I am doing one of my rare preaching appearances this week, so I have been ruminating on the lessons for the Second Sunday in Lent.
The New Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for this week is Luke 13: 31-35, and imbedded in the passage is a curious foreshadowing of Jesus’ triumphant entry on Palm Sunday. He tells them, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (NRSV)
In the rhythms of this penitential season we still have weeks to go before we hear these words again. So what are we to think of this coming so early in Lent?
One of my homiletical disciplines over the years has been to see what the church fathers (and a few mothers) had to say about it. A great resource for the preacher who is interested in seeing what this long and deep tradition of the church has to say about particular passages in Scripture is the series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, edited by Thomas Oden, and published by IVP, which, regrettably, only started turning up toward the very end of my active ministry.
There’s some good stuff here. For example, on this week’s Gospel there are excerpts from Augustine, Ephrem the Syrian, and Cyril of Alexandria. Here’s what Cyril (366-444) had to say in a homily on this text:
“And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” What does this mean? The Lord withdrew from Jerusalem and left as unworthy of his presence those who said, ‘Get away from here.”[The Pharisees had just told him to flee Herod] And after he had walked about Judea and saved many and performed miracles which no words can adequately describe, he returned again to Jerusalem. It was then that he sat upon a colt of a donkey, while vast multitudes and young children, holding up branches of palm trees, went before him, praising him and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Having left them, therefore, as being unworthy, he says that when the time of his passion has arrived, he will barely be seen by them. Then again he went up to Jerusalem and entered amidst praises, and at that very time endured his saving passion on our behalf, that by suffering he might save and renew to incorruption the inhabitants of the earth. God the Father has saved us by Christ.” (“Commentary on Luke, Homily 100,” from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 3, IVP, 2003)
In these early days of Lent, the readings from Luke’s Gospel keep reminding Christians of Jesus’ unique vocation, which will lead ultimately to his atoning death on the cross (and his ultimate vindication on Easter). If we let our gaze wander too far from this heart of the Christian Story, Lent risks becoming a vain exercise in legalism (just dos and don’ts) and various forms of self-justification. The Church Fathers generally kept their eye on the whole story and its center at the cross of Christ; not so much focus on what we need to do for God (not that we should forget that), but on what God has already done for us.