choices difficult: fear, insecurity, so many unanswered questions… Love, however, demands that we move beyond these, and not keep wondering why life is the way it is, and expecting answers to fall down from heaven. The answer has come: it is the gaze of the Father who loves us and who has sent us his Son. No, love pushes us to go beyond the why, and instead to ask for whom, to pass from asking, “Why am I alive?” to “For whom am I living?” From “Why is this happening to me?” to “Whom can I help?” For whom? Not just for myself! Life is already full of choices we make for ourselves: what to study, which friends to have, what home to buy, what interests or hobbies to pursue. We can waste years thinking about ourselves, without ever actually starting to love. Alessandro Manzoni offered a good piece of advice: “We ought to aim rather at doing well than being well: and thus we should come, in the end, to be even better” (I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed], Chapter XXXVIII - 78).
Not only doubts and questions can undermine great and generous choices, but many other obstacles as well every day. Feverish consumerism can overwhelm our hearts with superfluous things. An obsession with pleasure may seem the only way to escape problems, yet it simply postpones them. A fixation with our rights can lead us to neglect our responsibilities to others. Then, there is the great misunderstanding about love, which is more than powerful emotions, but primarily a gift, a choice and a sacrifice. The art of choosing well, especially today, means not seeking approval, not plunging into a consumerist mentality that discourages originality, and not giving into the cult of appearances. Choosing life means resisting the “throwaway culture” and the desire to have “everything now”, in order to direct our lives towards the goal of heaven, towards God’s dreams. To choose life is to live, and we were born to live, not just get by. A young man like yourselves, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, said this: “I want to live, not just get by”.
Each day, in our heart, we face many choices. I would like to give you one last piece of advice to help train you to choose well. If we look within ourselves, we can see two very different questions arising. One asks, “What do I feel like doing?” This question often proves misleading, since it suggests that what really counts is thinking about ourselves and indulging in our wishes and impulses. The question that the Holy Spirit plants in our hearts is a very different one: not “What do you feel like doing?” but “What is best for you?” That is the choice we have to make daily: what do I feel like doing or what is best for me? This interior discernment can result either in frivolous choices or in decisions that shape our lives – it depends on us. Let us look to Jesus and ask him for the courage to choose what is best for us, to enable us to follow him in the way of love. And in this way to discover joy. To live, and not just get by.
Dear brothers and sisters, good afternoon!
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The great parable with which the liturgical year closes is that which unfolds the mystery of Christ, the entire liturgical year. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of history; and today’s liturgy focuses on the “Omega”, that is, on the final goal. The meaning of history is understood by keeping its culmination before our eyes: the goal is also the end. And it is precisely this that Matthew accomplishes in this Sunday’s Gospel (25:31-46), placing Jesus’s discourse on the universal judgement at the end of His earthly life: He, the one whom men are about to condemn is, in reality, the supreme judge. In His death and resurrection, Jesus will manifest Himself as the Lord of History, the King of the Universe, the Judge of all. But the Christian paradox is that the Judge is not vested in the fearful trappings of royalty, but is the shepherd filled with meekness and mercy.
Jesus, in fact, in this parable of the final judgement, uses the image of a shepherd, He picks up these images from the prophet Ezekiel who had spoken of God’s intervention in favour of His people against the evil pastors of Israel (see 34:1-10). They had been cruel exploiters, preferring to feed themselves rather than the flock; therefore, God Himself promises to personally take care of His flock, defending it from injustice and abuse. This promise God made on behalf of His people is fully accomplished in Jesus Christ, the shepherd: He Himself is the good shepherd. He Himself even said of Himself: “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11, 14).
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus identifies Himself not only with the king-shepherd, but also with the lost sheep, we can speak of a double identity: the king-shepherd, and also Jesus and the sheep: that is, He identifies Himself with the least and most in need of His brothers and sisters. And He thus indicates the criterion of the judgement: it will be made on the basis of concrete love given or denied to these persons, because He Himself, the judge, is present in each one of them. He is the judge. He is God and Man, but He is also the poor one, He is hidden and present in the person of the poor people that He mentions: right there. Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it (or did it not) to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it (you did it not) to me” (vv. 40, 45). We will be judged on love. The judgement will be on love, not on feelings, no: we will be judged on works, on compassion that becomes nearness and kind help. Have I drawn near to Jesus present in the persons of the sick, the poor, the suffering, the imprisoned, of those who are hungry and thirsty for justice? Do I draw near to Jesus present there? This is the question for today.
Therefore, at the end of the world, the Lord will inspect the flock, and he will do so not only from the perspective of the shepherd, but also from the perspective of the sheep, with whom He has identified Himself. And He will ask us: “Were you a little bit like a shepherd as myself?” “Where you a shepherd to me who was present in those people who were in need, or were you indifferent?” Brothers and sisters, let us look at the logic of indifference, of those who come to mind immediately. Looking away when we see a problem. Let us remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. That poor man, wounded by the brigands, thrown to the ground, between life and death, he was alone. A priest passed by, saw, and went on his way. He looked the other way. A Levite passed by, saw and looked the other way. I, before my brothers and sisters in need, am I indifferent like the priest, like the Levite and look the other way? I will be judged on this: on how I drew near, how I looked on Jesus present in those in need. This is the logic, and I am not saying it: Jesus says it. “What you did to that person and that person and that person, you did it to me. And what you did not do to that person and that person and that person, you did not do it to me, because I was there”. May Jesus teach us this logic, this logic of being close, of drawing near to Him, with love, to the person who is suffering most.
