(Courtesy: Fr Tony Kadavil)
Good Friday (I) 2006: Seven Words from the Cross
Biblical anecdote: Hagar at Beer-Sheba versus Mary at Calvary: "Let me not watch to see the child die," (Genesis 21:16) lamented Hagar, after putting her child Ishmael, son of Abraham, down under a shrub, and then going and sitting down opposite him, about a bowshot away. Hagar was the slave and maid servant of Abraham, voluntarily given to him as his substitute wife by his legal wife Sarah, who had proved barren. But later when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Sarah became jealous of Hagar and her son and insisted that Hagar and her son should be cast out. Early the next morning Abraham got some bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. Then, placing the child on her back, he sent her away. "As she roamed aimlessly in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba, the water in the skin was used up," (Gen. 21: 14-15) and Ishmael was about to die of dehydration in the scorching heat of the sun. It was then that the broken hearted mother Hagar prayed to God, lamenting that she could not watch her son dying of thirst in the hot desert. The book of Genesis tells us how God intervened and saved Hagar and her son. Centuries later at Calvary we see another mother - Mary - remaining at the foot of the cross of her son Jesus, determined to keep watch with him as he died for the sins of mankind and to hear his last sermon of seven words from the cross. We too are invited today to hear what she heard and to see how her son died as our savior. Let us repeat what Peter said at the mountain of Transfiguration: "Lord, it is good that we stay here."
Introduction: There were three crosses on Golgotha. On the right and on the left were two robbers crucified for rebellion and murder. On one cross Jesus died for our sin; on another cross the unrepentant thief died in sin, and on the third cross a repentant thief died to sin. On the center cross (with its mocking title of scorn, Jesus the Nazarene king of the Jews, in three languages) hung a sinless Sufferer! He was dying for the sins of the world. Jesus spoke seven times during the closing moments of his earthly life, as he died on the Cross.
It has been an age old practice in the Church to reflect on these last words of Jesus from the cross as an integral part of Good Friday observance so that we may repent on our sins and resolve to renew our lives and thus participate fully in the joy of Jesus' resurrection.
1. The word of forgiveness: Then said Jesus, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). While the crucified convicts would shriek and curse and spit at the spectators, Jesus, innocent of any crime against God or humanity, betrayed, arrested, scourged and condemned, did not. Now, from the cross, Jesus' thoughts reached above his pain and rejection. Instead of being consumed with his own pain and misery, Jesus asked forgiveness for those responsible for the evil done to him - and by extension, for all who ignorantly go the way of sin and death. Jesus prayed for those who condemned Him, mocked at Him and nailed Him to the Cross - and for those who from all the nations and down through the years would crucify him by their sins.
Jesus is practicing what He preached - unconditional, forgiving love. One day Jesus preached on the mountain, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that spitefully use you and persecute you" (Mt 5: 44). Jesus reminded Peter that there should not be any limit to forgiveness. He sadly addressed Judas, leading the soldiers to arrest him, as friend. It is this model which the first Martyr Stephen followed (Acts 7:60). Archbishop Oscar Romero, the outspoken champion of the oppressed, said the same first word of Jesus from the cross, as he was shot dead at the altar. St. Cyprian gave gold coins as his farewell gift to his executioner, and St. Thomas More hugged and kissed his executioner. It was Christ's unconditional forgiveness which prompted the centurion in charge of Jesus' crucifixion to proclaim, "Truly he was the Son of God."
Anecdote: June 22, 1996 in Ann Arbor, Michigan there was a rally of the Ku Klux Klan at the City Hall. It was quite legal. There were also 300 anti-Klan people assembled to protest the rally. One white male Klansman stood out, perhaps because he was proudly displaying Confederate flags on his vest and T-shirt. Suddenly, without warning, a swarm of angry anti-Klan demonstrators rushed him, pushed him to the ground, beat him with their signs and kicked him. Appalled, an 18-year-old African American girl named Keisha Thomas, threw herself over the fallen man, shielding him with her own body from the kicks and punches. Keisha, when asked why she, a black teenager, would risk injury to protect a man who was a white supremacist said, "He's still somebody's child. I don't want people to remember my name but I'd like them to remember I did the right thing." A black teen laying down her life for a racist - an enemy. I think Keisha understood Good Friday, understood Jesus' words "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
Lesson in unconditional forgiveness: If someone hurts our feelings can we forgive that person, pray for God's blessings on him or her and continue to treat him or her as our friend? Here is a Chinese proverb: "One who hates another digs two graves: one for himself and the other for the one he hates." St. Paul admonishes, "Be ye therefore kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another" (Ephesians 4:32). He advises the Romans: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good"(12: 20-21).
