Embracing the True Science of the Cross

March 31, 2015
Ecce Homo cropped
Good Friday - Friday, April 3, 2015
Each year on Good Friday we read the Passion according to St. John. Throughout this hauntingly moving narrative, there is an emphasis on Jesus' sovereignty even in death.
As we contemplate the mystery of Jesus crucified, we learn in his suffering and dying how vast a person he was among us. We are invited to realize the tragedy of Jesus' death in the context of our own trials, sorrows, and deaths. Jesus' cross is a message, a word for us, a sign of contradiction, a sign of victory, and we gaze upon the cross and respond in faith to the message of life which flows from it, a message which brings us healing and reconciliation.
As the cross is held high in our midst, in some strange and mysterious way, we look upon it and find strength and hope in the midst of our own struggles.
"Ecce Homo"
Jesus crucified is the symbol of what humankind does to goodness -- we kill it. It is not evil that we are afraid of but goodness. In John's Passion story, Pontius Pilate presents Jesus to the people with the words: "Ecce Homo" -- Behold the Man (19:5). What an incredible expression to describe the paradoxical person and mission of God's own son!
"Ecce Homo" -- in whom humanity was so well integrated that he was fully human and is truly a model for each of how we must be fully human in order to be authentically holy.
"Ecce Homo" -- who lived for others, healing them, restoring them and loving them to life.
"Ecce Homo" -- who had the courage to choose women as disciples and close friends in his day.
"Ecce Homo" -- who claimed to have a unique, personal relationship with the God of Israel whom he called "Abba."
"Ecce Homo" -- who came into the world as the sinless one, the perfect one, the just one, the holy one, and his fellow human beings killed him. In the end, we destroy and kill the perfect human being, the very one that we have so longed for and loved.
From the very beginning of our lives, we are darkened with this self-destructive force, this primordial sin of being blind to human goodness. Is that not part of what we mean when we speak of original sin: the endless capacity within the human flesh for self-destruction and self-hatred?
In his death, Jesus turns us outward
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is torn from the midst of his family, disciples and friends, and they don't ever get a chance to see him again until he is raised from the dead. But things are different in John's Gospel where Jesus does get a chance to say good-bye, at least to his mother and one of his male disciples, who are gathered at the foot of his cross. Before he dies on the cross, Jesus commits his beloved disciple to his mother's care and his mother to that disciple's care. "Behold your son! Behold your mother!" Jesus turns us outward toward people to whom we are not physically related, identifying these people as our spiritual mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers.
Through his death, Jesus breaks down the barriers between people and creates a new family by the power that flows from his death for humanity. Even the bowing of his head at the moment of death can be interpreted as a nod in their direction. Out of Jesus' death comes life for his followers.
The Science of the cross
On this day, the death of Jesus invites us all, especially Christians and Jews, into a knowledge of our communion with one another and, a recognition of the terrible brokenness of the world. Nothing and no one can ever wrench us away any longer from that communion. Nothing can remove our sense of belonging to, participating in, and being the beneficiaries of God's saving encounter with Israel and with the broken world, which occurred in the crucifixion of Jesus, who we Christians believe to be son of Israel and Son of God.
On Good Friday, let us remember a Jewish woman, Edith Stein, who loved the cross and embraced its contradiction and mystery throughout her own life. There is a marvelous, life-size, bronze sculpture Edith Stein in the center of the German city of Cologne, close to the archdiocesan seminary. The sculpture depicts three Edith Steins at the three critical moments of her life. The first moment presents Edith as the young, Jewish philosopher and professor, a student of Edmund Husserl. Edith is presented deep in meditation and a Star of David leans against her knee.
The second depiction of the young woman shows Edith split in two. The artist shows her face and head almost divided. She moved from Judaism to agnosticism and even atheism. Hers was a painful search for the truth.
The third representation is Edith as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and she holds in her arms the crucified Christ: "Teresa blessed by the Cross" as her name indicates. She moved from Judaism, through atheism, to Christianity.
In her biography, we find a poignant moment from the critical period in her life, in Breslau, when she was moving beyond Judaism. Before her official entrance into the Carmel of Cologne, she had to face her Jewish mother. Her mother said to her daughter: "Edith, You can be religious also in the Jewish faith, don't you think?"
Edith responded: "Sure, when you have never known anything else."
Then her mother desperately replied: "And you, why did you know him? I don't want to say anything against him; certainly he was a very good man; but why did he become God?"
The last weeks at home and the moment of separation were very painful. It was impossible to make her mother understand even a little. Edith wrote: "And yet I crossed the threshold of the Lord's house in profound peace."
Like Edith Stein, we encounter Jesus and his cross, and we have known something else. We have met Someone else: the Man of the cross. We have no alternative but to go to him.
After Edith had entered the Cologne Carmel, she continued to write her great work on the cross: "Kreuzwissenschaft" -- the science of the cross. From Cologne she and her sister Rosa were deported to Echt in Holland and then rounded up with other Jews only to be sent to Auschwitz where she and sister were burned to death by the evil Nazi regime on Aug. 9, 1942.
On Good Friday we gather together as the Christian community to "behold the man" -- "Ecce Homo" -- and to gaze upon Jesus, who took upon himself all of our sins and failings so that we could experience peace and reconciliation with the One who sent him. If we have not truly encountered and embraced the Man of the cross our efforts are in vain. The validity of all of our efforts is determined by our embracing Jesus and his cross each day, by allowing the Paschal mystery to transfigure our lives.
The cross of Jesus teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope and new life. On Good Friday, may the cross be our true science, our comfort in time of trouble, our refuge in the face of danger, our safeguard on life's journey, until the Lord welcomes us to our heavenly home. Let us continue to mark ourselves daily with the sign of the cross, and be ever mindful of what we are truly doing and professing with this sign:
"In the Name of the Father"
We touch our minds because we know
So little how to create a world of justice, peace and hope.
"In the Name of the Son"
We touch the center of our body
To bring acceptance to the fears and pain
Stemming from our own passage through death to life.
"In the Name of the Spirit"
We embrace our heart
To remember that from the center of the Cross of Jesus,
God's vulnerable heart
Can bring healing and salvation to our own.
[The readings for Good Friday are: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-16, 17, 25; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42]
(Image: "Ecce Homo" by Antonio Cisero)
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