04 Apr Good Friday
Homily by Archbishop Brendan M. O’Brien
Good Friday 2018
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Today, our liturgy is dominated by the image of the cross. It is, of course, a readily recognized religious symbol which we often associate with peaceful church-like settings, or jewellery fashioned out of silver or gold. But, for Jesus and his contemporaries, it was not such a benign symbol. They would have been terrified by the cross, for it was a brutal instrument of torture and death. Death by crucifixion was meant to be a humiliating, horrible, public way of dying, ‘ex crucis’, the root of our word ‘excruciating’.
A question that many might ask is why did Jesus have to experience this painful death? This is a question that theologians have struggled with for centuries as they have reflected on the concept of atonement. I found that Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his book on Jesus of Nazareth, offers some helpful insights. He says that, in the Old Testament, on the Day of Atonement, the blood of animals was sprinkled on the covering of the Ark of the Covenant. But, he says: “It is not through the blood of animals touching a holy object that God and man are reconciled.” It would take more than that, and he proposes a way to look at this:
“In Jesus’s passion all the filth of the world touches the infinitely pure one, the soul of Jesus Christ, and hence touches the Son of God, himself.” He goes on to say that “while it is usually the case that anything unclean touching something clean renders it unclean, here it is the other way around: when the world, with all the injustice and cruelty, comes in contact with the infinitely pure one – then he, the pure one, is stronger. Through this contact, the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped out, and transformed in the pain of infinite love. Because infinite good is now at hand in the man, Jesus; the counterweight to all wickedness is active within world history.”
Jesus is the counterweight to the sin of the world. The reality of evil and injustice cannot be simply ignored; it has to be addressed. He then goes on to say that here “it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the focus (point) of reconciliation, and, in the person of his Son, takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants his infinite purity to the world. God himself drinks the cup of every horror to the dregs and therefore restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness.”
When Jesus’s horrific death is viewed from this perspective, we can better understand the account of the Passion according to St. John, which does not gloss over the horror and suffering of the crucifixion, but sees there more than pain and defeat. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus’s death is not seen as the low point of his life, but as the “hour” for which he has been preparing all his life. In St. John’s account of the Passion, Jesus is portrayed as self-possessed, undefeated by all that is inflicted upon him.
* There is no account of the Agony in the Garden;
* In the arrest scene, Jesus appears as the one in charge;
* It is the same in the dialogue between him and Pilate;
* There is no need of anyone, including Simon the Cyrene, to help carry the cross;
* And, on the cross, Jesus does not die until he has signified that his task is accomplished. Jesus hands over his breath to the Father – the breath that will animate the new creation;
* Even Pilate’s inscription on the cross, “King of the Jews”, is written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew – the languages of commerce, Roman administration, and of his own people – an indication that John is proclaiming Jesus as the Universal King.
The Passion according to St. John wants us to understand the great reconciliation that has occurred between God and our world in the death of Jesus on the cross. The cross is more than an instrument of torture; it is a sign of victory. John tells us that water and blood poured forth from the side of Jesus on the cross; water and blood are the signs of baptism and Eucharist, through which all peoples and nations can enter the new temple, Christ’s body, the Church.
In a few moments, we will have an opportunity to individually venerate the Cross. On this Good Friday, as we venerate the Cross of Christ, may we recall these words from our second reading today and take them to heart:
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”