On Good Friday
afternoon, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, preached the Tre Ore
Ceremony of the Seven Last Words of Christ in St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. Below is the first reflection based on Luke 23:34
: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”
“Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”
“When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
The moment of Jesus' death in Luke’s Gospel is charged with high emotion and drama. In Luke’s vivid crucifixion scene, Jesus goes to his death on the cross with the two criminals surrounding him, fulfilling his own prediction at the supper table: "For I tell you that the scripture must be fulfilled in me, namely, 'He was counted among the wicked"' (23:37).
The dying Jesus jars us with such a sense of shame and powerlessness in this Gospel. The evangelist offers us a lexicon of abuse and humiliation: criminals, condemnation, crucifixion, nakedness, scoffing, mocking, taunting, deriding, reviling and sneering – hardly the stuff of kingship. There are no crowns here except the one of thorns. We are face to face with agony and grief, and a barrage of insults instead of hymns of exultation and praise that echoed on the Mount of Olives just a few days before.
Just as during his lifetime among them Jesus had repeatedly taught his disciples not to respond to violence with more violence and to be forgiving, in his final moments on earth He forgives the very men who had condemned Him and who drive the stakes into his body [23:34]. When one of the crucified criminals joins in the chorus of derision that accompanies Jesus to his death, the other confesses his sin and asks for mercy [23:39-43].
Jesus of Nazareth is the true king, but His power is completely different. His throne is the cross. He is not a king who kills, but on the contrary gives His life. His approach to every single person, especially the weakest, defeats solitude and sin’s destiny. With closeness and tenderness, God’s only Son leads sinners into the space of grace and forgiveness. He offers people mercy from the cross. In the kingdom of Jesus, there is no distance between what is religious and temporal, but rather between domination and service. Jesus' kingdom is unlike the one that Pilate knows and is willingly or unwillingly part of. Pilate's kingdom, and for that matter the Roman kingdom, was one of arbitrariness, retribution, vengeance, recrimination, privileges, domination and occupation. Jesus' kingdom is built on love, service, justice, peace, forgiveness and mercy. This is Luke's recipe for authentic conversion as Jesus promises a criminal not only forgiveness but a place at his side on the very day when his journey to God triumphantly reaches its home in paradise.
For Jesus, the cross of death has become a cross of victory: victory of life over death, of forgiveness over violence. As followers of Jesus, we have been given new life and are called to embrace this vision of love for the world. We are called to die to self-centredness so that we may rise up in compassion and service. In his moving homily in St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday of this year, Pope Francis spoke about this heart-wrenching scene:
“He [Jesus] forgives those who are crucifying him, he opens the gates of paradise to the repentant thief and he touches the heart of the centurion. If the mystery of evil is unfathomable, then the reality of Love poured out through him is infinite, reaching even to the tomb and to hell. He takes upon himself all our pain that he may redeem it, bringing light to darkness, life to death, love to hatred. God’s way of acting may seem so far removed from our own, that he was annihilated for our sake, while it seems difficult for us to even forget ourselves a little. He comes to save us; we are called to choose his way: the way of service, of giving, of forgetfulness of ourselves.”
The Latin word for 'mercy' (misericordia) derives from two words: one, miseriae for misery; the other, cor or cordis meaning heart. Mercy is what happens when a heart of love meets the misery or pitiful state of others and the world. When Pope Francis speaks of the Jubilee of Mercy, he writes: "God treats us sinners, in the same way. He continually offers us His forgiveness. He helps us to welcome Him and to be aware of our evil so as to free ourselves of it. God does not seek our condemnation, only our salvation. God does not wish to condemn anyone! …The Lord of Mercy wishes to save everyone. …The problem is letting Him enter into our heart. All the words of the prophets are an impassioned and love-filled plea for our conversion".
This moving Gospel scene of the dying and forgiving Jesus demonstrates in a particularly dramatic way the quality and extent of divine forgiveness. The sin may be terrible, but sinners are always loved. In the final moments of his life, Jesus is only doing what he has done throughout his life on page after page of the Gospels. Remember that woman caught in adultery who was dragged before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees in order to force him to give judgment on the basis of the Mosaic Law? Jesus' first reply to the woman's accusers, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her," gives us an insight into his realistic understanding of the human condition, beginning with that of his questioners who began to drift away one by one.
