Sunday is Palm, or Passion, Sunday. We hear the account of the Passion of Jesus according to Luke (22:14-23:56). There are several things unique to Luke’s account. In the agony in the garden, Luke mentions that an angel ministers to Jesus. While Jesus is on the Cross, He makes an act of the forgiveness He has been preaching to the people: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Later on, Jesus goes beyond even forgiveness to do an act of mercy. When one criminal defends Jesus against the remarks made by the other, he asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And finally, when Jesus is about to die, He says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
There is one other thing unique to Luke’s account. It comes before the actual crucifixion. At the Last Supper, after Peter avows, “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you;” Jesus replies, “I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows this day, you will deny three times that you know me.” We know that Jesus’ prophecy comes true. What is unique to Luke’s account is that, after Peter’s denial, and the cock crows, Jesus looks at Peter, and Peter, remembering the prophecy, goes out and “weeps bitterly.”
I think it is important for us to reflect on what this meant for Peter, because it may mean something for us. As I reflected on this, I tried to imagine what Jesus’ expression was, and what was going on in Peter’s mind and heart.
I can’t imagine Jesus’ expression being one of anger, although it would have been understandable if it was. At the same time, I can’t imagine a reassuring smile. What I imagine is a penetrating gaze, again, without hostility, but a gaze that confronts you with the truth.
Peter is confronted with the truth of his giving in to fear. And just as Jesus would be stripped of His clothes before He is nailed to the Cross, Peter is stripped. He is stripped of any false bravado. He is stripped of reliance on his own strength. He is stripped of his own understanding of what the Messiah was meant to do. But he is not stripped of Jesus’ love for him! He is not stripped of hope, for Jesus told him that He prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail, and that he would strengthen his brothers.
As we begin Holy Week, we might take the risk of letting Jesus look at us from the Cross with a penetrating gaze, and let ourselves be stripped; stripped of any reliance on our own power; stripped of any pretensions or masks behind which we hide ourselves; stripped of resentments and prejudices, and most of all, fears. And if we let ourselves be stripped in this way, we open ourselves to be penetrated with a love and hope that endures even as we carry our own crosses.
In the words of our second reading (Philippians 2:6-11), Jesus emptied Himself, and was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” for our salvation. He sees us as we are, and loves us. May we let His gaze of love empty us of whatever gets in the way, and follow Him.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.