2. The word of assurance: Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:42-43). On either side of Jesus, on their crosses were two thieves. These two were really guilty men who deserved death. When sunlight falls on wax it melts, but the same light hardens the clay. The waxy heart of the thief on the right (traditionally called Dismas) literally melted with repentance at the sight of Jesus crucified, prompting him to address Jesus humbly and devoutly," Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus said, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." Dismas did not have to confess all his sins to Jesus - Jesus forgave and forgot them all… and at once! But the hard-hearted, unrepentant sinner on the left remained that way in spite of Jesus' presence and exemplary, heroic death right before his eyes.
Judas committed the same folly as the thief on the left, hardening his heart with unbridled love for money, in spite of his three years of close association with Jesus and active participation in his healing and preaching ministry. The same thing happened to Cardinal Woolsey of England who sided with the emperor Henry VIII in creating a heretical Christian denomination and died in despair, while Henry's Vice Chancellor Thomas Moore bravely courted martyrdom for his faith.
Lesson: We are here to remember how Jesus died on the cross to save each human soul, paying his life as ransom. Will we follow the example of the repentant thief who, seeing the death of Jesus, was converted or will we go out of the church today, unmoved and hard-hearted, returning to the world of our sins and infidelity like the unrepentant sinner who died in his sins in the presence of the Lord of mercy and forgiveness?
3. The word of comfort: When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (John 19:26-27). Jesus' disciples had deserted him; his friends had forsaken him; his nation had rejected him; and his enemies cried out for his blood. But his faithful mother stood there sorrowing at the foot of the Cross. Who can grasp the grief of Mary watching her son suffer - the grief of a mother watching her son die as a criminal on a cross? And who can grasp the grief of the son - the son who must see his mother's heart pierced by a sword as prophesied by Simeon, when Jesus as a child was presented in the temple? Jesus announces from the cross that he is going to give us the most valuable and the last gift: "Here is your mother." Here is the one I love, for you to love, and for her to love you - the one who taught me, the one who fed me, the one who wiped away my tears, the one who hugged me, the one who will be with you and pray for you.
"Woman": That's how Jesus called her mother. Jesus is calling his mother by the most glorious word at that moment, "woman", reminding us that his mother is the "woman" of Gen.3:15, the one who will crush the head of the serpent, Satan, with the Blood of Christ. Jesus had given us the last drop of his blood. He had nothing else left, but his Mother, and he gave her to us too. His own Mother was to be our spiritual Mother in his Church, His Mystical Body, where he is the head, and the Christians the members. And, as in any other body, the Mother of the Head is also the Mother of the members of the Body, the Mother of each one of us (Col.1:18, Eph.4:5-6). Mary is the Mother of Sorrows, because at the foot of the Cross she gave birth to us in Christ. She is indeed our Mother.
Lesson: This is Jesus' loving death-bed gift to each of his believers: giving us his mother as our mother, the mother of Christians, mother of the Church, to honor, love, and respect and imitate. She is the supreme model of trusting faith in God, model of perfect obedience to the will of God and the model of perfect surrender of one's life to God. "Behold, your mother!" John Paul II said, in addressing World Youth Day (n. 3; ORE, 19 March 2003, p. 6), "Jesus addresses these words to each of you, dear friends. He also asks you to take Mary as your mother 'into your home', to welcome her 'as one of yours', because 'she will discharge her ministry as a mother and train you and mould you until Christ is fully formed in you.'" May Mary make it so that we respond generously to the Lord's call, and persevere with joy and fidelity in the Christian mission! The words which the Finger of God engraved on two tables of stone at Mount Sinai were never repealed. The Bible still says, "Honor your father and your mother." Those of us, whose parents are still living, need to follow the example of Jesus on the Cross. Women, behold your children; children, behold your mothers.
4. The word of desolation: From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at about three o'clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:45-46). This fourth and central Word of Jesus on the Cross is another prayer, from the Psalms. All during His ministry Jesus had known what it meant to be forsaken. Early, the members of His own family forsook Him. Nazareth, His home town, had forsaken Him. The nation He came to save rejected Him. But in every such instance He could always steal away to the tender healing fellowship of His Heavenly Father and find his purpose and strength in His presence. But now, even God seems to have turned away from Him, permitting him to experience the ultimate intensity of rejection and loneliness in human life. Hence Jesus quoted the first portion of Psalm 22:1, a prophecy of the Messiah's suffering and exaltation.
