Text: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42
In a reflection I shared at Christmas, I quoted St. Athanasius, who wrote that “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”1 Today, we see the full price implied in that becoming.
Adam and Eve sinned in a garden, choosing that their will supercede God’s; Jesus’ Passion, our salvation, begins in a garden, where he, despite his anguish, accepted God’s will above his own: “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.”2 God chose that he should accept the abandonment, humiliation, suffering and death that we would inflict on him, as we inflict it on each other; we cannot but wonder why. I don’t pretend to understand the fullness of this mystery, but I’ll share what gleanings I have found.
The crucifixion of Christ is an outward sign of an inward reality: God, in Christ, suffers everything we suffer, and everything we inflict on another. God wants to show us in the most irrefutable way possible that even though this is true, she still loves us more than we can imagine. To accomplish this, Christ’s suffering is not only inward and thus unseen, but physical, tangible and visible, and the full depth of meaning of his forgiveness of his tormentors, both from the cross and after his resurrection, is made clear.
Not only, though, does Jesus suffer these physical torments, but he suffers complete abandonment: his friends and disciples, we among them, flee; not only that, but even God the Father seems absent. Today, we hear him say, “I am thirsty,”3 but in Matthew's Gospel, he cries more poignantly, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”4 Sometimes, we too experience this complete abandonment: St. John of the Cross, in The Dark Night of the Soul, wrote, “what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence cast it into darkness. The thought that God has abandoned it is a piteous and heavy affliction for the soul.”5 He characterized this dark night as a dryness, an aridity. From this, we understand that when Jesus cries out that he is thirsty, he is misunderstood: they give him sour wine, but his thirst is for righteousness, and for God. God is making clear that everything we suffer, Christ also suffers for us and with us; we are never in a place where God in Christ has not gone. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”6
In a few minutes, we will come and reverence the cross. Why? Surely we don’t idolize suffering and death! The simple-sounding answer is that the cross is the means of our salvation, but for us to accept that means is not so small a thing. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”7 Thus, if Jesus is the Way for us, and the cross is the way for him, then that is not only Christ’s cross, but our own. When we come to it, we recognize that we too are crucified: Jesus’ suffering is ours, as ours is his. Everything we have done to another, we today understand that we have done through that union to Christ, and to ourselves. We come to the cross in faith and in hope, trusting as Jesus did that it is not the final truth, but a means towards union with Christ, with the Father, and with each other. We come in reverence and gratitude, awed at the generosity of our savior who willingly took it up for our sake. But let us come also with trepidation, recognizing that cross as our own, though not fully so: Jesus, understanding our weakness, told us to pray not to be put to the test,8 and let his disciples escape. Let us come with our grief: the cross is a sign of Christ’s agony and the consequence of sin. And let us come with compassion—“com-Passion,” “Passion with,” a shared experience of that crucifixion—because surely there are many among us today who, each in our own ways and often in secret and silence, are suffering.
In the end, Jesus says, “It is finished.”9 The great work of God’s love, our salvation, is accomplished. By Christ’s acceptance and forgiveness, the totality of sin itself is made subordinate to God’s authority. The price is heavy: we have cast out and killed our king and our God. The path of our discipleship is faint here: like Peter and the others, we have gone astray, and we need God our Shepherd’s help to find our way home, and to be nurtured back into strength as followers of Christ and workers in his mission. In the silence and darkness which follows this Passion, we mourn, and we pray, waiting for God to reveal himself again, and bring us back through the conquering power of her unquenchable love.
1: Cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994 English translation), Art. 460.
2: Matthew 26:39
3: John 19:28
4: Matthew 27:46
5: Op. cit., Book 2, 6.2.(2).
6: Hebrews 4:15
7: John 14:6
8: Matthew 6:12
9: John 19:30