We also observe Jesus' profound humanity in his treatment of the unfortunate woman, of whose sins he certainly disapproved, for he said to her, "Go and do not sin again." Jesus did not crush her under the weight of a condemnation without appeal. The real enemy is our attachment to sin, which can lead us to failure in our lives. Jesus forgives this poor woman so that "from now on" she will sin no more. Only divine forgiveness and divine love received with an open and sincere heart give us the strength to resist evil and "to sin no more," to let ourselves be struck by God's love so that it becomes our strength. Jesus' attitude becomes a model to follow for every community, which is called to place love and forgiveness at the center of its life.
To recognize and bring out the sin in others means also recognizing oneself as a sinner, and in need of God's boundless mercy. To preach the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ without acknowledging the necessity of profound personal conversion and the free gift of God's mercy is to deny the central Christian message of conversion.
Jesus, you were betrayed by a friend the night before you died. We betray one another and when we are betrayed, we remain embittered and unforgiving.
Jesus, you declared blessed those who show mercy. How often we operate on a double standard of expecting mercy and not wanting to grant it. How often we prefer the strict law and order approach over that of mercy, tenderness and compassion. Many people suffer because of us and our unforgiving attitudes.
Jesus, may we learn your vocabulary and say when others hurt us: “Father, forgive them, especially when they don’t know what they are saying and doing.” Father, forgive us, especially when we don’t know what we are saying and doing.
Blessed Oscar Romero insisted on the need for forgiveness throughout his life. As Archbishop of San Salvador he set an example for us of the practice of forgiveness. In every tragic circumstance he encountered, Romero spoke words of forgiveness. He asked forgiveness for murderers, for the violent, for sinners, even exclaiming: “The vengeance of God is forgiveness!” Forgiveness calms minds and reconciles after a tragedy, whenever the guilty ones were willing to repent.
Let me leave you with this quote from the conclusion of my friend, Sr. Helen Prejean's best selling book Dead Man Walking. It is particularly appropriate in light of this Gospel scene, for it highlights our daily struggle for forgiveness and reconciliation that lies at the heart of the Christian life.
Sr. Helen wrote: "Lloyd LeBlanc has told me that he would have been content with imprisonment for Patrick Sonnier [who murdered LeBlanc's son]. He went to the execution, he says, not for revenge, but hoping for an apology.
"Patrick Sonnier had not disappointed him. Before sitting in the electric chair he had said, 'Mr. LeBlanc, I want to ask your forgiveness for what me and Eddie done,' and Lloyd LeBlanc had nodded his head, signaling a forgiveness he had already given.
He says that when he arrived with sheriff's deputies there in the cane field to identify his son, he had knelt by his boy -- 'laying down there with his two little eyes sticking out like bullets' – and prayed the Our Father. And when he came to the words: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,' he had not halted or equivocated, and he said, 'Whoever did this, I forgive them.'
But he acknowledged that it's a struggle to overcome the feelings of bitterness and revenge that well up, especially as he remembers David's birthday year by year and loses him all over again: David at 20, David at 25, David getting married, David standing at the back door with his little ones clustered around his knees, grown-up David, a man like himself, whom he will never know.
Forgiveness is never going to be easy. Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won."
(Dead Man Walking pp. 244-245 New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1993)
Jesus was king even on the cross, welcoming people into his kingdom and not waiting until He was enthroned in glory. He put into practice forgiveness and mercy every single day of his life and at times it was not easy. He, too, prayed to be able to forgive and be merciful. He struggled with the temptation to bow down before the ways of the world and the powers of the evil one. He remained steadfast to the mission entrusted to him by a God who is mercy. And in the end, Jesus won. He forgave up until the bitter end. In our last moments, may we, too, be given the ability to forgive those who have wronged us, and receive from Jesus the gifts of trust, intimacy, mercy and an open door to the Father.