Every one of us experiences despair and rejection at certain periods of our life. When our dear ones die or fall terminally ill, when the only support of the family is accidentally debilitated, when the spouses are divorced, when the country faces serious threats to its safety, we ask the question, "Where is God?" Shortly before he died, Francis Voltaire, the French atheist and writer, is reported to have said the following words to his physician, "I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six more months of life." Jesus invites us to have the trusting faith of the Old Testament Job in our moments of despair and helplessness. Rose Kennedy's children were smart and famous. But her first son Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (29) died in a plane crash in the Second World War. John F. Kennedy, the president, and Bobby one of his brothers were gunned down by assassins. Rose lost her fourth son too, prematurely. While emerging from the church after the funeral service of her fourth son she said: "Merciful God, you have enabled me to preserve my Christian faith in my past life of pain and suffering and loss. Keep me in the same trusting faith in the future too."
Lesson: Jesus' word of desolation teaches us that there is no despair so deep or evil so overwhelming or place so far removed from joy, light, and love, or even from the very heart of God as that God has not been before us, and where God cannot meet us and bring us home. In the hardest moments when we have been stretched out and are in great pain, we always know that He is there, by our side, feeling everything that we are feeling, and that He will not fail us, forsake us, or abandon us. Jesus is atoning for the unforgivable sin of despair by experiencing rejection from all quarters. Let us never lose hope of the mercy of a loving and forgiving God in spite of the number and gravity of our sins. Jesus is also teaching us the truth of the horrible reality of Hell, of the eternal and sad fate of forsaking of God.
5. The word of suffering: "After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, I thirst" (John 19:28). "Zhena" - "I thirst," is the shortest and the fifth word of Jesus from the cross reminding us of Psalm 22:15: "My throat is as dry as dust and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth." But while Jesus was dying on the Cross, He had developed an agonizing thirst. Death by Crucifixion is one of the most painful modes of torture ever conceived by man. The draining away of blood from the body brings on intensive thirst. The physical agony of thirst is terrible beyond the power of words to describe. The whole body cries out for water - water to moisten a parched mouth, water to free a swollen tongue, water to open a rasping throat that cannot gasp enough air, water to keep life alive just a few moments longer. The psalmist prayed (Psalm 63: 2): "O God, you are my God -- for you I long! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, like a land parched, lifeless, and without water."
Jesus expressed this thirst for souls in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, offering her water of everlasting life. Jesus thirsts for souls. He is dying to save souls - souls saved from sin and from Satan, who will live performing the glorious duty of doing the will of God, souls who will burn in the fire of the love of God, souls who will love their neighbor, because whatever they do to their neighbor they are doing it to Christ (Mt.25:31-46). The chapels of the houses of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have the word "I thirst" at the side of every Tabernacle. Jesus was thirsty for souls who love, who live this life saved by Christ doing good, feeding the hungry, helping the sick and the needy, visiting those in prison. All the great missionaries from St. Paul to Pope John Paul II were keenly aware of this great Christian mission. St. Francis Xavier's prayer was, "give me souls and take away everything else from me."
Lesson: Jesus' thirst was more for souls who really thirst for God. All Christians are to be missionaries to satiate this thirst of Christ by preaching him, mainly through their exemplary and transparent Christian lives. When Jesus says, "I thirst," he is not only identifying with the needs of humanity, he is experiencing the needs of humanity. When we thirst, Christ thirsts. When the poor thirst for clean water to drink, Christ thirsts. When children thirst for parents who will love them and not abuse them, Christ thirsts. When those who are marginalized by society because of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political views thirst for belonging, Christ thirsts.
