“MUST WE GO ALL THE WAY?” (Jn 18:1-19:42): 21 March 2008 (Good Friday)
There is a little-known but beautiful song from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The song is found near the end of the play: Jesus has just been taken to Herod, and as he is being led away back to Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Peter appear out of nowhere to sing this song to him. The song expresses the disciples’ bewilderment at the unexpected turn of events. Things weren’t supposed to go wrong! And together with the other followers of Jesus, they express a plea to him: Let’s start over!
The verse that Peter sings to Jesus captures their sentiment:
“I think you’ve made your point now.
You’ve even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening, we ought to call a halt.
Could we start again please?”
In other words: Why? What for? Maybe it’s time to step on the brake, and to turn back. Maybe there’s really no need to go all the way and get killed in the process.
In that scene, the character of Jesus is shown listening and pondering over his friends’ suggestions, but only for a while. He eventually turns around and walks quietly away—to his trial with Pilate and to his death on the cross.
Today, Good Friday, together with those disciples of our Lord, we ask: “Why? What for? What’s the point? Why go all the way?” There must be a simpler and less bloody way for our Lord to accomplish whatever it is that he wants to accomplish.
Theologians tell us that the answer to our questions—quite simply—is: “For our sake.”
A friend of mine just lost her mother to cancer some weeks ago. She told me how the last three days in the hospital had been the most difficult for them because despite the heavy dosage of painkiller, her mother gasped in pain as her lungs filled with fluids and her internal organs began to fail. All they could do was watch helplessly, pray desperately, and just be there with their dying mother.
Their only consolation was the thought of the Passion of our Lord. They believed that because our Lord suffered and died on the cross, their mother was not alone in her pain. Our Lord was there present in the suffering of their mother. He was there with her because he himself experienced an agonizing death; and he knows what it means to suffer. Our Lord is no stranger to pain. Because of the Passion, their dying mother was, in her pain, intimately and mysteriously connected to Christ. Even if she could not say a word of prayer, her pain became her prayer.
But my friend’s mother died surrounded by people who loved her. As we know, our Lord, in his last moments here on earth, felt alone and utterly rejected. He was rejected by His own people, the very same crowds that had cheered and welcomed Him as He entered Jerusalem. He was abandoned by his disciples, betrayed by one of his most trusted friends, and three times denied by one whom he had appointed their leader. Till his last breath he was mocked and jeered, surrounded—for the most part—by a mob filled with hatred. Except for the handful that stood and watched with him in his last moments, Jesus was abandoned, and he died virtually alone. Of course lest we forget, our Lord didn’t just die; he was killed, a victim of human sin and wickedness.
Again we ask: “Why?” The answer remains the same: “For our sake.”
Our Lord died for us, for all of us who, for whatever reason, feel rejected and feel that we are far from people we love. Himself a victim, our Lord died for all of us who have been—and are—victims of human sin and wickedness. When we suffer because of other people, when we fall prey to other people’s selfishness or greed or wickedness, let us remember that because of the cross, we are intimately and mysteriously linked to Christ. Christ is there with us because he too experienced being victimized. He too experienced being misunderstood and abandoned by friends, and he knows what it means to be alone, rejected, and to suffer at the hands of other people. When we are victimized by others, our victimhood connects us to Christ, and our suffering, our pain, becomes our prayer too.
But there is more: On the cross, Christ died not only for victims like him. He died also and especially for victimizers, for sinners like ourselves. By dying like a criminal, by counting himself among the worst of sinners, Christ, the Sinless One, identified himself with us sinners. He put himself in the place of sinners and experienced the separation from God that is caused by sin.
In his self-sacrifice, Jesus agreed to experience this separation, to feel separated from the Father in the same way that we sinners, because of our sins, feel and are separated from God. It was this intolerable experience of separation from the Father that drove Him to cry out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In truth, however, the Father never abandons the Son. The Father and the Son are, beyond all our imaginings, always and forever one in the Spirit. On the cross, more than ever, the Father is united to the Son. God the Father watches the suffering and death of His only Son till the very end. In the Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” the entire scene of the crucifixion swims in a single tear of God, a single teardrop that finally falls from heaven to earth, shaking the ground and tearing the temple curtain in half.
And so there, raised between earth and sky, our crucified Lord felt abandoned by both earth and sky. But precisely by experiencing this separation from God, Christ bridges the gap between God and sinners, so that because of the cross, there no longer exists any separation between God and us. That is why Matthew and Mark give us that little detail about the temple curtain after Christ’s death. The temple curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world. By saying that our Lord’s death tore the temple curtain in half, the evangelists are really telling us that because of the cross, there is no more separation between God and the world.
In the film “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean finds herself counseling a convicted but unrepentant rapist and murderer who is awaiting his execution by lethal injection. Finally, thanks to her relentless prayers and unconditional love, the hardened criminal repents on the eve of his execution. As he walks to his death terrified of what lies ahead, the sister tells him to remember to keep his eyes on her so that he will know that he is not alone. She whispers to him one of the most unforgettable lines in the film: “Let me be the face of love.”
As a result of Christ’s death on the cross, we can never say that we are alone. Because of Christ’s self sacrifice, we can never claim that we are ever abandoned or God-forsaken: Not when we’re in terrible pain. Not when we’re abandoned or victimized by others. Not even, and especially not, when we ourselves have victimized others. Even if we insist on abandoning God through our sins, Christ will still be there for us, still within reach, always within our access, if only we look, if only we seek him. Because of his death on the cross, nothing can ever separate us from his love. Indeed his death has torn the temple curtain in half, and for us sinners—especially for us sinners—if only we look, we shall find his shining Face of Love.
Today as we continue to pray over His great sacrifice, let us, in our heart of hearts, thank our Lord for a love so great and so wonderful. Every drop of blood that he has shed on the cross is like a red, red rose that He gives to each one of us. We, you and I, do not deserve such a precious and lovely gift, a gift entirely undeserved, freely given. All we’re asked to do is to open our hearts to receive this gift and to grant it permission to change us and make us new.
Through the cross of our Lord, his pain becomes our prayer; his blood a rose.
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Now that the Lord has already ‘torn the curtain’ that separates God from us, is there anything in your life that you may need to remove so that you will not be separated from him?” Think about it, and share a thought, a feeling, or a question.
(image: from “Jesus Christ Superstar” – 1973)