“The Look of Jesus, the Conscience of the Disciple”
Homily for Palm Sunday, Year “C”
April 10, 2022; St. Mary’s Cathedral
“Just as he was saying this, the cock crowed, and the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ He went out and began to weep bitterly.”
St. Luke is the only one of the four Gospel-writers to include this detail in his account of our Lord’s Passion, and a very striking detail it is. You can imagine the scene: Jesus’ face broken and bloodied after his scourging, his beating, and receiving the crown of thorns; Peter, overwhelmed with shame at having betrayed Jesus, sees this face of his friend and Master looking at him, suffering the unspeakable pain and humiliation of crucifixion out of love for him and the world.
The word “look” here does carry this meaning of looking intently at, or, more literally, looking straight at someone. We can sense how that look of Jesus pierced Peter straight through to his soul. It was an intense moment of self-revelation, when Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus, which his conscience had suppressed, came rushing to the surface of his consciousness. In Jesus’ face he saw the evil and cowardice of his betrayal. And so he wept.
But weeping is not the only thing that he did. That experience brought him low, it was humiliating for him. But he did not stay there. Despite his moment of weakness and fear, Peter had an intense and genuine love of his Lord. And so he repented, accepted his Lord’s forgiveness, and so became the principal pillar of the Church which the Lord came to build, even to the point of repeating the pattern of his death in his own death, being crucified like his Lord.
This is the paradigm for every believer: repeating the pattern of the Lord in the believer’s own life, in some way or another.
In the Life of Jesus
Jesus was the first one to be brought low: in his own case, freely choosing to do so, allowing himself to be humiliated by the creatures which he created. This is what St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, that Christ Jesus “emptied himself,” he “took the form of a slave” by assuming our human flesh, and freely chose the shameful death of the cross. It was through this crucible of suffering and death that God his Father “greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”
It is for this reason that St. Paul proclaims that all of creation, of both the spiritual and temporal realms, are to bow at the name of Jesus. We lower ourselves to the one who lowered himself for us. This is where the custom of bowing our head at the name of Jesus comes from, a gentle reminder of what our Savior did for us and the dominion he has over our lives.
In the Life of the Believer
But as with St. Peter, so our Lord’s example sets the pattern for every one of his followers. No, not in the literal sense as happened with Peter, but each one in his or her own way, according to their vocation and circumstances of life. Same thing with that look of Jesus: he is casting that same, intense look at each of us.
Do we look back, look him in the face, allow him to pierce our soul and lay bare what we have buried deep within our conscience? It is our fears and insecurities that keep us from allowing him to do so, for it is painful to be brought low in such a moment of self-revelation. While he respects our free will, he is always ready to exalt those who lower themselves before him. This is the only way to achieve greatness in God’s sight, a path that Jesus himself blazed for us.
With the celebration of Palm Sunday today, we begin the annual observances of Holy Week, the culmination of Lent and the most sacred days in the Church’s calendar. We reach the culmination of this season of the year which more than any is the indicated time for such introspection.
Let us avail ourselves of the grace of these days: through our prayer, our penance, participation in the Church’s holy rites and especially in sacramental confession, that we may repeat the pattern of our Lord’s work of salvation for us, and so proclaim not just with words but above all with the example of a holy life: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”