6. The word of triumph: "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished" (John 19:30). The Savior was about to die. It was for this cause that Jesus came into the world, and now that his mission was accomplished, he raised his voice in a triumphant shout: "it is finished!" Jesus lived only half the normal span of human life in his century. During that time He was criticized and despised and rejected. He was captured in the Garden of Gethsemane, led to the Judgment Hall, and condemned to die. Now his suffering was ended. The ordeal was finished and nothing remained but the blessed peace of the absence of all sensation. Furthermore, all that was prophesied and prefigured in the Old Testament concerning His death had been fulfilled. And finally, the work of redemption planned by God the Father from all eternity was completed. But Jesus' cry is more than just welcoming the ending of pain, and it is more than joy at the deliverance death brings. He does not merely say, "It is over;" he says, "It is accomplished, fulfilled, achieved." Scholars got more insight into the meaning of this expression a few years ago after some archaeologists dug up in the Holy Land a tax collector's office that was almost intact, with all the tax records and everything. There were two stacks of tax records and one of them had the word, tetelestai, on the top. In other words, "paid in full." These people don't owe anything anymore. So, when Jesus said "It is finished," what is finished? It is the debt we owe God by our sins. It has been paid in full? This is a cry of victory. It echoes the statements of completion in the book Genesis (2:1) and Revelation (16:17). The words "It is finished" are also a cry of victory in the sense that Jesus completed, accomplished, what God had sent him to do in this world. In this sense, it is like the athlete who enters a marathon race with the single-minded intention of both reaching the finishing line and coming in first. It is like the student finally reaching the goal after years of study, namely, graduation and a degree. It is like the author or artist, who after years of research and struggle finally completes his masterpiece; his most significant and enduring work. It is like undergoing major surgery and recuperating completely. For John the words of Jesus, "It is finished," are the epitome of Christ's life and ministry; the words are spoken by the King of kings on his throne, which is the cross. Jesus has won the victory over sin, evil and death by willingly, and lovingly allowing himself to submit to these powers. In so doing, he has defeated them.
Lesson: Can I die saying joyfully and gratefully the sixth and seventh words of Christ in all sincerity? It is possible if I live my Christian life doing the will of God in all sincerity and commitment. If a Christian is in the kitchen doing the will of God, said Blessed Mother Teresa, her actions are as important to God as when the Pope is preaching to millions.
7. The word of committal: "Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'; and when he had said this he breathed his last"(Luke 23:46). Jesus was always submitting Himself to God, and when He died, He died just as He had lived. Jesus entrusted his spirit -- his life - and all that had given it meaning - to God his Father in faith. Even at the point of his own abandonment when the good seemed so very far away he proclaimed his faith in God which the darkness could not overcome: "Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit."
Lesson: We, too, are told to "commit our way unto the Lord; trust also in Him and He shall bring it to pass." Let us live in such a way as to hear the welcome words of God our Father, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." The Christian should be able (like Stephen in Acts 7), to cry with his last breath, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." When we see someone hurting how often have we listened and invited them to prayer? How often have we failed to invite someone to Mass, a prayer service, or bible study, because of the possibility of rejection? Just as Christ taught us to pray, he also offered this small prayer for strength, "Into your hands, Father, I commend my Spirit."
Concluding anecdotes #1) "HE DIED FOR ME." It was February 1941, Auschwitz, Poland. Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan priest put in the infamous death camp for helping Jews escape Nazi terrorism.
Months went by and in desperation, one of his fellow prisoners escaped from the camp. The camp rule was enforced. Ten people would be rounded up randomly and herded into a cell where they would die of starvation and a final exposure to lethal gas, as a lesson against future escape attempts. Names were called. A Polish Jew Frandishek Gasovnachek was called. He cried, "Please spare me, I have a wife and children!" Kolbe stepped forward and said, "I will take his place." Kolbe was marched into the starvation cell with nine others where he managed to live until August 14. This story was chronicled on NBC news special several years ago. Gasovnachek, by this time 82, was shown telling this story while tears streamed down his cheeks. A mobile camera followed him around his little white house to a marble monument carefully tended with flowers. The inscription read: IN MEMORY OF MAXIMILIAN KOLBE HE DIED IN MY PLACE. Every day Gasovnachek lived since 1941, he lived with the knowledge, "I live because someone died for me." Every year on August 14 he travels to Auschwitz in memory of Kolbe. "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13).
# 2) The gladiator: Rome was celebrating its temporary victory over Alaric the Goth in its usual manner, by watching gladiators fight to the death in the arena, when suddenly there was an interruption. A rudely robed figure boldly leaped down into the arena. Telemachus was one of the hermits who devoted themselves to a holy life of prayer and self-denial and kept themselves apart from the wicked life of Rome. Although few of the Roman citizens followed their example, most of them had great respect for these hermits, and the few who recognized Telemachus knew that he had come from the wilds of Asia Minor on a pilgrimage to visit churches and to celebrate Christmas in Rome. Without any hesitation, Telemachus advanced upon the two gladiators who were engaged in their life-and-death struggle. Laying a hand on one of them, he sternly reproved him for shedding innocent blood, and then, turning toward the thousands of angry faces around him, called to them: "Do not repay God's mercy in turning away the swords of your enemies by murdering each other!"
