Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday: God in the depths

The Good Friday Sepulchre at St Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary.

Gold and silver crosses worn as ornaments (sometimes even by those who don't believe). Jewel encrusted crosses crowning the altars of great cathedrals. Roadside crosses marking the locations of tragic motor vehicle accidents. 

Whichever way you look at it, the cross still has a place, not just in Christian devotion, but also in our culture, on account of the death of Jesus. 

Cicero famously commented: "It is the most cruel and shameful of all punishment. Let it never come near the body of a Roman citizen - not even his thoughts or eyes or ears". Crucifixion was for criminals; it involved unbearable thirst, stabbing pain, psychological torture and a slow lingering death. 

Christian devotion to the cross - evident from the earliest days, as we see from the holy graffiti on the walls of the Catacombs in Rome - struck non-Christians as peculiar. As Richard Holloway once pointed out, the modern equivalent might well be a decorated gallows, or even a brightly painted model of a brain tumour hung over an altar. 

Yet for us the cross - the sign of weakness, tragedy and defeat - is the centre of life, the centre of history and the centre of the universe. He who hangs there is entirely innocent. His sufferings are undeserved. He is betrayed by a friend and executed after a mock trial. 

He had said to his followers: "The Son of Man will give his life as a ransom for many", and "When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto myself". Behind this death is the design of God's Redeeming Love. Indeed, our faith has taught us audaciously to say that it is God who dies on Calvary's hill. 

On the cross God enters the depths of our human experience, even the tragedy of the sense of ultimate forsakenness that haunts our culture and dominates so much contemporary art, music and literature. 

He hangs there, bearing the weight of our sins, so that we can be forgiven. 

He suffers in his human flesh, and he reaches out to you and to me from within his sufferings to embrace and strengthen us. From the cross he gathers to himself the brokenness and sinfulness of the whole world, transforming it from within by the power of his suffering love. 

On the cross hangs the human flesh of God, suspended between heaven and earth, unleashing torrents of forgiving, redeeming love into the world we had made the gutter of the universe. 

From the cross the anguished gaze of suffering love melts our hearts into a response that at least in its intention can be no less than total. 

The early Christians do not see the cross as a miserable defeat followed by the Father's intervention to turn things around at the Resurrection. No! For them the cross itself is the victory. On the cross our salvation is won; on the cross Jesus triumphs over the powers of darkness and hell; from the cross, he draws everything in heaven and everything in earth into the cosmic embrace of his outstretched arms. Resurrection is the logical consequence of the victory of Redeeming Love; it is the public demonstration that the victory has been won. 

Questions still remain. The ambiguities of life abide. Your heart and mine are still ripped open by life's injustices and the unexplained suffering of good people and children. But for two thousand years, those who have  - however reluctantly - given in to Redeeming Love have come to know the reality of Jesus' presence and that same love in the in the struggles, contradictions and tragedies as well as in the unspeakable joys of our human story. 

The Church is not primarily an "institution" to be understood in organizational terms. It is first and foremost the community of love gathered around the risen Jesus, whose victory, risen life and healing power keep breaking into our lives through prayer and the sacraments, even if it is sometimes in our pain that we share the Redeeming Love he personifies. 

In joining together at Mass on the Lord's Day - Sunday - the Day of Resurrection, we not only commemorate the story of Jesus - something that happened a long time ago; by faith - however tenuous - we allow Jesus to merge his story and our stories together, and experience each time a little more of the reality of death giving way to new life.


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