Giotto. The Crucifixion. 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.
Jesus, the author of life, was led away to die, but his death brought about a different result than his enemies intended. By his death he destroyed the power of death. Condemned, though he was innocent, he accepted the punishment our sins deserved.
In the Book of Isaiah, written about 700 years before Christ, we read a prophecy of the future suffering of Jesus “… he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53, 5)
Though he was without sin, Jesus took upon Himself the burden of our sins and allowed Himself to be led to the slaughter like a lamb. Oppressed and afflicted, he did not open His mouth to defend Himself against His aggressors. (cf. Isaiah 53, 7)
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Founder of the Jesuits, urges us to meditate for a week on the Passion of Christ. He realized that all our ambition to become holy, is only as valuable as our willingness to carry the cross. If we are going to follow in Christ’s footsteps, striving to become holy like Him, we’ve got no other option. We then must be willing to carry our cross in union with Him.
From the cross, Jesus gave us the gift of his mother when he said to St. John the Apostle “Behold, your mother.” In May, I will visit Ephesus, Turkey and see what is believed to be the reconstruction of the house the Blessed Virgin Mary lived in, after St. John the Apostle took her there for safety, after a persecution of Christians in Jerusalem in the First Century. It is believed that Mary had the Stations of the Cross marked out with stones a short distance from her house.
Most people would rather forget the most painful and traumatic events of their lives, but Mary often reflected on the events of her life and the events of the life of her Divine Son in her heart. She wanted to remember not only the most joyful moments, but also the depth of Christ’s love for her and the whole world by the suffering he endured on the cross.
Our modern world sees no value in suffering. It does everything it can to avoid, deny or anesthetize suffering regardless of the moral consequences. When the movie “The Passion” came out a few years ago, some condemned it as too morbid. It shocked people by the reality of the horrors of the scourging and crucifixion.
The Romans saw the cross as a sign of infamy. They used it to torture and kill those they regarded as criminals. Mere killing wasn’t enough. The lifting of the body from the earth was itself an insult, as if to say the condemned person was not worthy to walk the face of the earth. But Jesus predicted “When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself.” (John 12, 32)
Jesus used an instrument of torture, mockery and death to win for us the gift of eternal life. In the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, also called the Church in the Modern World, the Church teaches:
…whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.(GS #27)Thus, those who condemned him, spit at him, beat him and killed him did more harm to themselves than they did to Jesus.
There is no other path to glory except through the cross. It is through the cross that God teaches us that he is able to draw good out of every human tragedy. What seemed like a victory for Satan, was actually his defeat. What bad men willed for evil God has drawn the greatest good, the gift of our eternal salvation. This is also a great consolation for us who seek to defeat the culture of death and build a culture of life. Death will not have the last word. Just as surely as the Resurrection followed Good Friday, a culture of life will supplant a culture of death.
The whole of Jesus’ life was directed to this one supreme moment when he would demonstrate his love and obedience to the Father and his love for all humankind, by making of himself a sacrificial offering to pay the price for our sins.
In the year 565, a young Italian poet who would later become St. Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, undertook a grueling pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Martin of Tours after being miraculously cured of a disease of his eye. As he traveled he witnessed many signs of material and cultural decay due to the collapse of the Roman Empire. He probably could not have imagined the glorious Catholic civilization that would arise in Europe in the High Middle Ages. Despite the signs of decay all around him, he didn’t lose hope and he wrote a hymn that is still sung in the Liturgy of the Hours today which begins:
The royal banners forward go,In the passion story according to St. John, the last words that Jesus said on the cross before he bowed his head and died is "It is finished" (John 19:30). In the original Greek it is just one word, tetelestai.
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where He in flesh, our flesh Who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.
Scholars were able to give us more insight into the meaning of this expression a few years ago after some archaeologists in the Holy Land dug up a tax collector's office that was almost completely intact. Even the tax records were preserved. One of two stacks of tax records had the word tetelestai written on top. The word tetelestai in this context meant that these people didn’t owe any more tax. They were "paid in full."
Jesus used the language of business to speak of our relationship to God and neighbor. The Jews thought of sin as a debt that we owe to God that must be repaid in some way. Since everything we have comes from God, there is no way we could have ever paid the price for our own sins. Thus God himself had to take on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and offer himself up as an innocent Lamb to pay the price of our sins.
When he uttered the words “It is finished” or tetelestai was a cry of victory. His mission had been accomplished and the debt we incurred because of our sins had been paid in full.
This is why Mary never wanted to forget what Jesus endured for us on the cross. This is why St. Ignatius as well as so many other saints, throughout the ages, have urged us to meditate on Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is why we call this Friday “Good”!
Don’t be afraid of the cross. The cross is the door to paradise. We need to meditate often on the suffering and death of Jesus. Every Catholic home should have a crucifix in a prominent place. Some families have a crucifix in every room. We should meditate often on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, read the accounts of Christ’s Passion from the Bible and make the Stations of the Cross.
We should contemplate Jesus dying to make the full payment for our sins. We must respond to the love Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross by our willingness to make sacrifices for his sake.
Jesus calls us today to take up our cross and follow him. He calls us to die to our former life of sin and live a new life based on his teaching of the Gospel. He calls us to put our love for God and neighbor above our attachment to the things of this world, to be zealous in our proclamation of the Gospel, to build up his Kingdom and to create a new culture of life. With St. Paul we should be able to say “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Galatians 2, 19-20)
We should continually give thanks to him who gave his life to make full payment for the immeasurable debt we owe to God and opened up for us the gates of paradise.
(Homily Given by Fr. Peter West, Associate Director of Priests For Life on Good Friday April 2, 2010 at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Bremerton, Washington.)