Angry shouts drowned out his voice. "This is no place for preaching! On with the combat!" Pushing Telemachus aside, the two gladiators prepared to continue their combat, but Telemachus stepped between them. Enraged at the interference of an outsider with their chosen vocation, the gladiators turned on Telemachus and stabbed him to death. The crowd fell silent, shocked by the death of this holy man. But his death had not been in vain, for from that day on, no more gladiators ever went into combat in the Roman Colosseum (Source: John Foxe, Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World, pp. 26-27).
(“Scriptural Homilies” no. 179-b by Fr. Tony (firstname.lastname@example.org) L/13
Prepared by Fr. Antony Kadavil (email@example.com) and published in the CBCI website by the Office for Social Communications. You may contact firstname.lastname@example.org for weekday homilies, and a dozen more additional anecdotes.
|Homily from Father James Gilhooley|
|"Sorrow," an author has penned, "can lead us into one of four lands. The barren land in which we try to escape from it. The broken land in which we sink under it. The bitter land in which we resent it. Or the better land in which we bear it and become a blessing to others."|
John Francis Devaney, a very good friend and a talented writer, died a foul death. The culprit was that ugly fellow, Cancer. He was a relatively young man. He had done much as a can-do advocate for thousands of the tenement poor of New York City over many years. His death to the human eye was undeserved. He had much yet to write. There were places he had not yet seen. There were poor people he had yet to help. His widow, Barbara, and his sons, John Matthew and Luke, were decimated.
I wrote to my bishop. John Cardinal O'Connor. I asked him to send a message to Mrs Devaney. With his wonderful pastoral sense, he complied immediately. Happily he sent me a copy. I saved the eloquent letter with this Good Friday homily in mind.
He wrote to Barbara: "These difficult days for you and your family may become a time of great graces if you unite your suffering to those of Christ crucified. All too often we forget that it was not when Our Lord was preaching and teaching that He saved the world. It was, rather, when He was seemingly helpless and abandoned on the Cross. There, in the midst of unspeakable anguish and pain, Christ wrought redemption for us. By joining your anxiety and pain to His, you will help countless others open their hearts to His grace and love."
I do suspect the Cardinal's moving message did surely as much for Mrs Devaney and her sons as it did for me. This able wordsmith had distilled into a few words the whole point of this solemn feast that Christendom mournfully and yet joyfully celebrates throughout the world today.
The early, painful death of John Devaney was not pointless. Like his Christ, his sharp anguish and pain were not without redemptive value for his family, friends, and my own self. John had been a devout Catholic from his earliest days. In his last days, he had received the Eucharist almost daily. John I suspect not only prayed for Brother Cancer, but also he asked the Father to forgive it. Sorrow for him had become a better land and he became a blessing to others.
Cardinal O'Connor's words to Barbara Devaney had rung true: "His example of faith will be a source of strength..." That example touched not only Barbara and her sons but also all of us who crowded into St Joseph's Church in Manhattan's Greenwich Village for the Liturgy.
John's wonderfully rich death, in the Cardinal's words, helped "countless others open their hearts to His grace and love." John Devaney, ironically enough, may have helped more people by his death than through his estimable life. Several years after the fact, I for one am still living off that death and taking courage from it. John is more real to me now in many ways, as I write these words, than he was in life. I am certain that this may likewise become true for those of you who read and hear these words on this Good Friday.
John's death can help one better understand the otherwise baffling lines of the wonderful person who was Simone Weil: "The Cross by itself suffices me." She had come to realize the wisdom of the ancients that Calvary was a place where sin at its worst met love at its best.
T.S. Eliot in "The Four Quartets" wrote, "We had the experience but missed the meaning." May that never be said of any of us as we contemplate the death of John Devaney but of course more significantly the entirely redemptive death of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus the Christ.
The Cross is not a sign of shame or scandal. Rather, it is, in one preacher's incisive words, "a gigantic plus sign built into the very essence of time."
Why else would Pope John Paul II in his remarkable book Crossing the Threshold of Hope write, "There is no Christian holiness without devotion to the Passion."?