Glory to Jesus Christ. I have not posted in a while – Holy Week opened for me with my nervous system and muscles both clobbered by a cold front that rolled in. I finally felt myself yesterday, the day of betrayal by Judas balanced by the gift of the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood at the Last Supper. Jesus completely gave of Himself in the bread and wine which changed into Him, Body and Blood, and He commanded the apostles to continue this self-gift of Himself which founded the priesthood. We as Catholics and Orthodox are so blessed and fortunate to have Jesus Living in the tabernacles of our churches, and given to us in each Divine Liturgy/ Mass that is offered!
And now we come to the other self-giving of Jesus: His saving death, on the life-giving Cross, the paradox of Good Friday. I was asked to preach every Friday of Great Lent at the Stations of the Cross at Annunciation Roman Catholic Church. I was lifted up each Friday and able to do so: my guardian angel was hard at work. This is the meditation that I gave on the awesome self-giving of Jesus when He died on the Cross and what followed. I hope somebody is able to come closer to Christ as a result of publishing this.
One thing to remember in discussing the Passion of Jesus is this: in all four Gospels, Jesus is not a pawn, a helpless victim. In the Byzantine prayers, we always say that He willingly ascended the Cross. Jesus is in charge – He suffers, He falls, He is comforted, He is mocked, but He is in charge of His fate. Once the situation was resolved in the Garden of Gethsemane, and His human and divine natures act in concert in the One Person, Jesus walks through the next hours very aware, and His words are chosen carefully. He falls down for many physical reasons, but He gets up and continues onward.
At noon, darkness covers the land. The four Evangelists literally say “darkness” took over. This darkness, Mark says, lasts until the very moment when Jesus gives His death cry at 3 pm. The mockeries Jesus endures from the temple priests and the Roman soldiers alike echo Psalm 22, verse 8. Jesus in His dying quotes the opening words of Psalm 22: 2. The reaction of those who hear him, running to provide the vinegar drink, fulfills Psalm 69:22.
Before God made light, there was?
Darkness is frightening, darkness is to be avoided as dangerous, and darkness must be broken by light. The little fires of the soldiers atop Golgotha do nothing to pierce this darkness.
In Jeremiah 15:9, God says of Jerusalem’s failure to act properly, “Her sun sets at midday, she is shamed and disgraced.” In Zephaniah 1:15 “a day of wrath … a day of darkness and gloom” marks the day of the Lord, which Joel warns about also in chapter 2, verse 2 and again in 2:31 Joel predicts: “The sun will be turned to darkness at the great and terrible coming of the day of the Lord.” In Amos chapter 8, the prophet writes “the sun shall set at noon, and the light shall be darkened on earth in the daytime. I will make them mourn as for an only son and bring their day to a bitter end.”
The death of an only son in antiquity was a disaster – there was now no one to carry on the name, or to pray for the souls of those who have died. The family is doomed to extinction, as are their souls. This only son of the widow Mary leaves her with nothing, it seems, until He commends her to the care of St. John the Beloved, the teenager apostle whom Jesus loved for his innocent enthusiasm and dedication. This Good Friday will end in bitterness, as all Good Fridays do.
So, while the priests and criminals called for a sign, a miracle, God was busy doing just that, a warning of punishment. The darkness is sometimes interpreted in English readings as the sun eclipsed, or there was an eclipse of the sun. This is not correct, for there was no eclipse on that day. Rather the better translation is to say what the Greek says: the sun failed or the sun was darkened – these convey the dramatic point that God is acting. He Who made everything is now interfering to show both His anger and His sorrow. The secular press always brings up the point on Good Friday that there is no record of an eclipse of the earth, so how could the bible say that there was. The bible is making a spiritual point: Jesus, the Son of God, is dying in agony, and God darkens the sun over Jerusalem while this is happening. And the darkness is there, as is the crucifixion, because of us. It is not a natural darkness. It is a darkness that suffocates the spirit, because this darkness in which God has darkened the sun over Jerusalem is, I think, similar to the darkness which Jesus faced in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prayed for the chalice of suffering to pass away from Him. It is the darkness of the ages, the primordial darkness when there was nothing, the darkness of billions of souls who commit sins in defiance of God’s radical self-giving grace. Of course there was no eclipse of the sun – it is the darkening of the sun, a weeping by the sun which gives light to all living things, over the death of the divine and human Son of God Who gives life to all people.
