Each year on Good Friday we relive the tragic chain of events of the Passion of our Savior leading to his crucifixion on Golgotha. There is a haunting question about this day that has resounded throughout history. Where was God in the midst of the disaster on Calvary?
This is a question that even Jesus the Lord cried out from the wood of the cross: "Where are you? Have you really forgotten me? Why are you deaf to my the sound of my pleading?" (Psalm 22).
The profoundly moving Scripture readings of today's solemn liturgy do not focus upon the corpse of Jesus, but they move delicately back and forth between the dead Jesus and the grieving community. The passages are filled with words of sorrow and hope, death and life. In the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (4:14-16; 5:7-9), the author contemplates Jesus' agony in the garden in relation to temple sacrifices and the priesthood according to the Hebrew Scriptures.
We are told what kind of God we have, and what kind of God would allow a Good Friday to happen: a God-man who was always son, like us in all things but sin. Far from creating an abyss between Christ and ourselves, our trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself, thanks to this man of the cross.
The consequence is that from now on, not one of us can be bowed down under a painful situation without finding that Christ is, by that very fact, at our side. If, in fact, the trials of human existence have given Christ his present position close to God, for having suffered death he has been clothed with glory and honor.
Prayers and silent tears
In his days on earth, Jesus shared our flesh and blood, crying out with prayers and silent tears. He was heard because of his reverence. The Old Testament never dreamed of requiring the high priest to make himself like his brothers and sisters, but was preoccupied on the contrary with separating him from them. It is all the more striking, therefore, that on one essential point, no distinction was made: No text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin. In the Old Testament, an attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood.
Unlike the Levitical priests, the death of Jesus was essential for his priesthood. He is a priest of compassion. His authority attracts us because of his compassion, the authority of his words, his penetrating, loving gaze at each one of us, the steadfastness of his faith. Ultimately, he exists for others: He exists to serve.
He has been tested in all respects like us -- he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside --- only by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. He was a priest -- one who lived for others, who offered up everything of this sad but beautiful world to the God who loved him. That's the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now.
If last evening's celebration of the Lord's Supper invited us to look at what we have done with our baptism, and how we are a Eucharistic people, then this afternoon's Commemoration of Jesus' Death invites us to look at our own priesthood, yours and mine, and ask ourselves for whom we really live and who we really love. We must ask ourselves a question today: Am I a priestly person like he was? Do I live for others? Is the world any less violent, any less hostile, any more patient, kind and just, because of me?
Source of Christian liturgy
John's Passion narrative (18:1-19:42) is so heavily liturgical that Jesus is seen not only as God, but also as the source of Christian liturgy: even blood and water flow forth from his wounded side. We are invited to realize very deeply the tragedy of Jesus' death in the context of our own trials, sorrows, and deaths. The cross is a sign of contradiction, a sign of victory, and we gaze upon the cross and respond in faith to the message of life that flows from it, a message that brings us healing and reconciliation.
Haunting questions linger about the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus. How did the "Hosannas" of Palm Sunday turn to the "Crucify Him!" of Good Friday? The crowd turns around like a single man and insists on his death with a determination that springs at least in part from being carried away by the irrationality of the collective spirit. Whether one was a Zealot, or Pharisee, or simple peasant, or Roman soldier, or Sanhedrin official, whether King Herod or Pontius Pilate, they all came together out of their need to find some measure of peace through a scapegoat. It is in the crowd that we locate the universal scope of the cross. The question is not who killed Jesus, but what killed Jesus, and what vicious circles of violence continue to crucify him today in his brothers and sisters of the human family?
Where is God?
Good Friday shows us where God is -- here, hanging on the wood of the cross in Jerusalem, and on the crosses throughout the world where people are betrayed by an ally, abandoned by a friend, denounced by their community, shouted at by crowds, made into a scapegoat, passed from authority to authority, physically abused, mocked and humiliated, labeled and mislabeled, stripped of their clothing and dignity, tortured and executed out of anger, violence, jealousy, and hatred. The way of the Cross continues in our world today. Yet it is only there that we receive the mystery of the death that gives life.
Today, the "Via Dolorosa" is transformed into the "Via Gloriosa." This day, through the mystery and fire of the cross, Jesus crucified becomes our life and our light in the midst of the darkness.
Remembering John Paul II
This year, Good Friday, marks the fifth anniversary of death of Pope John Paul II. There are few places on this planet that have not been touched by Pope John Paul II. He was a living exegesis of the Gospels. He walked his talk until the end.
At the end of March and the beginning of April 2005, we were inundated with words, stories, images, and profoundly moving ceremonies coming to us from the Vatican. We learned once again in his retreating and passing how vast a person he was among us and on the world stage. Our memories of what he was like before his "retreat" or "departure" became suffused with the profound weight of post-mortem insight.
That period of 2005 was an extraordinary time of evangelization, catechesis and education for the universal Church. John Paul II was a bestseller in life and also in death.
Crucible of suffering
During the final years of his brilliant pontificate, John Paul II brought suffering back into the realm of the expected in human life. Everyone could see that his spirituality gave him an inner strength -- a spirituality with which one can also overcome fear, even the fear of death. What an incredible lesson for the world! His struggle with the physical effects of aging was also a valuable lesson to a society that finds it hard to accept growing older, and a culture that sees no redemption in suffering.
As an affectionate father and a careful teacher, Pope John Paul II indicated sure and sound points of reference indispensable for everyone, especially for the young. The contrast between John Paul II's physical vigor at the start of his pontificate and his state at journey's end was striking.
In his final hours and his death this new generation wished to show they had understood his teaching, gathering silently in prayer in St. Peter's Square and many other places around the world. Tens of thousands of young people were aware that his demise was a loss: "Their" Pope was dying, whom they considered as "their father" in the faith. Though broken and bent at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, John Paul II crossed the threshold of history, standing tall, as a giant.
May we learn from "Papa Wojtyla" how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. Today, let us pray to have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter's witness and the boldness of Paul's proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla -- now the Venerable Pope John Paul II.
A great Christian tradition
While I was still Catholic Chaplain at the University of Toronto's Newman Center, a wonderful, elderly Catholic woman confided to me one Good Friday the struggles that she and her family were having with the acceptance of the cross as the central symbol of the Christian life. The woman wept as she expressed concern about her own daughter' troubled faith, and she shared with me a poem that her daughter, Hanna had written about the cross.
Far from describing a lack of faith, the poem reveals the raw faith and deep love that the mystery of Good Friday elicits from all Christians throughout the world on this day. The poem reads:
"But Lord," I complained,
"This cross is too heavy, too awkward,
It protrudes in the front, it drags in the back,
It slips off the side, it just does not fit,
Lord, it cannot be for me!"
"Ah, gently, gently," says He.
"It is not the cross that needs altering,
It is your way of carrying it."
And stooping down ever so graciously,
He, the Connoisseur of Crosses, and cross bearing,
Adjusted mine, straightened my shoulders,
Beckoned me to look up and to smile,
To carry it with dignity, if not with love,
For I was following in a great tradition.
Year C of “Words Made Flesh” will be published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Publishing Service during the course of the year 2013. Year B can still be purchased through Salt + Light’s online store. Sign up for our email news letter to be notified as soon as Year C is available: saltandlighttv.org/subscribe