Twenty-second in a series of reflections on Mass* readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Friday of the Lord’s Passion (Good Friday)
Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
“Those who have not been told shall see; those who have not heard shall ponder it.” For hundreds of years God told the Israelites – and for weeks He has been telling us – that He will do something new, something that moves beyond even His great saving acts of former days, something even His prophets – charged as they are with speaking on His behalf – can only hint at in their visions and their songs. This period of less than a day, from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon, is when it finally happens.
Isaiah’s famous Song of the Suffering Servant, one of four written during the exile, reads in a way like the history of Israel up to this point: insignificant looking, held in no esteem by his neighbors, maltreated, taken away, destroyed, assigned “a burial place with evildoers.” Yet in all these things, the prophet says, he was accomplishing, and will continue to accomplish, the will of God so that through Israel’s suffering all nations might be justified: “[t]hrough his suffering my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” Israel is meant to be a light to the nations as much by its suffering in infirmity as its example in piety. In fact, the manner in which it suffers – silently, submissive, without complaint – is meant to be the most powerful example of them all, the thing that “startle[s] many nations,” before which “kings shall stand speechless.” As Saul and David learned long ago, the sacrifice most perfectly acceptable to God, the one that effects the most good, is one of obedience and contrition.
Is it any wonder that after Jesus opened the minds of His followers to understand the Scriptures fully in the days following His Resurrection, this Song of the Suffering Servant occupied such a prominent place? In John’s Passion account we see the commingled-yet-unconfused duality that is the God-Man on full display: at once a man humble and proud, at once God powerless and almighty, at once Israel destroyed and triumphant. From the outset of the narrative, where the soldiers fall back in shock before this gentle and homely man as He identifies Himself as the One they seek, Jesus is a locus of confusion for all those who encounter Him. He is struck by a Temple guard for his provocative yet accurate response to the high priest’s questions about His teaching. He speaks about Himself and His ministry in such a cosmic way that Pilate cannot ascertain His guilt. His pathetic appearance in the crown of thorns and purple cloak in which the Romans dress Him provokes no sympathy from the crowd but shouts for His death. Even the inscription that will hang over His head on the Cross – “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” – is a source of consternation and debate (albeit brief) between the Roman governor and the Temple priests. And all the while Jesus makes no attempt to defend Himself, to the frustration of everyone involved, but sets all things within the will of the Heavenly Father, determined to be obedient to the bitter end. When at last He says from the Cross “It is finished,” the Evangelist records that He did not simply die; instead, in one final gesture of obedience, He “handed over the spirit.”
The brutal suffering and death of the God-Man, He Who is at once Israel and his Lord, is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews could so confidently state that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” The One Who makes the offering to atone for our sin has taken on all human suffering and sin to Himself and offered Himself as the ultimate scapegoat, something only One Who is both God and Man could do. Man cannot bear all things, and God cannot die. But the almighty Father born into the world as the obedient Son? He can do both – and in doing both He can cancel them both out. Not that it was easy: the Gospel features several moments of Jesus’ human weakness on display. Most famously, in the garden on the night before His trial, He asked in agony if He could decline the cup if possible. One of the so-called “seven last words” is the opening line of the ancient psalm “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that Jesus shouted from the Cross right before He died. But none of these moments of weakness deterred Him from His mission, because He trusted in the Father with Whom He is One.
“Son though he was, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Such is the great love of the suffering servant and eternal high-priest. Such is the great act we call the Redemption, the literal “buying back” (Latin, redimere) of creation, that was the whole reason for the Incarnation, which continues even today through the memorial of the Mass and the example of our charity. This comprehensible manifestation of the incomprehensible mystery has become the hub around which time and space revolves, because it gives the finite world the most direct access yet to the infinite goodness of God. In ways that we can hear and see and perceive, that access is offered from one end of the earth to the other – access to unfathomable compassion (Latin compassio, “shared suffering”), a mercy that reaches from high above the heavens to deep within the earth.
Today is the Day of Mercy. And the Divine Mercy is cross-shaped.
* There are no Masses celebrated on Good Friday; the readings for this post are taken from today’s liturgical celebration of the Passion.