At Jesus’ death, Matthew tells us that there is an earthquake, splitting open the stones that covered the tombs of the saints, of holy Jewish people, who after Easter Sunday appear in Jerusalem and testify to Jesus, and the evangelists write of the temple curtain being torn from top to bottom. Why does it matter in what direction the temple curtain was torn? Who cares if it was from top to bottom or bottom to top? Everything in the Gospels is there for a reason – if this heavy inner curtain was torn from the top straight down, then it is the hand of God Himself which does this.
Jesus’ saving death has immediate effect on the Jews and Romans alike that Friday afternoon.
Here, we have perhaps the saddest, most tragic moment of all – Jesus’ death cry – My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me – spoken out into this frightening darkness, and he says it in Aramaic, the ordinary language of the people, not Hebrew, the language of the synagogue. Hence some people misunderstand and when he says Eloi, Eloi, they think he is calling for the prophet Elijah. But the rest do understand all too well – this is the opening sentence of Psalm 22, a mix of human lonely fear and hopeful trust.
The words used in the Gospels for this exclamation evoke “shout”, or “a scream.” Crucified victims would scream from the pain, from anger at their fate, from frustration, from fear. So this anguished cry would not startle the Roman soldiers, who have heard it all before. But it does startle the Jews, because they know what it means. After this scream, of those significant words, Jesus then says “It is completed”, lowers His head, and dies. This is the only place where Jesus says God – everywhere else in the gospels He says “Father.” Mark and Matthew are the only ones who record this episode – John and Luke chose not to. It is good for us though that the cry, the scream, is recorded in Matthew and Mark. Why? Who here has not felt abandoned by God at least once, or misunderstood by God? Yes, Jesus knows Psalm 22, and He knows that it ends in the triumph of the Messiah, but right now, this psalm says everything that He feels on that wooden cross which is cutting into His wounds, surrounded by enemies who curse Him and make fun of Him, very much alone and in tremendous pain after 21 hours without food or drink, with only some women who wept over Him, His mother and the teenager apostle from all of his followers nearby, and for three long hours the sun has been darkened in an unnatural darkness. He is in terrific pain, and right now fear, and so he cries out like any other humble servant of the Lord and says again My God, the next verse:
22:2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
22:3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
22:4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
22:5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
22:6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
22:7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
22:8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver– let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
22:9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
22:10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
22:11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
22:12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
22:13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
22:14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
22:15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
22:16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
22:17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
22:18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
It says everything. From verses 19 to 31 it becomes a proclamation of triumph, of God answering the prayer, feeding the poor, and of all nations bowing down in worship. That’s Pentecost. We’re not there yet. We’re with Christ on this cross and His death is coming at us. And in all four Gospels, after the loud cry, Jesus says, “Father, (back to Abba), into Your hands, I commend my spirit”, and He bows His head, and dies. His soul leaves His broken body, and He is dead. In his death, He brings salvation – his side is pierced with a lance, and blood and water gush out so much that the Roman centurion says “Surely this was God’s Son” giving the first testimony from a Gentile, and testimony that comes from a soldier of imperial Rome, which was the greatest power in the ancient world of Europe and the Middle East.
Luke, Matthew and Mark give us the penultimate sign: the tearing of the Temple’s veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary. This is where God lived on earth, and with this tearing, from the top to the bottom and thus implying a divine hand doing the tearing, the innermost part of the temple is exposed, God’s dwelling is ended. The Jerusalem leadership failed to recognize Jesus as God’s Son, but the pagans do. This is the direction that the Church will now take, out into the Gentile world, under Saint Paul and with the backing of Saints Peter and James, and has taken ever since.
