Good Friday of the Lord's Passion (Year A)
First Reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 Second Reading: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 Gospel Reading: John 18:1-19:42
“THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE, THAN TO LAY DOWN ONE'S LIFE FOR ONE'S FRIENDS.”
Two brothers lived together in the same apartment. The elder brother was honest, hardworking and God-fearing man, while the younger was dishonest, gun totting substance abusing rogue. Many a night the younger brother would come back into the apartment late, drunk and with lot of cash – and the elder brother would spend hours pleading him to mend his ways and live a decent life. But the younger brother would not listen.
One night, the younger brother came running into the house with a smoking gun and his clothes were blood stained. “I killed a man,” he announced. In a few minutes the house was surrounded by police and two brothers knew there was no escape. “I did not mean to kill him,” stammered the younger brother, “and I don't want to die.” By now the police was knocking at the door. The elder brother had an idea. He exchanged his clothes with the blood stained clothes of his killer brother. The police arrested him, tried him and he was condemned to death. So he died for his younger brother out of his love for him.
Yes, Jesus also gave his life for us, so that we might be saved. He took upon himself our guilt. For our sake, he suffered and died on the cross. All this, because he loves us immensely. We do not require any further proof of Jesus' love for us, do we? - “There is no greater love, than to lay down one's life for one's friends.”
Today is “Good Friday,” the second day of the 'Pascal Triduum.' On this day, the Church, in a most solemn way, commemorates the suffering and death on the cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today, there is no Mass. Instead, in sorrow, the Church mourns her Master’s death and reverences the Cross on which our salvation was achieved. Let us then come together in meditative faith around the Cross on Calvary, and reflect calmly and serenely with great devotion on the final hours of Christ’s earthly life.
In the beginning of Holy Week, on Palm Sunday, we listened to the story of Jesus' passion and death according to St. Luke. Today, on Good Friday, we have it according to St. John. As a matter of fact, it is St. John's Passion account which is read each year as the centerpiece of the Good Friday liturgy. Although the Passion Narratives of all four Gospels are similar in many ways, there are also significant differences among them, for each Gospel writer brings his own perspective to the story of Jesus’ passion and death. So also, St. John's Passion narrative exhibits some surprising differences in events and sequences; and most importantly, it is a testimony of an 'eye witness.'
For St. John, Jesus is the revelation of God's love for the world, the 'word made flesh,' - whose death on the cross is a mystery of love. This is the mystery of incarnation and redemption. John's entire passion story tells that the tragedy of violent death is overwhelmed by the power of redemptive love. In freely and willingly giving his life 'for his friends' - the most noble of human actions - Jesus fulfills his mission of revealing God's overwhelming love for the world. St. John's portrayal of the passion, with its masterful blend of suffering and triumph, fits well into the spirit of the Paschal Triduum.
St. John’s particular focus is the majesty with which Jesus conducts himself throughout, from the time of his arrest, through his two trials, to his hours hanging on the cross. He omits any report of Jesus’ suffering and anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is in perfect command even at the moment of his arrest, which is a tale of terror, betrayal by a friend, a violent night-time arrest of an innocent person, the abuse of power by armed authorities. Jesus freely chooses to place himself before his enemies, he restrains Peter from any violence on his behalf and lets his disciples leave. Moreover, there is the portrayal of Jesus carrying his own cross all the way to Golgotha without any reference to Simon of Cyrene. Also, using the haunting symbolism of the bronze serpent from the story of Moses in Numbers, John presents the crucifixion as a 'lifting up' - not just the lifting up of the crucified body of Jesus in the torment of death, but through that death, a 'lifting up' that is a triumphant exaltation. And finally, the last words “It is finished” before Jesus expires upon the cross, speak of the completion of his mission to save mankind by revealing God's love for the world. All these illustrate how John chose to portray Jesus as strong, in control and divine.
St. John mentions two trials. The first is before Annas, where he is interrogated in preparation for his formal trial before Pilate, the Roman procurator. A potent symbol that emerges from the trial is that of the 'Kingship' of Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” But Jesus says his sovereignty is not of this world.
The motif of Kingship intensifies in the concluding scenes. When the crowd selects Barabbas, a revolutionary, to be freed, Pilate has Jesus scourged. The soldiers perform a cruel coronation parody: after beating Jesus they crown him with thorns, robe him in purple and offer mock homage: "Hail, King of the Jews!" The scene ends with the crowds demanding Jesus be crucified. Pilate leads Jesus out and sits on the judgment seat. "Behold your king," he says to taunt the crowds, but they reply that they have no king but Caesar.
The climax of the passion comes on Golgotha (the Place of the Skull) where Jesus is crucified. The moment of crucifixion is an enthronement. Over the cross emblazoned in Hebrew, Latin and Greek is the title: "Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews." Even though the chief priests protest, Pilate is adamant - this will be the title of the Crucified Jesus.
