Is 52:13-53:12; Ps 31:2,6,12,13,15-17 Heb 4:14-16,5:7-9; Jn 18:1-19:42
As we gaze upon Him whom we have pierced by our sin, what do we hear? Today’s psalm responds: “Take courage and be stouthearted!” Why would we gaze upon his suffering and death? Perhaps because we have never seen such love and sorrow mingled. Indeed we hear his totally unselfish love whisper to our hearts, “Take courage.” At the same time, we hear his unspeakable sorrow speak to our depths, “What more?” It is the Reproaches, sung while we venerate the cross in today’s worship service, in which we hear the creative and liturgical questioning of the Crucified One, “My people what have I done to you? How have I offended you? What more could I have done for you?” Such sorrow is unbearable with out the love mingled in, “Be stouthearted.” We cannot have courage or be stouthearted if our hearts have not been broken open by suffering, by the suffering of the one who first loved us. Indeed it is his love for us that attracts us to spend any time today or any day gazing upon Him whom we have pierced by our sin. On the cross our responsorial psalm inspired his prayer. When he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” he was using the language of Psalm 31. Just like his ancestor King David, this faithful son of David, knew that the LORD is his refuge and The Faithful God. The suffering of the Lord Jesus was a joke to the soldiers, and even his friends saw his rejection and fled for dear life. Like the dead, all his deeds of wonder and love were forgotten; like a dish, his reputation was shattered and ignored. Yet, in the midst of such suffering, the Lord Jesus prayed in complete hope, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
In a prophetic moment the Lord Jesus proclaimed to the crowd, “When I am lifted up I will draw all to myself.” This is the fourth song of the Suffering Servant; here we see the precious and faithful Servant of the Lord raised high and greatly exalted. At the time Isaiah first sang this prophecy who could have ever imagined about whom he was speaking? Who would have guessed that the beloved and eternal Son of God would have chosen to take on flesh and suffer such startling ignominy? As Saint Paul reflects in his preaching, this Word Made Flesh emptied himself of glory. He had no stately bearing to make anyone look at him; his appearance did not attract attention. Such is the case even now. Today, people still choose to ignore such sorrow and loved mingled. The Crucified One is seen as stricken, smitten by God, afflicted and not worthy of our glance much less our gaze. Some cannot bear the sorrow, so they turn away. Others cannot accept the love, so they gaze elsewhere. Often it is too painful to gaze upon the suffering of the innocent; it is too hard, indeed impossible, to explain away. However, if someone truly gazes, contemplates, ponders the suffering of the innocent Lamb of God, the Faithful Servant of the Lord, awe and wonder begin to take over. Within a heart beat the one who gazes with faith upon the Crucified One can see that even our suffering is not just pain. All the injustice and ridicule is transformed into glory. We begin to see our true identity in the Lord Jesus. As Saint Paul preaches, “It is no long I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In our wounds, foul and festering, we see the wounds of love that take away the sins of the world. Even the sins of those who oppress and harm are washed away without hesitation. Such is the love with which we are overwhelmed and transformed.
When was he made perfect, this Christ, this great high priest? When did he become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him? When he was lifted up and surrendered on the altar of the cross. This Crucified One is the great high priest. His sacrifice is the only sacrifice worthy of the Father’s love and majesty. Yet, he who is so high and lifted up is not unable to sympathize with our weakness, because he was tested for forty days in the wilderness. He continued to be tested throughout his ministry and especially by his clueless disciples. Perhaps, we test him ourselves. No matter how severe his testing, the Lord Jesus never sinned. He never refused to love and obey the Father who sent him to witness to the truth. A truth we never could have figured out on our own. The truth hidden for ages past is revealed in Christ, the truth of who God is, in himself, and who God is, for us, throughout history and forever. He is the great high priest who gives us the confidence to approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace just when we need it. In the days when Christ was among us, in the flesh, he prayed. He prayed because he was in the flesh; he trusted because he was limited like us; he even learned obedience by what he suffered. We too learn obedience by what we suffer. We learn to say no in temptation and yes to grace even when it does not thrill or delight us. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane the Lord Jesus was tempted to let the cup of suffering pass him by, “but not as I will only as you will.” It was in his words, thoughts, and feelings, that the Lord Jesus gave witness of what it means to offer prayer and supplications and tears to the only One who is able to save us from death. It was his reverence that gave him the divine hearing. It is our reverence that will give us the Father’s ear. This reverence comes from the awe and wonder of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is the same gifts of pity and fear of the Lord that has been ours since Confirmation. Without the Holy Spirit prayer is impossible, and obedience is even more impossible. Indeed, the Lord Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Father, so that we can pray and obey. So that we can join with the great high priest and offer our sacrifice upon the altar of the cross.
Indeed, that is why we gather today to commemorate the Passion of Christ. In the western church we do not celebrate the Mass, even though we do receive Holy Communion. Perhaps we do not celebrate Mass because want to remember in our very flesh that Christ is the great high priest. The Gospel of Saint John reveals this great high priest. The Christ is presented, even in his passionate suffering, as the one who is in charge of this perfect sacrifice of praise. The Synoptic Gospels have revealed a very different Christ on the cross. For Matthew, Mark, and Luke the Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s suffering servant songs. They present a Christ whose pain is more palatable and more revolting in the synoptic tradition; Saint John presents a great high priest. It starts in the Garden. There is no sweating of blood in Saint John, rather, there is an interrogation of the soldiers sent with arms to arrest the Lord Jesus. Christ begins the liturgy with a question: “Whom do you seek?” When he answers, “I AM” they all fall to the ground at the sound of The Name. In Saint John there’s no betrayer’s kiss, Judas is already out of the story, lost in the darkness, for when he left the last supper it was night. Even the defensive reaction of Saint Peter is corrected by the Lord Jesus who asks, “Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” Bound and brought before the high priest, who thinks he’s great. The one who came up with the ironic prophecy that it is better for one man to die than for the whole people to perish. The Lord Jesus stands before him; the liturgy unfolds. Saint John cuts back and forth between Saint Peter and the Lord Jesus. The dignity of the Lamb of God is given emphasis in contrast to the awkward Saint Peter. The Lord Jesus is so free to speak the truth even before the authorities who are just waiting for a word by which he will condemn himself. Saint Peter is trying to protect himself by deception; the streetwise night crowd do not buy into his lie. Not only Saint Peter, all the other participants in this passion liturgy stammer and stutter their parts; this self-deception and chimera only point to the truth. As the Lord Jesus proclaims, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” There are no stations of the cross in Saint John; the suffering of Christ is focused in the words from his throne upon the altar of the cross. He lovingly gives his Mother to his beloved disciple, John. Then he turns completely toward the Father, and his sacrifice is complete only when he proclaims, “It is finished.” Today, we stand in awe and wonder before the only One who is the innocent, the truly blameless, Lamb of God, completely obedient out of love. Today, we begin again to recognize the power of the passion in our own sufferings, offered upon the altar of the Cross of Christ, our only true friend. Today, we gaze in love and sorrow upon the One we have pierced.