Now they go to the tomb, a tomb newly cut out of the rock, a tomb never used before by anyone. What does this remind us of? Her womb – new, never used, virginal, and in the East it is also called the bridal chamber. Now He is put in virginal rock, into the bridal chamber from which our Bridegroom will emerge on Sunday. The earth laments for Him and encases Him, behind the huge stone that blocks the entire doorway. And Matthew ends this whole exhausting section with this simple sentence: And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.
Now real darkness is settling in – they have left His body unwashed, with no anointing, because the Sabbath was coming. The sun sets, stars appear in the sky, but they stay sitting there, facing the tomb, until they get up with a deep sigh and head back to the upper room to join the apostles in their hiding place, and to rest all day Saturday.
How silent that first holy Saturday was. In John’s gospel, that day was Passover – they probably did not feel like going to a Seder. In the other three gospels, it was a normal Sabbath when the whole city would be still, and everyone was resting. All of the disciples were exhausted by now.
From the Jerusalem Matins:
The sovereign Ruler of creation is dead, and is buried in a tomb
In a grave they laid you, O my Life and my Christ, yet the Lord of Death has been destroyed by your death, and from you, the world now drinks rich streams of life.
O my sweet Lord Jesus, my Salvation, my Light, how are you by a grave and by its darkness hid? How unspeakable the mystery of your love!
In the Byzantine Catholic tradition, a tomb is set up in the church on Good Friday. We process in the dark around the church, with candles, singing a mournful dirge that tells this story: Joseph of Arimathea who wrapped the body in pure linen and placed it in a new tomb. Everything is new and untouched for our Lord. We have a life-sized shroud with an icon of Jesus in the tomb painted on it. This is then brought inside, to the tomb, and laid flat, raised up so people can see, on black cloths. The sermon is preached, the lights remain dimmed, and people come up on their knees, shuffling, to reach the tomb. Then they kiss each hand, the wound in the side, and each foot, and then get up and go back to sit in the church. We are all Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, sitting there, facing the tomb. We do that all night long, past the dawn.
It is something to go to our church at 3 am and see people sitting in the dark, Jesus’ wounded body exposed above the black cloth, dark colored flowers around it, and silence. We never have silence in our church – we have singing all through the service, nonstop. But not now, not once Jesus is buried. The choir will lament for a while, but come 10 pm that all stops and then people are silent, facing the tomb.
Here we are confronted with the enormous love of God, with what it means to hear Jesus say to Julian of Norwich, “Were it necessary, I would gladly suffer the passion again and again for each of you, so great is my love for you.”
He would not only suffer, but He would die each time, billions upon billions of times.
I want to imitate Jesus, who did not love the cross, but He loved us at the cost of the cross. – Ven. Luigi Rocchi
We are also confronted in the darkness
- with our failures that we continue to cling to, despite Jesus’ great sacrifice. He would willingly endure the passion again if necessary to save me – but why should I put my Lord into that position of needing to do that because of my stubborn sinning?
- The enormity of His love – that body with the wounds: this He suffered willingly, this He suffered, just for me. Where is my love for God, and what is it like? Enormous? Or small, just a bit.
- There are other people there. Sometimes someone cries a little. Mostly it is still, no bell ringing anymore, just a wooden clapper. We can only hear God if we are still, and if we sit quietly for a while. Five minutes does not do it – too much stuff is bouncing in our heads.
- People stay for an hour. The origin of holy hour is to make up for the apostles who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus said, could you not watch with me for one hour? That’s why people are asked to sign up for an hour to sit before the Blessed Sacrament in your adoration chapel – to make up for their abandonment, and frankly to make up for our own abandonment of Him.
- We need time to let go of our stuff, to get it out of our minds, write it down on a piece of paper, and then go back to watching the Host or sitting in the still church. That hour can save our lives.
Suffering is the true leaven that transforms everything. The cross is the true engine of all things. Jesus said so well: “Without me you can do nothing.” What is Jesus without the Cross and the Resurrection?