The finale is reached as Jesus' crucified body is taken from the cross for burial. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus come to bury him. They bring an enormous amount of spices - enough for a royal burial! Both men lay aside their fear and openly pay homage to the crucified Jesus. Those in the darkness are now coming out into the light. God's Word of love has triumphed over death.
John vividly portrays Jesus as the 'Lamb of God' slain for the world. He says “it was about noon” on the Preparation Day for the Passover when Pilate condemned Jesus to death and handed him over to his enemies. We know that at noon the priests of the Temple would begin the slaughter of the lambs for Passover. All was coming to pass, as it had been foretold. The Lamb of God was being led to the slaughter.
Again, by not breaking Jesus' legs, the executioners unwittingly fulfill the words of the Scripture in reference to the 'passover lamb.' However, to make sure Jesus is dead, one of the soldiers drives a lance into his side - and 'blood' and 'water' stream from the body of Jesus. This is to fulfill the Scripture passage from the Prophet Zechariah: 'They will look upon him whom they have pierced.' The symbol of water refers to the Spirit which gives life to mankind, not just mortal life but everlasting life. The blood represents the humanity of Jesus and refers to atoning for sins of the world. All these signs confirm the redemptive power of Jesus' death.
In the First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear about the 'Suffering Servant of Yahweh,' who is treated brutally, humiliated, shamed & disfigured beyond imagination, and who endures terrible suffering - “...like a lamb he was led to the slaughter, he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins…” Jesus fulfilled this prophecy when he embraced the cross for our sake.
John's account of the Passion is also filled with priestly imagery. Recall that the tunic Jesus wore “… was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down”. From Jewish writings of the 1st Century, we know that the garment worn by the High Priest of the Temple was a seamless robe. John is speaking in this precious detail of Jesus’ offering and his priesthood.
This same theme is complemented and elaborated in the Second Reading of today from the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus is the perfect High Priest, because the sacrifice he offers is himself for the forgiveness of our sins. He is a unique High Priest, whose priesthood is characterized in three ways: by Christ’s sympathy for human weakness as the result of his own experiences; by God’s answer to Christ’s prayer for deliverance; and very importantly by Christ learning obedience - “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Certainly one must look at the cross in two distinct but complementary directions. The first is the 'God to man' direction. Here the cross is understood to be God’s act of salvation, that magnificent and supremely generous pouring out of love by which man is redeemed. And the second is the 'man to God' direction. This means that in addition to the cross as an expression of God’s act of salvation in identifying perfectly with sinners, the cross is also man’s perfect offering of obedience, obedience to the will of God. In other words, the real sacrifice which God demands of man is the perfect offering of himself in obedience.
Finally, we are left with two final actions of Jesus before he gives up his life hanging on the cross:
The first involves his mother and his beloved disciple, who are standing at the foot of the cross. Looking at his mother Jesus says, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he says to his beloved disciple, “Behold your mother.” This way Jesus gives his mother to be the mother of the Church, and also to be our mother – the beloved disciple representing both the Church and us believers.
Secondly, at the brink of death, Jesus says, “I thirst.” Considering the situation, it definitely speaks of a physical need; but John says it was to fulfill the Scriptures. However, it also implies that Jesus Christ always thirsts for us as we are. He thirsts to love us and he thirsts to be loved by us.
Today on Good Friday, when we commemorate the suffering and death on the cross of our Lord and Savior, we are called not to endure the cross, not to put-up with the cross, but rather to 'embrace' the cross. The suffering of Jesus gives meaning to our own sufferings. It was through his acceptance of suffering and death that Jesus brought us life and liberation. We cannot ask God to give us a life without pain or sorrow. Nor should we feel he does not care about us because such things happen. He has not promised any other way for us his followers. "Anyone who wants to be my follower must take up his cross every day and walk after me."
Lastly, suffering and death may be punishment for sin and wrongdoing, true. But more than this, it is part of God’s plan for the salvation of all. Good Friday tells us that suffering is not just a curse, an infliction, a meaningless waste. In the person of Jesus and in the lives of his saints, it can become a vocation and mission to save the people, to save mankind. Therefore, when we leave here today, let us not forget what Jesus endured for us. Let us never forget it! Each time we look at a crucifix, let us remember that the look on the face of Jesus was not a look of pain and suffering. It was a look of love, a love for each and everyone of us. Just as his sacrifice is only explained by love, so our entire existence can have no other foundation. To be Christian is to live for him and for others, not for ourselves - “THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE, THAN TO LAY DOWN ONE'S LIFE FOR ONE'S FRIENDS.” And this is the Good News of today.