Let us ask the Virgin Mary to teach us to reign by serving. The Madonna, assumed into Heaven, received the royal crown from her Son because she followed Him faithfully – she is the first disciple – on the way of Love. Let us learn from her to enter God’s Kingdom even now through the door of humble and generous service. And let us return home with this phrase only: “I was present there. Thank you!" or, "You forgot about me”.
Every year this liturgy leaves us amazed: we pass from the joy of welcoming Jesus as he enters Jerusalem to the sorrow of watching him condemned to death and then crucified. That sense of interior amazement will remain with us throughout Holy Week. Let us reflect more deeply on it.
From the start, Jesus leaves us amazed. His people give him a solemn welcome, yet he enters Jerusalem on a lowly colt. His people expect a powerful liberator at Passover, yet he comes to bring the Passover to fulfilment by sacrificing himself. His people are hoping to triumph over the Romans by the sword, but Jesus comes to celebrate God’s triumph through the cross. What happened to those people who in a few days’ time went from shouting “Hosanna” to crying out “Crucify him”? What happened? They were following an idea of the Messiah rather than the Messiah. They admired Jesus, but they did not let themselves be amazed by him. Amazement is not the same as admiration. Admiration can be worldly, since it follows its own tastes and expectations. Amazement, on the other hand, remains open to others and to the newness they bring. Even today, there are many people who admire Jesus: he said beautiful things; he was filled with love and forgiveness; his example changed history, … and so on. They admire him, but their lives are not changed. To admire Jesus is not enough. We have to follow in his footsteps, to let ourselves be challenged by him; to pass from admiration to amazement.
What is most amazing about the Lord and his Passover? It is the fact that he achieves glory through humiliation. He triumphs by accepting suffering and death, things that we, in our quest for admiration and success, would rather avoid. Jesus – as Saint Paul tells us – “emptied himself… he humbled himself” (Phil 2:7.8). This is the amazing thing: to see the Almighty reduced to nothing. To see the Word who knows all things teach us in silence from the height of the cross. To see the king of kings enthroned on a gibbet. Seeing the God of the universe stripped of everything and crowned with thorns instead of glory. To see the One who is goodness personified, insulted and beaten. Why all this humiliation? Why, Lord, did you wish to endure all this?
Jesus did it for us, to plumb the depths of our human experience, our entire existence, all our evil. To draw near to us and not abandon us in our suffering and our death. To redeem us, to save us. Jesus was lifted high on the cross in order to descend to the abyss of our suffering. He experienced our deepest sorrows: failure, loss of everything, betrayal by a friend, even abandonment by God. By experiencing in the flesh our deepest struggles and conflicts, he redeemed and transformed them. His love draws close to our frailty; it touches the very things of which we are most ashamed. Yet now we know that we are not alone: God is at our side in every affliction, in every fear; no evil, no sin will ever have the final word. God triumphs, but the palm of victory passes through the wood of the cross. For the palm and the cross are inseparable.
Let us ask for the grace to be amazed. A Christian life without amazement becomes drab and dreary. How can we talk about the joy of meeting Jesus, unless we are daily astonished and amazed by his love, which brings us forgiveness and the possibility of a new beginning? When faith no longer experiences amazement, it grows dull: it becomes blind to the wonders of grace; it can no longer taste the Bread of life and hear the Word; it can no longer perceive the beauty of our brothers and sisters and the gift of creation. It has no other course than to take refuge in legalisms, in clericalisms and in all these things that Jesus condemns in chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew.
During this Holy Week, let us lift our eyes to the cross, in order to receive the grace of amazement. As Saint Francis of Assisi contemplated the crucified Lord, he was amazed that his friars did not weep. What about us? Can we still be moved by God’s love? Have we lost the ability to be amazed by him? Why? Maybe our faith has grown dull from habit. Maybe we remain trapped in our regrets and allow ourselves to be crippled by our disappointments. Maybe we have lost all our trust or even feel worthless. But perhaps, behind all these “maybes”, lies the fact that we are not open to the gift of the Spirit who gives us the grace of amazement.
Let us start over from amazement. Let us gaze upon Jesus on the cross and say to him: “Lord, how much you love me! How precious I am to you!” Let us be amazed by Jesus so that we can start living again, for the grandeur of life lies not in possessions and promotions, but in realizing that we are loved. This is the grandeur of life: discovering that we are loved. And the grandeur of life lies precisely in the beauty of love. In the crucified Jesus, we see God humiliated, the Almighty dismissed and discarded. And with the grace of amazement we come to realize that in welcoming the dismissed and discarded, in drawing close to those ill-treated by life, we are loving Jesus. For that is where he is: in the least of our brothers and sisters, in the rejected and discarded, in those whom our self-righteous culture condemns.
Today’s Gospel shows us, immediately after the death of Jesus, a splendid icon of amazement. It is the scene of the centurion who, upon seeing that Jesus had died, said: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39). He was amazed by love. How did he see Jesus die? He saw him die in love, and this amazed him. Jesus suffered immensely, but he never stopped loving. This is what it is to be amazed before God, who can fill even death with love. In that gratuitous and unprecedented love, the pagan centurion found God. His words – Truly this man was the Son of God! – “seal” the Passion narrative. The Gospels tell us that many others before him had admired Jesus for his miracles and prodigious works, and had acknowledged that he was the Son of God. Yet Christ silenced them, because they risked remaining purely on the level of worldly admiration at the idea of a God to be adored and feared for his power and might. Now it can no longer be so, for at the foot of the cross there can be no mistake: God has revealed himself and reigns only with the disarmed and disarming power of love.
Brothers and sisters, today God continues to fill our minds and hearts with amazement. Let us be filled with that amazement as we gaze upon the crucified Lord. May we too say: “You are truly the Son of God. You are my God”.